An Afghan soldier watches as the house where the insurgents are holed up burns during the attack on the Indian consulate (not in picture) in Herat on Friday. (AP)
New Delhi, May 23: The Indian consulate in Afghanistan’s Herat was attacked by suspected Pakistan-inspired militants today, fuelling a debate on Narendra Modi’s invite to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The Pakistan Prime Minister is one of nine foreign leaders invited to the inauguration of Modi’s prime ministership on Monday, and the only one who is yet to accept the invitation.
The Pakistani government and political establishment appeared to be keen on Sharif making the trip but the final decision has not been announced yet. The army’s stand is not known and militant elements such as Lashkar-e-Toiba founder Hafiz Saeed have already started taunting Sharif in public for considering a trip to India.
The repulsed raid in Herat has taken place against this backdrop — and India referred to terrorism from beyond Afghanistan’s borders. The staff at the consulate were unharmed while the four attackers were gunned down in a 10-hour battle early in the morning.
“The attack once again underscores that the main threat in Afghanistan is from terrorism from beyond its borders,” the Indian foreign office said in New Delhi.
The Indian consulate in Herat is the farthest of its missions from the Afghan-Pakistan border and considered a “safe location”. Indian missions in Afghanistan have been attacked at least four times.
Pakistan is officially against the opening of Indian consulates in Afghanistan but its foreign office was quick to condemn today’s attack. “No cause justifies targeting of diplomatic missions. It is a matter of relief that no one from the consulate staff was hurt,” the Pakistan foreign ministry said in a statement issued in Islamabad.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has confirmed he will be in New Delhi on Monday, phoned Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi and spoke for 10 minutes. Karzai spoke to caretaker Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, too.
“The terrorists who attacked the Indian consulateÖ in the early hours of Friday, were well-trained suicide bombers. The Indian security personnel and theAfghanistan forces fought jointly during the attack, killing all four terrorists,” Modi tweeted from his personal handle.
The Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), which is tasked with guarding Indian missions, suspected that the attackers wanted to create a hostage situation.
The four terrorists were killed in the counter-attack by the ITBP and the Afghan army’s quick-reaction team. At 3.30am (4.30am Indian time), a terrorist scaled the 10-foot perimeter wall of the consulate, inviting a counter-attack from the ITBP. Three other attackers were killed after a long battle. They were holed up in a civilian building nearby.
The intruder could have been trained in commando tactics, considering the ammunition he carried and the way he scaled the high wall.
Seventeen shells that could be launched from an under-barrel grenade launcher and six rocket-propelled grenades were recovered from the dead terrorist. The ITBP also found six AK-47 magazines and a packet of dry fruits, indicating the group was ready for the long haul and may have been preparing for a hostage situation.
About 30 ITBP personnel were deployed at the unmarked building. Few in the town apparently knew that it housed the Indian consulate. But the attackers evidently knew their intended target.
“We thought that Herat was a safe location but it isn’t any more,” said an ITBP officer.
Herat is close to the Iranian border with a minority Pashtun population and even Afghan forces are said to have felt it was relatively safe from terror attacks. With the Indians preparing for a Nato withdrawal from Afghanistan and perhaps a domino effect in Pakistan, the Herat attack is seen as a warning from the Taliban.
The needle of suspicion is pointed at one or several outfits linked to the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Haqqani group and al Qaida that draw most of their recruits from the region and operate out of areas close to Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan.
The attack on the consulate is also a notice to the Modi regime that the Indian presence in Afghanistan is deeply resented by groups there. Although there were no casualties among the Indian mission and ITBP personnel, the sophistication of the attack has caused consternation.
Asked if the timing of the Herat attack coinciding with the invite to Sharif was significant, Indian foreign office spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said: “It is our prerogative. We are right now in the process (of investigation by Afghan authorities). It has certainly shaken up officials. We are examining all these matters closely.
Perhaps addressing criticism that his predecessor spoke too little, Modi sent tweets that had more than one reference to the pronoun “I”. A sample: “President Karzai and I talkedÖ. I have spoken to the ambassadorÖ. I salute the consulate staffÖ.”
Political sources said that the decision to invite Sharif was taken by Modi himself, based on the simple dictum: “Abhi nahin to kab (if not now, when)?”
“There is euphoria within the BJP, the larger ideological fraternity and vast sections of the country about the mandate we received. Sooner than later, Modi would have had to start the process of engaging with the heads of our neighbours, including Pakistan. Why not make a beginning in this congenial ambience?” a source said.
“These are not bilateral talks. You can call the step an ice-breaker,” he added.