Herat attack was meant to stop Sharif visit, spoil Modi’s ‘party’
Invariably and inevitably, the high hopes generated by India-Pakistan summit-level encounters give way to the verities of bilateral ties. Nawaz Sharif’s visit last month to attend Narendra Modi’s oath-taking ceremony is proving to be no exception. Under attack from Tehrik-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan for allowing himself to be treated like a “schoolboy” by India, Sharif has let it be known to the Pakistani media that he was “not too happy” with his visit because the Indians “didn’t appropriately acknowledge the importance of his presence”. But on the other hand, he has written an effusive letter to PM Modi about their meeting and his hopes for the future. Modi has taken the correspondence further with an encouraging response.
While all this may be interpreted by enthusiastic analysts as part of the ebb and flow of Pakistani politics and India-Pakistan diplomacy, what cannot be dismissed lightly is the clear message sent out by the Pakistan army through the LeT attack on the Indian consulate-general in Herat on May 22. Afghan President Hamid Karzai confirmed that the attack was carried out by the LeT. Its purpose was to create a critical hostage situation that would have coincided with Modi’s oath-taking ceremony. A credible Indian report has given details of the weapons found on the attackers and the foodstuff carried by them. This report along with the communication intercepts that the Afghan and other intelligence agencies would have shared with Karzai give credence to his claims. The LeT is widely seen as the Pakistan army’s proxy in its hostile actions against India. Its reach has now spread to Afghanistan.
Earlier attacks on the Indian mission in Kabul and the consulate-general in Jalalabad were carried out by the Haqqani network at the behest of Pakistani generals. Herat is outside the network’s sphere of operations. Hence, the choice of the LeT, which, in Afghanistan, acts in close coordination with the Taliban. As such attacks take considerable planning, it is obvious that the decision to target the consulate would have been taken some time ago. However, it is impossible to believe that the timing of the execution was not decided to coincide with the oath-taking ceremony and Sharif’s visit. It is noteworthy that the earlier attacks on Indian institutions in Afghanistan were carried out to inflict damage and not to take hostages.
Modi’s decision to invite Saarc leaders to his oath taking was a bold, forward-looking and dramatic gesture, signalling his solidarity with the region and intent to energise the processes of regional integration. It was evident that Sharif wanted to respond positively and, by and large, Pakistani political parties supported this. However, for the generals, the symbolism of the visit — the Pakistan prime minister taking part at the “tajposhi” of someone they consider the antithesis of their understanding of the history of the Indian subcontinent and their vision for Pakistan’s place in it — would have been devastating. This is not conjecture on my part. Consider this: two years ago, at a track two India-Pakistan event, when I stressed that Pakistan must hand over Indian criminals who live there, a retired general, who has held several important positions in the Pakistan army, told me that Pakistan would do so if India handed over Narendra Modi because for them he was guilty of the massacre of Muslims.
The Herat attack was meant to spoil Modi’s “party” and make it virtually impossible for Sharif to travel to India. It was also designed to send an unequivocal message to India that the reins of Pakistan’s India policy are ultimately in the army’s hands and the cultivation of Sharif would only be cosmetic. Even if the attack failed in achieving its first objective thanks to the efforts of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police guards and the Afghan security forces, its basic message to Indian policymakers is loud and clear.
Naturally, the Indian reaction to the attack was muted. It could not have been otherwise as the country’s attention was focused on the decisive changes post election. However, Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj both made the government’s stand on the issue of state-sponsored terrorism known to Pakistan. Notwithstanding the decision for the foreign secretaries of both countries to establish contact on the future of the dialogue, Modi will have to decide when the next challenge comes, as it surely will, if dialogue and terrorism can go together or not. It would be unwise to swing between these two positions as the UPA did through its term. Other calm and sober but effective options would have to be considered, and are available, even as the logic of cooperative India-Pakistan relations is obvious.
It is true that state structures do not remain constant in any country and India must be nimble in evaluating changes in Pakistan. The army is under pressure, Sharif is politically strong, sections of the media are willing to take on the ISI, and the TTP challenge is immense (as shown by the attack on the Karachi airport). But the dominant decision-maker on India is the army, and this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
The writer is a former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan