Early this week, a small group of retired diplomats and intelligence officials met behind closed doors at a think-tank up the road from their old offices, dreaming up a spectacular foreign policy coup for India’s new Prime Minister-designate. Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapakse, had indicated his interest in attending Narendra Modi’s swearing-in. Tamil Nadu politicians would protest, the group knew, but there was a way out: an invitation to every South Asian leader, signalling to the world Mr. Modi wasn’t just another Prime Minister.
Mr. Modi, with his instinctive eye for the theatrical, cleared the idea in a brief phone call — but just days on, the forces he set in play are turning what should have been a triumph into a testing foreign policy challenge.
Friday’s attack on the Indian consulate in Herat, Indian intelligence officials say, was a message: to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the most important guest invited to the swearing in, of the perils of defying military hawks hostile to peace in India; to Mr. Modi, of the dangers of not doing business with them.
For years now, New Delhi has struggled with the problem of how to deter Pakistan-backed terror attacks on its assets in Afghanistan -- soft targets that are also, however, key to its projection of regional influence. In 2008, a car-bomb strike on the Indian Embassy in Kabul killed 58, including senior army officer Ravi Datt Mehta, and injured 141 — the deadliest in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban. Intelligence services were able to detect communications between the perpetrators and the ISI.
The New York Times later >reported that the United States had evidence that “elements of Pakistani intelligence provided direct support for the attack in Kabul”. MK Narayanan, the then-National Security Advisor, made his fury at the attack public: “I think we need to pay back in the same coin”, he told journalists. Nothing, however, happened.
Then, in October 2009, the Indian Embassy in Kabul was again hit by a car-bomb, this time killing 17 people. Said Jawad, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, bluntly said his country was “pointing the finger at the Pakistan intelligence agency, based on the evidence on the ground”.
Finally, in August 2013, 12 Afghan nationals, including nine children on their way home from school, were killed in a suicide-bomb strike on the Indian consulate in Jalalabad. Local residents gathered around the bodies of the attackers, some urinating on the corpses.
Indian nationals working on aid projects were also repeatedly targeted. Border Roads Organisation driver MK Kutty, was kidnapped and execute in 2007; a note left with his body asked Indians to leave Afghanistan. In 2008, the ITBP and BRO faced three ambushes on a road it was building linking Iran and Afghanistan, in which three police officers and two construction engineers were killed. The worst attack was on Kabul’s Arya guest house in 2010, where six Indians were among eighteen killed.
The attacks were mainly attributed to the Haqqani Network—a Taliban affiliate that works closely with al-Qaeda. Mike Mullen, the then-chief of the United States joint chiefs of staff committee, >told the country’s senate that the Haqqani network “acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency”.
No organisation, true to pattern, has claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack. Indian and Afghan intelligence sources who spoke to The Hindu said, suggested the perpetrators were likely drawn from a jihadist group like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, elements of which operate alongside insurgents in Afghanistan. There’s no evidence to back that claim—so far. In the event it emerges, though, Mr. Modi will be pushed to demonstrate he has answers to a problem which defied his predecessors.