Kabul has been unable to put an end to the ISIS attacks
he recent attempt on the life of a Pakistani diplomat in Kabul has raised concerns about the law and order situation in Afghanistan. According to Taliban sources, the assailant was of Turkmen descent. If that is indeed the case, it speaks of an alarming development. Why should a Central Asian militant pick a Pakistani diplomat for a target?
Pakistan has been frequently criticised across the world for its alleged ties with the Taliban. The facts on the ground are, however, different. The Afghan Taliban are not Pakistan’s proxies. Pakistan has always tried to help a resolution of the problems in Afghanistan through peaceful negotiations. This was true even before the birth of the Taliban. Pakistan had no role in the former USSR’s political intervention in Afghanistan that later led to direct military action in the land-locked country. After the arrival of Russian forces in its neighborhood, its options were limited.
On the occasion of the Russian withdrawal, Pakistan had wanted Russia to rectify the situation before the withdrawal of troops. It had called on the United States and the former USSR, then the reigning superpowers, to play their role in the establishment of permanent peace in Afghanistan.
There were, of course, some elements in Pakistan who had started believing the myth that with the withdrawal of Russian troops Afghanistan had turned into our backyard. Recently, a spokesperson for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government echoed similar sentiments when he proudly confessed to having fought against the then-Afghan president Dr Najeebullah alongside Afghan resistance.
Pakistan has its geographical constraints. It cannot afford conflict at the same on both its eastern and western borders. Therefore, when various jihadist factions started fighting one another after the Russian withdrawal, Pakistan tried to persuade them to sort out their differences through negotiation. When these efforts failed, the power vacuum ended up giving birth to the Taliban. Pakistan welcomed the Taliban advance as it looked like they could end the civil war. After September 11, 2001, the Western world suddenly remembered Afghanistan.
US and coalition forces turned Afghanistan into a battlefield. Pakistan feared that like the previous war, the Western forces world would leave behind a fragmented Afghanistan. Islamabad, therefore, remained open to engaging the Afghan Taliban.
Pakistan, however, did not openly support the Afghan Taliban in their war against the West. In fact, it became an ally of the West. This gave birth to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. Thousands of Pakistani citizens and soldiers were killed in attacks by TTP militants.
Meanwhile, another war was going on away from Afghanistan. In Africa, Iraq and Syria, the intervention of Western forces had given birth to new extremist forces. These forces were spearheaded first by Al Qaeda and later by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Fringe militant outfits in Afghanistan and Pakistan eventually started making contacts with these organisations.
Unlike the Taliban, who want to enforce shariah in Afghanistan, the goals of some of these organisations are global. The global war against terrorism has made Pakistan and Afghanistan targets of these international organisations.
Some of these organisations have become active in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Pakistan has carried out several operations against foreign fighters infiltrating its border regions, formerly known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. One of the organisations active in the region was the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In February 2008, several Turkmen militants from the IMU were killed while fighting against the Pakistani military in Kalusha, South Waziristan.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria too has a presence in the region. When some leaders of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan escaped to Afghanistan, they met with the leaders of the ISIS. A new province of the Islamic State was announced in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2015 with the name of Wilayat Khorasan. It is now known as Islamic State in the Khorasan Province (ISKP).
Unlike the Taliban, who only want the enforcement of shariah in Afghanistan, some of these militant organisations have a global agenda. The global war against terrorism has made Pakistan and Afghanistan the targets of these organisations.
The same year, the IMU also joined the ISIS.
Soon after the withdrawal of the American forces, in September 2021, some fighters from Wilayat Khorasan carried out a deadly suicide attack at Kabul Airport. It was seen as a declaration of war by Wilayat Khorasan against the Afghan Taliban.
The Taliban takeover of Kabul was welcomed in Pakistan like no other Afghan neighbour. The then prime minister, Imran Khan dubbed the Taliban campaign a war of independence.
This lent support to the view in some capitals that the Taliban were a Pakistani proxy.
Before and after the recent attack in Kabul, the Afghan Taliban had carried out a vigorous operation against Wilayat Khorasan, killing some of its important commanders.
Most ISKP fighters belong to the Salafi school of thought, unlike the Taliban whose majority subscribes to the Deoband school. The ISKP believes that war should be declared against Russia and Iran which have carried out military operations against the ISIS in Syria and Iraq. This organisation has operated in Pakistan in the form of Wilayat Khorasan. It has also killed several Afghan Taliban leaders in Pakistan. Pakistani forces have a policy of detaining any fighters of Wilayat Khorasan they find.
In some successful operations, several TTP militants who had joined the ISKP, have been killed.
This is the background in which Pakistan is being targetted by the ISKP. Cooperation with the Afghan Taliban means opposition to Wilayat Khorasan in Afghanistan. However, Pakistan cannot not cooperate with the Afghan government in its efforts to establish peace in the country.
The Russian intervention in Ukraine has increased the importance of Afghanistan. Chaos in Afghanistan can cause problems for Russia and Iran.
Acting rationally, Pakistan has intensified its diplomacy in Afghanistan. Recently, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar visited Afghanistan. There was some opposition in Afghanistan to this visit. On social media accounts supportive of the ISKP, a fresh campaign was launched against the Taliban. Maulana Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid fame, also criticised the Afghan Taliban.
Officials have said Chargé d’Affaires Ubaidur Rehman Nizamani was on a routine afternoon walk inside within the embassy compound in Kabul when unidentified gunmen opened fire on him from a nearby building. He remained unhurt in the attack, but his Pakistani security guard was hit in the chest and both legs.
The ISKP has claimed responsibility for the attack. Besides Afghan and Pakistani governments the attack has been condemned by the United States. Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has stated that the attacker has been captured and that weapons and other equipment have been seized.
Mujahid wrote on Twitter that the detainee “is a foreign country national and a member of the Daesh (ISIS).” He did not say what country the suspect was from. The Afghan spokesman said that the assault was jointly planned by the ISKP and some other anti-Taliban forces. The spokesman added that the attack has “foreign” involvement and was meant to create distrust between “two brothers, Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Separately, US National Intelligence Director Avril Haines warned that the ISIS-K is among the top terrorist groups that could pose a serious threat to the United States.
“ISIS-K is a concern… We are working to ensure that it does not become more of a concern,” Haines told the 2022 Reagan National Defence Forum in Simi Valley, California.
“It’s largely focused on the Taliban right now and we are seeing the Taliban attempt (to combat the ISIS-K). But frankly, they really don’t have the capability to go after it the way obviously we do. That’s something we will continue to try to manage,” she noted.
Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi condemned the attack in a telephonic conversation with Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
“FM Muttaqi assured him that special attention will be paid to the security of the embassy and efforts will be made to identify and prosecute the perpetrators of the terror attack,” said an Afghan Foreign Ministry statement.
The fact remains that ISKP is emerging as a major threat in Afghanistan. With a global agenda, networks and resources, it poses a threat to the world in general and Afghanistan’s neighbours in particular.
The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist, researcher and trainer