KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghan officials suspect that the same Pakistan-based group that's blamed for a suicide attack on the Indian Embassy 16 months ago staged a car-bombing there Thursday that killed at least 17 people and wounded 76.
It was the fourth suicide bombing in nine weeks in Kabul, and it came as President Barack Obama is considering U.S. strategy in the eight-year-old war.
Suspicions in Thursday's bombing focused on the Islamic extremist network led by Jalalludin Haqqani.
Haqqani is a former anti-Soviet guerrilla commander who served as a minister in the Taliban regime, whose forces are fighting U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan. He's thought to have ties to elements within Pakistan's premier intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.
U.S. intelligence officials accused the Haqqani network, based in Pakistan's tribal region, of launching the 2008 attack on the Indian mission — which killed more than 60 people — in collusion with ISI officers, a charge that Islamabad denied. Pakistan also denied involvement in Thursday's attack.
However, current and former Pakistani intelligence and military officers and other hard-liners see India's support for the U.S.-backed Afghan government as a threat, denouncing it as part of a plot to encircle and destabilize Pakistan that also involves the United States, the European Union and Israel.
"I don't think there is any doubt about it: Some rogue elements in the ISI are very upset about India's activities in Afghanistan, even though they are very soft, culture and construction initiatives," said Haroun Mir, the director of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies.
The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, warned in his strategic assessment of Afghanistan, a declassified version of which was released by the Pentagon last month, that Pakistan perceives the Afghan government as being "pro-Indian" and that "increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to . . . encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan."
Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars and numerous border clashes since they won independence from Britain in 1947, long have competed for influence in Kabul.
New Delhi has pledged $1.2 billion in aid to the government of U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai, bolstering its clout while blunting Islamabad's long-standing influence.
Indian projects range from solar-powered street lighting to the construction of a Parliament building, dams, roads close to the Pakistani border and an electrical transmission system that supplies power to Kabul. New Delhi also maintains a large diplomatic presence in the Afghan capital and consulates in four cities.
The Afghan Interior Ministry said the Taliban had claimed responsibility for Thursday's attack, with Haqqani's network considered the most likely culprit. The Foreign Ministry contended that the bombing was "planned and implemented from outside Afghan borders," a charge that in the past has implied Pakistani involvement.
Blast walls erected after last year's attack contained the explosion, and no one died inside the mission or across the street at the Ministry of Interior. The 8:40 a.m. attack killed and wounded dozens of people on their way to work, however.
Abdul Rahman, 19, was hospitalized with blast injuries to his right eye, right arm and left foot. "I was on the street in front of the ministry, but I didn't see the car," he said.
The Afghan National Police said the bomber detonated his explosives when two policemen approached to tell him to move his Toyota SUV away from the Indian mission. The pair, as well as women and children, were among the dead.
Officials said the toll would have been higher if a nearby market had been open. Moreover, the Indian Embassy moved its visa office to another location after last year's bombing, so crowds no longer gather around the mission's entrance.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a statement deploring Thursday's attack: "There is no justification for this kind of senseless violence."
Violence in Afghanistan is at the highest levels since the Taliban were routed in 2001, and the nation is struggling to resolve a presidential election marred by fraud.
The last suicide bomb was three weeks ago. Six Italian soldiers and 10 civilians died Sept. 17 when a huge blast hit the airport road near the U.S. Embassy.
(Davison is a McClatchy special correspondent; Landay reported from Washington.)
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