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Al Qaeda, Taliban involved in Kabul attack: Stratfor

Sheela Bhatt in New York | July 10, 2008 09:24 IST

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According to American think tank Stratfor, the July 7 attack on the Indian Embassy in the Afghan capital of Kabul that killed 58 people, including two high-level Indian officers, clearly indicates that it was conducted by the Taliban or their Al Qaeda [Images] brethren.

It says that the fact that the attack was conducted in Kabul -- where a non-Afghan would stand out -- would make the Taliban the most likely suspects, though it is quite possible they had assistance from Al Qaeda or Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency.

The think tank scholars believe that, "Unfortunately, in spite of the warning of a potential attack and the increased physical security at the embassy, it is unlikely that the Indian government employed countersurveillance teams around their embassy."

It, also, says the attack carries all signs of a targeted assassination versus a strike aimed at the building itself with the goal of incurring a high body count.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, though, denied that the group was involved in the attack. However, it is not uncommon for the Taliban to deny responsibility for attacks that kill a large number of civilians.

Due to the size of the device and the identity of the victims, it is quite possible that this attack was a targeted assassination attempt and not an effort to destroy the embassy itself. Stratfor says the attack was well-executed and effective, and there are several lessons that can be drawn from it.

Stratfor believes that the Indian Embassy was the logical target for the Taliban to strike for a variety of reasons.

It argues that, "Perhaps, the most significant reason is the history of India's involvement in Afghanistan. New Delhi has long sought close relationships with the government of Afghanistan as a way to encircle and pressure India's rival Pakistan."

It says, to this end, India has been one of the largest international supporters of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government. The government of India was also heavily involved in supporting the Northern Alliance as it fought against the government of the Taliban -- which was very much a creature of the Pakistani ISI. The Indian government saw the support of the Northern Alliance as a way to keep a check on Pakistani influence in the region.

Stratfor thinks that, "another reason for the Taliban to target the Indians is the Kashmir issue. The Pakistani ISI has long been supportive of Kashmiri militant groups, groups which have demonstrated links to Al Qaeda and the global jihadist network."

The Taliban government in Afghanistan was also supportive of Kashmiri militant groups. This support was clearly reflected in events such as the 1999 hijacking of Air India flight 814, in which Kashmiri militants landed the aircraft in Kandahar and held the passengers until the Indian government agreed to release a group of the militants' imprisoned colleagues. In any event, the targeting of Indian interests appears to be part of a concerted effort.

Stratfor thinks that India is a soft target in Afghanistan. "One final reason that might help explain the targeting of the Indian Embassy is that, by nature of its location and construction, it is more vulnerable to an attack than the embassies of high-profile coalition countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Canada [Images] and Australia." Says Stratfor.

The Indian embassy in Kabul had very little standoff separating the building from the outer perimeter wall, the critical element in keeping a facility like an embassy safe from large vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices is standoff -- keeping the device far from the building.

Stratfor writers Fred Burton and Scott Stewart who wrote this paper claim, "The Indians realised the vulnerability of their facility and were concerned about recent intelligence indicating a possible attack. On May 27, the Indian Embassy sent out a security advisory to Indian citizens warning of suicide attacks and compound invasions directed against high-profile facilities in Kabul."

Ironically, the advisory was signed by Brig Gen R D Mehta, the defense attache killed in the attack. In June, the US Embassy also issued a Warden Message noting a threat to Afghan officials and coalition personnel in the greater Kabul area, but it was not as specific as the Indian warning.

The bombing, which occurred as a vehicle was entering the facility, raises the possibility that the attack at the Indian Embassy was not directed at the facility in general, but was a specifically targeted assassination.

Another factor that points in that direction is that the attack was conducted at 8.30 am local time, when some of the first diplomats were arriving at the embassy, rather than later in the day when more of the embassy staff (including the ambassador) would have been present.

Also, although the device was quite powerful, it was not really large enough to have taken down the embassy building. If the attackers were attempting to destroy the embassy, they would likely have planned to use a larger device like those used in VBIED attacks against similar targets in places like Iraq.

And make no mistake, the Taliban has been consistently moving towards the Al Qaeda in Iraq modus operandi over the past few years, argued Stratfor.

While pointing out towards the disturbing precedent Stratfor says, "If the attack was a targeted assassination and not a series of coincidental events (or erroneous reports), it sets a dangerous precedent. First, the attack was very well-orchestrated. The plotters conducted their preoperational surveillance and planned their attack without detection."

However, in spite of the warning, the attack team was able to gain the element of tactical surprise.

They were also able to amass explosives, construct the VBIED and deliver it to the attack site on time and without detection. The device also functioned as intended, and the operative did not get cold feet and bail out on the operation.

These steps are not as easy to successfully execute as they might seem, especially when one considers that the Indian Embassy is located in the heart of Kabul just down the street from, and in sight of, the Afghan Interior Ministry.

Operating in the heart of Kabul is a far cry from pulling off an attack in a location such as Kandahar, where the population is either sympathetic to or afraid of the Taliban, adds Stratfor further.

Stratfor said, "With the Taliban demonstrating the ability to conduct sophisticated attacks in Kabul, perhaps with Al Qaeda or ISI assistance in this case, other potential targets would be well advised to implement robust countersurveillance programmes and deny the Taliban operatives carte blanche to conduct surveillance."

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