The blame-game is on

Pakistan will have to go all out to maintain cordial relations with the UAE after the NDS report alleges three master planners of the attack on Governor House in Kandahar lived on this side of the border

The blame-game is on

The recent claim by the Afghan government that the three master planners of the January 11 attack at the Governor House in Kandahar were living freely in Pakistan will fuel the ongoing blame-game, and add to the tension between the two countries.

Masoom Stanekzai, chief of the Afghan intelligence agency, NDS, said recently that the joint investigation commission comprising members from Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates (UAE), FBI of the US and Scotland Yard of the UK had concluded that Afghan Taliban were behind the attack and two members of its Quetta Shura, and another unidentified man, who planned the attack, were living in Pakistan.

He said the governments of Afghanistan and the UAE had made a formal demand to Pakistan to arrest the wanted men and hand them over to Kabul.

One isn’t aware if the UAE, which lost its ambassador to Afghanistan and five other diplomats in the attack, has formally made such a demand to the Pakistan government. It is possible such a demand was made through diplomatic channels and not made public. Also, it would be helpful if the report of the joint investigation commission, or parts of it that aren’t of sensitive nature, are made public so that it becomes obvious that its findings were endorsed by all members of the commission, including those from the UAE, FBI and Scotland Yard, and not by NDS alone.

According to NDS Chief Stanekzai, the commission investigated the incident in two phases for a couple of months, and came to the conclusion that Syed Mehboob Agha, a chef at the Governor House, had conducted the bomb blast at the guesthouse using TNT and RDX explosives blown up from a long distance. He said Agha had close links with Taliban and had travelled thrice to the Pakistani border city of Chaman to plan the attack.

He further claimed Agha had confessed the Taliban pledged to pay him $30,000 besides giving him a home in Pakistan for conducting the attack on the UAE diplomats.

The twin bombings at the heavily guarded Governor House had killed 12 persons, including the UAE Ambassador Juma Mohammad Abdullah Al Kaabi and five other Emiratis, Kandahar’s Deputy Governor Abdul Ali Shamsi, and Afghan businessman Hashim Karzai, former President Hamid Karzai’s cousin. Kandahar Governor Humayun Azizi suffered injuries, but recovered after treatment in India and Germany, and later returned to resume his job.

No act of terrorism in the two countries has been jointly investigated to-date due to their all-time low trust in each other. Instead, there is a familiar pattern of blame-game whenever the terrorists strike in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

The 65-year old UAE ambassador too was wounded, and was under treatment for some weeks, but he eventually succumbed to his injuries.

There was no claim of responsibility for the bomb explosion at the Governor House at the time or even later. Though suspicion immediately fell on the Afghan Taliban for organising the meticulously planned attack, a Taliban spokesman was quick to issue a statement disowning the bombing. Rather, Taliban blamed "internal local rivalry" for the attack.

However, there is no evidence yet that any rivalry between Afghan government officials was the cause of the bombing.

Taliban didn’t elaborate this point, but sources close to the militant group pointed fingers at the Kandahar police chief General Abdul Raziq as he was present at the guesthouse that was attacked and had reportedly left just before the blast.

Taliban and General Raziq have been running a bloody feud for years, and the latter has survived a number of Taliban assassination attempts. Raziq has been instrumental in pushing the Taliban fighters out of most of their strongholds in Kandahar, which is of immense importance to the Taliban as it was their birthplace as well as the spiritual capital.

President Ashraf Ghani’s National Security Adviser Muhammad Hanif Atmar was tasked to investigate the incident as head of a high-level commission. Having flown from the nation’s capital Kabul to Kandahar the same day after the attack, he was surprisingly quick to make public certain conclusions. He claimed the attack was planned outside Afghanistan. It was obvious he was referring to neighbouring Pakistan without mentioning its name. Atmar maintained that dangerous explosives had been used for the first time in Afghanistan. Besides, he accused the security forces of carelessness due to their failure to check the guesthouse for explosives and prevent the planting of the bomb in a sofa in such a maximum security place.

General Raziq, Kandahar police head, was also quick to allege that the attack was planned by the Haqqani network with the cooperation of Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, ISI. This has by now become a standard Afghan practice as the Haqqani network is invariably blamed for most of the high profile attacks knowing pretty well that the US and its allies strongly believe that it is close to the Pakistani ISI.

Raziq is fiercely anti-Pakistan, and has time and again blamed the ISI for harbouring and using the Taliban to destabilise Afghanistan.

Pakistan has been denying all such accusations. Islamabad wondered how the Afghan officials could reach such conclusions before completing investigations. It offered to cooperate in investigating all such incidents provided Kabul shared evidence with it. Predictably, such an offer was rejected outright. No act of terrorism in the two countries has been jointly investigated to-date due to their all-time low trust in each other. Instead, there is a familiar pattern of blame-game whenever the terrorists strike in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

There have been repeated incidents in which serious breach of security occurred in Afghanistan, but the one in Kandahar was significant as the security at the Governor House is at its maximum. It was hit when diplomats from a friendly country, UAE, were present there along with top Afghan civil and military officials, elected representatives and businessmen. Security lapses of this magnitude raise questions about the professional capabilities of the Afghan security forces.

Also, as it turned out in the investigation, the bombing was an inside job as someone employed by the Afghan government, as a chef at the Governor House guesthouse, was allegedly involved in the attack.

Many Afghans were saddened that the Emirati diplomats were attacked while visiting Kandahar to inaugurate UAE-funded humanitarian projects, including an orphanage and scholarships for university students, and discuss further assistance. They felt it had damaged the traditional Afghan values of hospitality. The Afghans were angry with both the attackers and the government, but were helpless in making anyone accountable.

Afghanistan’s former capital Kandahar has been a particularly violent place all these years. The Mulla Omar-led Taliban movement had emerged in the autumn of 1994 in Singesar village in Kandahar’s historic Maiwand district where the Afghans had defeated the British forces in the second Anglo-Afghan war fought on July 27, 1889 and in which the tenacious Afghan girl Malala became a beloved Afghan heroine. Over the past 16 years, Taliban have been waging an increasingly resurgent uprising against the West-backed Afghan government. Despite denying involvement in the Kandahar Governor House and other more recent bombings in Kabul, Taliban remain the most powerful armed group in Afghanistan capable of mounting such attacks.

The death of six Emiratis, including the ambassador, shocked the UAE as it is rare for the small Gulf state to lose so many diplomats in one attack. There is no doubt that the UAE has taken sides in the Afghan conflict by sending troops to Afghanistan to serve in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) fighting the Taliban, but the Kandahar attack was the first time that Emiratis were directly targeted and harmed.

Aware of Kabul’s efforts to put the blame for this attack on Pakistan and thus cause deterioration in Pakistan’s relations with the UAE, Islamabad has painstakingly tried to assure Abu Dhabi that it had no hand in the bombing. As the UAE isn’t happy with Pakistan for not sending troops to Yemen to fight the Saudi Arabian-led war there and for staying neutral in the ongoing tussle between Qatar and the Arab bloc comprising Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan, Islamabad has to make extra efforts to reassure these countries of Pakistan’s good intentions. It is obvious Pakistan is doing whatever it takes to clear its name.

However, it would have to do more to maintain friendly relations with the UAE considering the fact that Afghanistan is making a determined bid to put the entire blame for the Governor House Kandahar attack on Pakistan.

The blame-game is on