NEW DELHI: Gunmen and suicide bombers struck the Indian consulate in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, killing nine people. The attack is the fourth such attack since 2007.

The External Affairs Ministry in New Delhi said all Indians in the mission were safe. The death toll included all six militants -- two blew themselves up and two were killed by Afghan security forces -- and two civilians. MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup said that the consulate was damaged in the attack.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

Indian consulates in Afghanistan have been the target of several attacks. In January this year, nine persons were killed and 12 injured after a suicide bomber struck the diplomatic area in Jalalabad. In May 2014, India’s diplomatic mission in the western city of Herat was attacked. In August 2013, 10 people were killed in an attack on the consulate in Jalalabad. The Indian embassy in Kabul was targeted by a suicide car bomber in July 2008 in an attack that killed 58 people.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai pinned the blame of the attack on Pakistan -- using strong rhetoric against the neighbouring country. Karzai has been a vocal critic of Pakistan, and more so as current President Ashraf Ghani pursues ties with Pakistan in a bid to level pressure on the Taliban to agree to peace talks. “They are simply attacking India’s presence in Afghanistan, whenever they get the opportunity. The whole spectrum of the India-Afghan relations, the relationship itself, is the target of the attacks”, Mr. Karzai told The Hindu.

The attack comes as Prime Minister Narendra Modi reaches out to both Afghanistan and Pakistan, having visited Kabul and then Lahore in December last year. India is the largest provider of humanitarian and reconstruction aid to Afghanistan and has made clear its strategic interest in the country on several occasions.

The attack on India’s consulate in Jalalabad came as U.S. Army General John Nicholson formally took over command of NATO-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. It also comes as reports reveal rising civilian casualties in the country.

Meanwhile, delegates from Afghanistan, China, the United States, and Pakistan said after meeting in Kabul last week, toward peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, expected to begin in March.

The talks are aimed at putting together a roadmap for rebuilding Afghanistan, where a peace dialogue with the Taliban plays a crucial role. The dialogue had gotten off to a nascent start, till the news of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar dealt it a severe blow last year, with the Taliban stepping up violence in response and Afghan-Pakistan relations again dipping as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani pinned the blame on Pakistan for not doing enough to reign in cross-border terror. Pakistan’s direct link to terror in Afghanistan is a widely held view in Afghanistan, with analysts believing that US pressure is the reason behind Ashraf Ghani reaching out to Pakistan and singing a different tune to his predecessor Hamid Karzai.

This is why analysts believe that even though four countries may be talking, the crucial role in the path to peace will be played by Pakistan, which continues to exert control over a large faction of the Taliban. That said, it is important to remember that the Taliban is not a homogenous group, as militants who were opposed to a peace dialogue with the Afghan government reneged on their pledge to new leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who is seen as close to Pakistan. The BBC, in fact, quoted a Taliban spokesperson saying that newly appointed leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour had not been appointed "by all Taliban", going against Sharia law. A breakaway faction appointed another leader -- Mullah Mohammed Rasool -- and vowed to push on with their fight against the Afghan state.

Nevertheless, Pakistan does exert some influence on the Taliban, and its role in pushing for dialogue will be crucial -- a step it seems to be tentatively willing to take as General Raheel Sharif travelled to Afghanistan unaccompanied by ISI representatives -- who are seen as the force behind the Taliban -- recently.

Notably absent from all the above developments is India, even though the country has indicated that it has interests in Afghanistan as evinced by PM Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Kabul, and the resumption of ties with Pakistan so as to allow for Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Pakistan and India’s participation in the “Heart of Asia” Conference on the future of Afghanistan.

India’s exclusion, however, shouldn’t come as a surprise. In September last year, The Citizen had drawn attention to a little-reported meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly co-convened by the US, China and Afghanistan, which signalled a major change in the power politics in Afghanistan, as months of efforts by Pakistan and the US to bring China on board finally bore fruit. In the first meeting of its kind, in the chair were the Chief Executive of Afghanistan Abdullah Abdullah, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani. Those who participated in the talks were ministers from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran,Australia, Italy, Norway.Kazakhstan. Pakistan was represented by National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz. There was no sign of India, clearly not even invited as a participant.

China has thus stepped in where India seems to have been afraid to tread. In that it has expanded its role from economic and financial assistance to a clearly strategic partnership, sitting on the same side of the table as the US on this issue. In the process that India, which seems to be happy with the “fondness” that the common Afghan reportedly has for Indians, is now completely out of the picture as even two major competitors join hands to tackle the challenges posed by Afghanistan, and the fast deteriorating situation there.

India’s strategic---if it can be called that---is limited to exchanging dossiers on terrorism with Pakistan, and threatening war through media channels every other day. The absence of dialogue, or as a senior retired diplomat said, even basic strategic thinking has pushed India out on the periphery with even that position----as the meeting above indicated--now under serious threat.