By Ajit Kumar Singh*
At least 25 Sikh worshipers were killed and more than eight were wounded when four suicide attackers stormed the 400-year old Gurudwara Har Rai Sahib in the Shorbazar area of Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 25, 2020. The attackers reportedly took another 80 worshippers hostage. The six-hour-long siege of the complex ended when Afghanistan Security Forces, aided by foreign troops, killed all the attackers and rescued the hostages. Reports indicate that there were around 200 worshippers inside the complex at the time of the attack. The attack was followed by another explosion near the crematorium where the dead were being cremated on March 26. Th next day, mines were found at the entrance of the Gurdwara complex.
Previously, the worst attack targeting religious minorities (Sikhs and Hindus) in Afghanistan had taken place on July 1, 2018, when a suicide bomber had killed at least 19 people (17 of them Sikhs and Hindus) and injured another 20 at Mukhaberat Square in the Jalalabad District of Nangarhar Province. The victims were travelling in a vehicle to meet President Ashraf Ghani, who was visiting Nangarhar Province, when the bomber struck. One of the dead in that incident included Awtar Singh Khalsa, the only Sikh candidate who had planned to contest the October 20, 2018, Parliamentary Elections.
The Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) in its first statement after the March 25, 2020, attack claimed responsibility. In a second statement, IS-KP stated that the attack was ‘revenge for Kashmir’. Incidentally, the IS-KP had claimed the July 1, 2018, attack as well.
The Taliban, meanwhile, outrightly rejected any role in the attack.
The Afghanistan Government, however, is reported to have maintained that the attack was the handiwork of the Haqqani Network. It is pertinent to recall here that Pakistan’s former Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, had referred to the Haqqani Network as a “strategic asset”. Significantly, former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, on September 21, 2011, had accused Pakistan of exporting violent extremism in Afghanistan through proxies, and described the Haqqani Network as a “veritable arm” of the ISI.
These assertions are not unfounded.
According to various media reports, intelligence agencies have come across information that Pakistan’s external intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), engineered the entire operation with help of the Haqqani Network and the elements of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). According to Indian intelligence, intelligence, the Operation was code-named Blackstar.
Hussain Ehsani, a Kabul-based researcher supported this view, noting,
A number of attacks have been executed in Kabul recently, with responsibility being claimed by the ISIS. But the ISKP does not have tactical and strategic capabilities for executing such complex attacks. The Haqqani group realized the importance of the ISKP brand and put itself behind the scenes”.
Reports indicate that the main target was the Indian Embassy in Kabul and the Consulate at Jalalabad. As the security around these areas had been beefed up, the Gurdwara was attacked. It is useful to recall here that a report in December 2019 had stated that Indian intelligence had come across information that ISI was planning to help terror outfits carry out vehicle borne suicide attacks on Indian missions in Afghanistan.
The December 2019 report moreover, stated that the ISI had given LeT responsibility to partner with the IS-KP to carry out the attacks. Corroborating these linkages, Amrullah Saleh, a former head of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, had argued, in a transparent reference to Pakistan, “the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan is not genuine… it is an intelligence game played by some of our neighbors”.
The possibility of an IS-KP involvement in the attack, consequently, does not conflict the role of the Pakistani establishment in the attack.
The European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS), an EU accredited independent think tank and policy research institution, thus observed,
The choice of the target for the attack, a tiny minority Afghan group of Indian origin with no real stakes within Afghanistan, drew focus on neighboring Pakistan’s role, especially given that it has been behind all other major attacks over the years against Indian interests in the country. Pakistan has made no bones about its keenness to force India out of Afghanistan.
There is close association between the Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan. In January 2015, The Wall Street Journal had noted, “Afghanistan’s Sikhs and Hindus stay in small, tight-knit communities and participate in many of the same religious rituals held in a temple both faiths use.”
The ISI considers the Sikhs and the Hindus in Afghanistan as inimical to its interest. Consequently, ISI-backed terror groups as well as Islamist extremists within the country have long targeted these communities
According to the US Department of State’s 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Afghanistan,
Sikhs and Hindus faced discrimination, reporting unequal access to government jobs and harassment in school, as well as verbal and physical abuse in public places. In early March a young Sikh shopkeeper was abducted and killed in Kabul. According to the Sikh and Hindu Council of Afghanistan, there were approximately 550 members of the Sikh and Hindu community in the country, down from 900 members in 2018. According to the council, many families continued to leave the country, going to India and elsewhere due to antigovernment threats and what they perceive to be inadequate government protection.
The 2018 edition of the report had noted,
Community leaders reported that 500 to 600 Sikhs and Hindus, representing almost half their numbers, fled to either India or Western countries during the year, particularly in the aftermath of the July 1 bombing in Jalalabad… Sikh and Hindu leaders estimate there are 245 Sikh and Hindu families totaling 700 individuals, down from 1,300 individuals estimated in 2017, mostly in Kabul, with a few communities in Nangarhar, Ghazni, Paktiya, Kunduz, Kandahar, and Helmand Provinces… According to the Sikh and Hindu Council, which advocates with the government on behalf of the Sikh and Hindu communities, there were 12 gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and four mandirs (Hindu temples) remaining in the country, compared with a combined total of 64 in the past.
After the March 25 attack, Afghanistan’s lone Sikh member of Parliament, Narinder Singh Khalsa, stated,
This is not the first time that Sikhs have been targeted and killed in cold blood in Afghanistan. In the past also they have been targeted several times like the Muslims are targeted. The situation has become very tense for the Sikhs and we feel insecure. We want to leave Afghanistan and settle in some other country except Iran and Pakistan.
A final round of the exodus is evidently imminent. According to estimates, there were around 250,000 Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan in 1992.
Apart from targeting the Hindu and Sikh religious minorities, who have stronger bonds with India, Pakistan has also used its proxy terrorist formations to attack Indian targets in Afghanistan. According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management, Pakistan-backed terror formations were found involved in at least 22 terror attacks on Indian targets in Afghanistan since 2003. These attacks resulted in death of 144 persons. The most prominent of these attacks included:
May 13, 2015: There were four Indians among 14 persons killed in an attack carried out by terrorists at the Park Palace Guest House in Kabul’s Kolola Pushta area. Agencies believed that the then Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan, Amar Sinha, was the prime target of the attack. “It was known that the Indian envoy would be visiting the guesthouse on Wednesday evening… it appears the Taliban had accordingly planned the siege,” an unnamed senior intelligence officer stated.
February 26, 2010: The Taliban carried out coordinated suicide attacks at two hotels in Kabul, killing at least nine Indians, including two Major-rank Army officers. At least 10 others, including five Indian Army officers, were injured in the strike that killed eight others, including locals and nationals from other countries. The bombers, believed to be three in number, struck at the guest houses, particularly at Park Residence, rented out by the Indian Embassy for its staffers and those linked to India’s developmental work in Afghanistan.
October 8, 2009: Targeting the Indian embassy in Kabul for the second time, a Taliban suicide bomber blew up an explosives-laden car outside the mission, killing 17 persons and injuring over 80, including three Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) soldiers. The embassy staff, however, was unhurt.
July 7, 2008: A suicide attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul killed 66 persons, including two senior diplomats – then Political Counsellor V. Venkateswara Rao and Defence Adviser Brigadier Ravi Datt Mehta – as well as ITBP staffers Ajai Pathaniya and Roop Singh.
With the US-Taliban agreement setting the stage for a final flight of US Forces from Afghanistan, it is imperative for New Delhi to formulate effective strategies to deal with the looming inevitability of a Taliban comeback in Afghanistan and a visible surge in Pakistan’s influence in the country, as well as a release of terrorist cadres for potential redeployment in Jammu & Kashmir, as well as in the wider Indian theatre. Crucially, India’s huge economic investments in Afghanistan and decades-long efforts to provide support and stability to the Kabul regime appear destined to collapse in the absence of an urgent and unlikely shift in US and international policy with regard to the Taliban and the stabilization project in Afghanistan.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management