Tuesday September 28, 2021

Lessons from Kabul

February 04, 2018

On January 29, another military base in Kabul came under attack, and over a dozen people were killed. Afghanistan’s military academy was not far from the site, and reportedly dozens of the ministry’s employees were wounded. The Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan claimed responsibility for the attack.

Over the past few weeks, the capital of Afghanistan has been a victim of repeated high magnitude bomb attacks. Earlier, an attack on a hotel in Kabul took about 22 lives. A few days later, a bomb explosion carried out through an ambulance claimed over a hundred lives. While attacks are claimed by the IS, it is difficult to ascertain how far these claims can actually be attributed to the said outfit because sometimes the Taliban too claim responsibility for the same attack. For example, the ambulance attack was attributed to the Taliban, and they accepted the responsibility.

In Afghanistan, the writ of Ashraf Ghani’s government is limited to big cities only and the rulers in Kabul are cognisant of this. The rural areas are mostly out of bounds. But now it appears that even cities such as Jalalabad and Kabul are at the mercy of terrorists, who can target hotels, hospitals, schools, universities, or military bases at will. So the urban centres are gradually slipping out of the government’s control just as the terrorists started their spring offensive – in winter.

The Kabul government claims that its air and land forces are gaining ground in other areas, and it is in retaliation that the extremists are hitting urban centres. According to officials, the Afghan and American forces have used air strikes in the province of Helmand to push the Taliban back and, as they retreat, their offshoots intensify attacks in Kabul. Helmand shares international borders only with Pakistan’s province of Balochistan. Within Afghanistan, the province shares its borders with Kandahar in the east and Nimruz to the west.

When the allied forces occupied Afghanistan in 2002, the British and American forces set up their bases in Helmand too. When former US president Barack Obama announced the withdrawal of most of the foreign forces from Afghanistan, both America and Britain handed over their bases in Helmand to the local Afghan forces. Now, Afghanistan claims that Pakistan has been helping the Taliban in Helmand, through Balochistan, prompting the allied forces to once again come to the aid of Afghan soldiers in Helmand.

According to the Kabul government, the failure of the Taliban in Helmand has precipitated a new strategy of revenge that is resulting in renewed attacks in big cities. Furthermore, Afghanistan claims that the American pressure on Pakistan to ‘do more’ incited Pakistan to release that pressure by using terrorist outfits such as the IS and the Taliban. Both Afghanistan and the US have repeatedly accused Pakistan of providing safe havens to terrorists.

Just two days before the ambulance attack, media reports claimed that the US had imposed a ban on six people belonging to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network. The ban stipulates that no American company or individual can do business with them. The US Department of Finance claims that five out of the six people procure money and materials for the Haqqanis and the Taliban, whereas the sixth individual is responsible for the Taliban’s military matters.

Now the question is: what is the Haqqani Network? For the CIA, it was one of the most favourite guerrilla groups fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s. President Reagan and the American administration used these guerrilla groups throughout the 1980s for their proxy war against communism. In 2012, the same US declared the network a terrorist outfit; and then in 2015 – under international pressure and as per the National Action Plan – Pakistan also banned the outfit. The founder of the Haqqani Network is said to be around 80 years old and news of his death has made the rounds more than once. He has led the guerrilla war for almost four decades now. Some observers even consider him to be the pioneer of suicide bombing in this region.

The six people who were banned included four Afghan citizens, purported to be living in Pakistan, and reportedly two Pakistanis. While imposing the ban, the US administration once again demanded that Pakistan eliminate Haqqani and Taliban safe havens, and target their funding sources.

The banned Pakistani citizens are accused of helping the Haqqani Network in developing international connections, especially with some Middle Eastern countries. A few days before imposing the ban, US President Trump had issued an absurd statement, claiming that the US had given Pakistan $33b over a period of 15 years since 2001; and in return the US got nothing but deceit and lies. Then the US administration also halted its security assistance payments, amounting to around 2 billion dollars.

Amid the past weeks’ news of terrible attacks, Pakistan’s version has remained the same, that there are no terrorist safe havens in Pakistan and that no attack was carried out with its help. Interestingly, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Aizaz Chaudhry, had recently expressed his desire that the Haqqani Network and the Taliban go back to Afghanistan and become a part of the mainstream political system of the country. At the same time, he had denied that there were Haqqani Network or Taliban bases in the country. Needless to say, such statements end up making Pakistan’s stance rather murky.

A similar call, about mainstreaming militants, has also been promoted by some retired military personnel of Pakistan. The point to consider here is: if these terrorists are unwilling to recognise a country’s constitution and law by refusing to acknowledge the government’s writ, then how are they going to be a part of the mainstream? Such mainstreaming will only result in further weakening of the governments. These terrorists want to take the world back to the ancient times; and mainstreaming them will cause tremendous harm to the entire region.

Extremists will gain enormous strength from any kind of mainstreaming and will become capable of imposing their will on the majority – as has been witnessed numerous times in the past, including the recent attempts made by the likes of Rizvis and Sialvis. To avoid going in reverse, we need to accept some sane advice and not talk about any mainstreaming of militants – whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan. But it seems that the real policymakers of Pakistan have not learned any lesson, even after suffering from almost four decades of blood and gore.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in

Islamabad. Email: [email protected]