Vilayet Khorasan: Pakistan’s ISIS Brigade In Afghanistan – Analysis
By Lt. Gen. P. C. Katoch*
The Afghanistan government has reportedly told Pakistan that Hafiz Saeed, former Lashkar-e-Taiba (leT) chief is directing ISIS attacks in Afghanistan. This was pointed out by Afghan officials during a meeting in Kabul on July 26 that focused on security along the Af-Pak border. The meeting was attended by Afghanistan, Pakistan and NATO officials. Afghan officials also reportedly sought Islamabad’s cooperation in preventing ISIS terrorists from entering Afghanistan from Pakistan – a demand that Pakistan would simply put in the dustbin, as always.
That the Pakistani military is actually orchestrating these attacks in conjunction Hafiz Saeed is without doubt. NATO being unaware of LeT involvement in Afghanistan is doubtful considering that the recently released UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report confirms that majority casualties in recent times have been caused by the anti-Afghan government forces; to include Taliban as well as individuals and non-state organized armed groups taking a direct part in hostilities that includes LeT, Jaish-e- Mohammed, Haqqani Network, Hezb-e-Islami, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union, groups identified as ‘Daesh’ (IS) and other militia and armed groups.
In fact, this is the first time that a UNAMA report has mentioned LeT and JeM operating in Afghanistan. The more significant part is that while the UNAMA report has not been prepared overnight, the US intelligence has remained quiet over LeT and JeM in Afghanistan, only talking about the Haqqani Network, despite both LeT and JeM being under Pakistani military-ISI tutelage and Hafiz Saeed treated as Pakistan’s state celebrity despite being the recipient of Interpol’s red corner notice twice.
The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) involvement in the July 23 Kabul terrorist attack is confirmed with one suicide bomber shot dead and identified as a Pakistani – may be LeT / JeM cadre or even from Pakistan’s Mujahid battalions trained to fight masquerading as Taliban. The mention of LeT and JeM in the UNAMA report would perhaps have been missed out had Tadamichi Yamamoto not been UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of UNAMA. Witness 29 page statement by James Clapper, Director National Intelligence on ‘Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community’ to the US Senate Armed Services Committee that covers Pakistan (the epicenter of terrorism) in less than four lines, that too hyphenated with India in describing the January 1, 2016 terror attack on the Indian Air Force base at Pathahkot in north India. Enough evidence is emerging that the Obama administration abetted the rise of ISIS to use it as a tool, installed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which is banned today, and then there is the radicalization of Turkey permitting Erdogan establish his own caliphate in exchange for Erdogan permitting Turkish territory to train and finance ISIS and other anti-Assad proxies, as well as serving as the conduit for ISIS to smuggle out and sell oil.
Speaking at a conference on cyber-security at Fordham University on 27 July 2016, FBI chief James Comey said that eventual victory over ISIS could lead to an uptick of terrorist attacks on the West, not a reduction in them, adding they are going to flow primarily to Western Europe but some could well end up in the US. What did Comey imply – go slow on ISIS or divert them elsewhere (South Asia?) or both?
The “eventual victory” part is misnomer anyway because despite years of fighting the US-NATO could not finish off Al Qaeda; ISIS is much bigger and its annihilation would hardly be attempted if the aim of the US administration is to use it as a tool. The question, therefore, is whether the emergence of LeT and JeM in Afghanistan and the prominent role in directing the so-called ISIS operations in Afghanistan by Hafiz Saeed (under tutelage of ISI) has the tacit approval of the CIA?
It is well known that despite the LeT’s global ambitions, the US simply let it flourish, even when LeT cadres were filling up voids in the Al Qaeda set up because of casualties inflicted by US and NATO forces. Foreseeing future threats, Ashley Tellis of Carnegie Foundation had warned the US in 2012 that the only reasonable objective for the US must be the “permanent evisceration of terrorist groups specially al-Qaeda and LeT, which threaten American interests directly, with Pakistani cooperation if possible, but without it if necessary”. This was ignored by the US resulting in Hafiz Saeed continuing exporting terror and openly calling for war against infidels under cover of Jamat-ud-Dawa the overt arm of LeT that engages in social programs also.
What comprises Vilayet Khorasan and how has the current perception been managed? According to Director National Intelligence of the US, “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) announced in January 2015 the formation of its Khorasan branch in South Asia, an amalgamation of primarily disaffected and rebranded former Afghan Taliban and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) members. Despite quick early growth in 2015, ISIL’s Khorasan branch will probably remain a low-level threat to Afghan stability as well as to US and Western interests in the region in 2016”. There is little doubt that its organizational structure was populated in the Peshawar region and then pushed west to the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. The leadership was rigged through the ISI the very same way that the amalgamation of the TTP and Afghan Taliban is presently controlled through the Haqqani Network. In the recent years, the Taliban did plenty of recruiting in Badakhshan (Afghanistan) that bore fruit in the capture of Kunduz last September with ISI officials directing the operation from Pakistan and from within Kunduz. So, when a few thousand TTP cadres were sent off to Syria in 2014 under the FATA born Hafiz Saeed Khan, it was by design. His return in 2015 and being nominated chief of Vilayet Khorasan or Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) was also by design, akin to Asim Umar being nominated chief of AQIS for South Asia.
Pakistani officials reportedly displayed fair bit of confusion when Afghanistan accused Hafiz Muhammed Saeed of directing ISIS operations in Afghanistan, thinking it was ISKP chief Hafiz Saeed Khan that Afghans were referring to. But Afghan officials had hit the nail on the head. For decades, the Pakistani military has been engaged in proxy wars across its borders, mixing regular soldiers with militant cadres. Perceptions have been managed that various terrorist and insurgent groups operate in separate compartments whereas they are one big interlinked mass, the nerve centre of which is Pakistani military ISI. Witness the game by General Kiyani nudging Obama that he would get Haqqani Network to break away from Al Qaeda and join the talks with Afghan government – a most ludicrous suggestion that US swallowed.
ISIS delegations from Iraq-Syria have come to Balochistan twice to tie up with Jundallah, and which too is by design and on the invitation of ISI. Most significantly, these ISIS delegations also had ISIS representatives from Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan. Sure, some radicals from Kunar and Nuristan provinces have declared allegiance to ISKP but its cadres are likely a mix of both Taliban, LeT, JeM; the Pakistani regulars in covert role, ISI deputies thrown in for guidance and ISI-stooge Hafiz Mohammed Saeed directing his half namesake ISKP chief in attacking Afghanistan.
Why Hafiz Muhammad Saeed has been granted this special honour is because he has ensured that the LeT never once has attacked Pakistani military in past 29 years since its very inception in 1987. Sure, the ISKP is also in touch with main branch of ISIS in Syria but as US General Sean Swindell told BBC exact relationship between the two is unclear. According to General William Nicholson, Commanding Resolute Support Mission of US Forces in Afghanistan (USFOR-A), ISKP is in regular touch with main branch of ISIS in Syria, but that is only expected. For years US did the perception building that both Taliban are daggers drawn; only reluctantly admitting now this is not the case.
So, Vilayet Khorasan actually amounts to about a brigade strength controlled by Pakistan’s ISI. That is why Afghan Scholars refer to it as an ISI Brigade, not ISIS. Little wonder then that the boastful speech by Asad Durrani, former ISI chief in London during 2014 led Myra McDonald to report, “Pakistan’s aim in Afghanistan all along has been to turn the clock back to Sept 10, 2001 – when it exercised its influence over the country through its Taliban allies – it could almost have been a victory speech”. Zamir Kabulov, Russian Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan estimates ISIS strength in Afghanistan at about 10,000 including supporters while the US estimates their strength between 1,000 and 3,000 active members. ISIS operations in Afghanistan may be low key by US intelligence standards, but the July 23 suicide attack was the deadliest since 2001, described as “war crime” by UNAMA chief Tadamichi Yamamoto.
This is not the first time that Hazaras have been targeted in Afghanistan with the aim of polarizing the country ethnically for reasons well understood. Emerging contours of the Great Game in Af-Pak region do not spell well. Counter-terrorism advice by the West always includes ‘seek cooperation’ from Pakistan in countering terror – flogging the same dead horse for past decades, well known to these experts. So Vilayet Khorasan, with its links to sister terrorist organizations, is likely to play a bigger role in Af-Pak. Will the great power posturing from the background lead to a situation where President Putin may need to fire off couple of cruise missiles? The game of checkers may not be strictly favourable to the Chinese with Erdogan also training Uighur and ETIM in conjunction Pakistan’s ISI. Little wonder then that Hafiz Muhammad Saeed is advising Pakistan tells China to go slow in Xinjiang. Much more violence is certainly on the cards.
*Lt. Gen. P. C. Katoch is veteran of Indian Army. He can be reached at: [email protected]