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Afghanistan: Will The ‘Great Game’ Continue? – OpEd

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It’s heartening to hear that within 48 hours of US President Joe Biden declaring that “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you [perpetrators of Thursday’s twin bomb attacks in Kabul] down and make you pay,” the US military has successfully ‘droned’ an “ISIS-K [sic] planner in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan.” However, this claim also raises certain issues that beg thorough deliberation and throw up several questions that need to be answered truthfully, because failure do either could have very serious consequences. 

With Taliban sweeping across Afghanistan, US forces no longer have boots on ground anymore. Due to the sudden collapse of Afghan National Army [ANA], US local intelligence network is non-existent and with a non-cooperative Taliban, Pentagon’s HUMINT acquisition capability in Afghanistan has taken a massive hit. It’s because of this that the first thing which strikes the mind is that with no worthwhile real-time intelligence at its disposal, how could US army ‘take down’ the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant- Khorasan [ISIL-K] terrorist who masterminded the Kabul bomb blasts, so quickly? 

Readers may recall that Washington always possessed cutting edge technologies backed by an extensive intelligence network at its disposal. After 9/11, Islamabad joined America’s war on terror and with Pakistan army’s much acclaimed spy agency Inter Services Intelligence [ISI], Pentagon’s phenomenal intelligence assets were further enhanced. Yet, it took Washington almost a decade to locate Al Qaida founder and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, although he was living comfortably in Abbottabad – a stone’s throw from Pakistan Military Academy.

Though intriguing, the inordinately short time frame in which the US has ‘delivered’ justice to the Kabul bomb blast ‘planner’ is in no way unprecedented as there have been several instances in Pakistan where the army has ‘neutralised’ terror attack masterminds with amazing speed. For example, it took ISI just seven days to locate Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport terrorist attack mastermind holed up alongwith more than 100 terrorists in the rugged mountains of North Waziristan, [which at that time was strictly a no-go area for Pakistan army]. If ISI’s achievement was mindboggling, then successful elimination of the mastermind Abu Abdul Rehman Al Maani by PAF in a night attack too was nothing less than a miracle!

However, it’s neither intended to downplay the raw courage and untiring efforts of intelligence agencies and security forces involved in fighting the war on terror, nor question the veracity of claims regarding ‘neutralisation’ of alleged masterminds. However, there are times when such news doesn’t sound credible- like Pentagon’s assertion of having ‘droned’ the Kabul twin blast mastermind and there are good reasons for the same. 

Firstly, for unspecified reasons, Washington has refused to identify the ISIL-K ‘planner’ and ‘facilitator’ killed in the drone attack. Secondly, it would be reasonable to assume that the Kabul attack mastermind would definitely be an important person in ISIL-K hierarchy, and so, if the US had prior information about him, why wasn’t he ‘taken out’ earlier? 

The tendency of trying to assuaging public ire after any heinous terrorist attack by falsely claiming that its perpetuators and masterminds have been ‘neutralised’ spawns an unhealthy trend that promotes unethical conduct within security force personnel, intelligence agencies, bureaucrats and politicians and id thus best avoided. 

The greater danger however is that the US seems to have accepted beyond any doubts that the Kabul blasts were handiwork of ISIL-K, as hastily as it has claimed that two ISIL-K terrorists have been exterminated. It’s true that ISIL-K has accepted responsibility for this attack. It’s also a fact that ISIL-K has a bloody history of disregarding collateral damage while carrying out its attacks, like it did in this case. 

Yet, given the convoluted linkages and host of other factors that compels terrorist groups with differing [and even opposing] ideologies to enter into a working relationship with each other, taking any terrorism related claim on its face value could prove to be dangerous. A classic example is Washington’s blind faith in Pakistan army’s emphatic claims of fighting terrorists of “all colour and hue,” when infact it was providing safe sanctuaries to Taliban and the Haqqani network for two decades, which has led to the current crisis in Afghanistan. 

It’s only today when Washington has egg all over its face due to Pakistan’s duplicity in its war on terror that Americans would realise the import of former US President Donald Trump 2018 tweet that read, “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan…” 

So, even though it is generally believed that Taliban and ISIL-K are sworn enemies who having had fought bloody turf wars and can never come to terms, there is credible evidence that suggests otherwise. A report titled ‘The Islamic State-Khorasan: Capacities and Future Prospects’ available on the Government of Canada’s official website [ https://www.canada.ca/en.html] reveals the following:

  • “Some sources within the Taliban allege that the IS-K [sic] pays cash to theHaqqani Network for its support, including help in organising terrorist attacks in Kabul.” 
  • “The IS-K’s military council signalled a major shift in its geopolitical positioning when it selected Aslam Faruqi (nom de guerre) as its governor in May 2017. Faruqi was an advocate of appeasement with Pakistan, in exchange for being granted a safe haven by the Pakistani authorities.” 
  • “Undoubtedly, the relationship with the Pakistani authorities has allowed the IS-K to become more resilient.”
  • “Since May 2017, the IS-K has carried out only occasional attacks in Pakistan, usually against non-state targets, and there have been a few small waves of repression by security agencies against the IS-K as well. This suggests that either both sides constantly are trying to renegotiate the terms of the agreement or that its implementation is a matter of dispute.”
  • “… the IS-K has been able to move its main base from Afghan territory, where it was vulnerable to US air strikes, to the Tirah Valley in the tribal areas of Pakistan. It is also able to maintain several training camps in various locations throughout the tribal areas.”
  • “The understanding reached with Pakistan means that the IS-K is only really militarily active in Afghanistan.”

These revelations make it all the more necessary for Washington to thoroughly investigate the Kabul blasts. Should it not keep an open mind on this incident and tread with caution, there are bright chances of 2001 replaying itself, albeit with some changes in roles. The ISIL-K replacing Taliban as the ‘bad guys’, and Taliban stepping into Pakistan army’s shoes as the ‘good guys’ and extending help to Washington by fighting the ‘bad guys’ in exchange of financial aid.

Doesn’t it give you a scary feeling of déjà vu? 

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Nilesh Kunwar

Nilesh Kunwar is a retired Indian Army Officer who has served in Jammu & Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. He is a ‘Kashmir-Watcher,’ and now after retirement is pursuing his favorite hobby of writing for newspapers, journals and think tanks.

One thought on “Afghanistan: Will The ‘Great Game’ Continue? – OpEd

  • August 29, 2021 at 8:02 am
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    US forces no longer have boots on ground anymore but US local HUMINT acquisition network will exist for some time with their loyalists who will continue to be paid. Drone attacks will continue as has been proved .US failed for 20 years fighting from within and now to expect to deal through remote control with Taliban or call what you may ISIS, ISIS-K or the Haqqanis is a distant dream. They are all terrorists and threat to world peace.Let us wait and watch for how long they listen to their mentor Pakistan lately backed by China! US has left Afghanistan and its populace in a tragic situation of a “Bugger’s muddle” in the fighting hands of the militant groups.However,Afghanistan’s confused ‘Great Game’ will continue…

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