Striking a balance within Taliban: Pakistan faces new challenge

September 06, 2021 2:27 PM

The visit of ISI chief to Kabul, concurrent with statement of Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General QamarJavedBajwa about assisting Taliban to firm up a government signifies Pakistan Army’s over confidence in its ability to hand hold Taliban and firm up a government as per its dictates.

talibanA member of the Taliban force stands guard at a checkpoint in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 2, 2021. (Photo source: Reuters)

By MAJ GEN N K BHATIA

Chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt Gen Faiz Hameed landed in Kabul ostensibly to mentor and guide the Taliban on government formation. It was his second visit to Kabul in two weeks. Unlike the first visit, the current visit became public after he was spotted in a hotel with Pakistan’s Ambassador to Afghanistan.

The visit of ISI chief to Kabul, concurrent with statement of Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General QamarJavedBajwa about assisting Taliban to firm up a government signifies Pakistan Army’s over confidence in its ability to hand hold Taliban and firm up a government as per its dictates. It is no secret that Pakistan’s Army and ISI have been the backbone of Taliban. It not only nurtured the outfit but provided Taliban with a political face led by Mullah Baradar and military direction through its proxies- the Haqqani network.

Taliban used the art of annihilation and out manoeuvre against the Afghan National Army (ANA) in the countryside inflicting heavy casualties on them and then escaping rapidly making use of local transport such as motor cycles and pick-ups before US and allied forces could respond. This not only demoralised the ANA but reduced their ability to withstand the onslaught of Taliban when it mattered the most without support of US and allied forces.

Taliban’s most potent weapon was the use of terror to kill adversaries. Taliban’s mainstay remained use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) along main highways and suicide bombings on minorities and high value targets in urban centres, primarily focussed around Kabul. This not only spread fear amongst the adversaries but sent across a message to the masses about the inability of the Afghan government to secure the country and provide protection to masses.

The strength of the Taliban was assessed to be between 50,000 to 80,000 fighters. However little is known of the command structure of the outfit except the role of Pushtun tribal leaders and the loyalty of fighters to their local tribes. But the cutting edge of the Taliban that spread terror in Afghanistan was the Pakistan backed Haqqani Network headed by SirajuddinHaqqani.

The US-Taliban Agreement to bring peace to Afghanistan signed on 29 February 2020 was signed by Mullah Baradar who as Deputy leader of Taliban had led the negotiations with US after being held captive since 2010 after his arrest in Karachi. Before formal negotiations began he had met US delegates secretly in Doha in 2018 when the foundations for a broad roadmap were laid out, bringing him out as more moderate with whom the US could negotiate.

Immediately after signing of the US-Taliban Agreement in 2020 there was an escalation in violence across Afghanistan with hundreds of killings reported, most prominently attacks on Hazara and Sikh communities and women. The attack were claimed by Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP),which was surprising as Kabul and areas in close proximity to it have been Haqqani network stronghold for long. Any activity of ISKP in Kabul therefore would have certainly face a challenge from Haqqani network. Since it was carried out with their express approval, there was only muted response to the killings by Taliban.

The ISKP group’s claimfor the killings was traced back to a group led by AslamFarooqi who rose in the ranks of Lashkar-e Toiba and later switched loyalties to Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) after his anointment as Emir at behest of ISI. This had resulted in a split in ISKP with Central Asian fighters breaking away from andforming their own faction. The Farooqi led group of Afghan and Pakistan based ISKP cadres are reported to have escaped the joint US-Taliban operation launched against them in summer of 2019 in Nangahar province shows duplicity of ISI and role of Haqqani Network in giving assistance to fighters of ISKP.

When traced back, both ISKP and Haqqani Network came out as two sides of the same coin owing their existence to ISI and Pakistan Army. The public announcement of claiming responsibility for violent actions by ISKP in Kabul was therefore a ploy to obfuscate public perception from any role of Taliban in terror activities.

As the US troops abruptly withdrew from Afghanistan on 15 August abandoning their last bastion at Bagram air base, Haqqani Network was quick to take control of security in Kabul and adjoining areas with AnasHaqqani leading his band of cadres. With a strength of approximately 10,000 fighters, it set up check posts in Kabul city and took control of the airport where action shifted for a large number of Afghans trying to escape the impending catastrophe of a Taliban regime.

The takeover of Kabul and adjoining areas by Haqqani network was not only to demonstrate and reinforce to cadres of Taliban of its strength but also brought to the fore fissures within ranks of Taliban.

A suicide bombing carried out at Kabul airport on 26 August killing more than 150 innocent Afghan citizens and 13 US service persons and wounding over 200 people shook the conscience of everyone. It was typically claimed by ISKP. The action of ISKP appeared audacious with Haqqani Network being in total control of the city and airport. As brought about above, with both ISKP and Haqqani Network aligned, the blast appeared to be the handiwork of Haqqani Network to send a message that its claims for prominence within Taliban could not be ignored.

Prior to the attacks it was claimed by the US that it had prior knowledge of the impending attacks thereby indicating that it continues to be in touch with Taliban leadership, most prominently Mullah Baradar and its faction with whom it has been in talks since 2018.

The formation of a new political dispensation appears to be a friction point within the Taliban. The Quetta Shura currently led by Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada has donned the leadership role of Taliban with Mullah Baradar as one of his deputies leading negotiations with the US. On the other hand Miran Shah Shura led by SirajuddinHaqqani, always the militant and hard core face of Taliban, continued with its terror tactics to control Kabul and South East Afghanistan. Release in 2019 of AnasHaqqani, brother of SirajuddinHaqqani who had been held in Afghan captivity, in exchange for two western hostages only strengthened the clout of brothers within Taliban. Quick control of Kabul and areas nearby therefore put Haqqani network in a dominant position with a desire to control levers of power within Taliban.

Report of clashes between Mullah Baradar and AnasHaqqani therefore appear a natural outcome of power struggle within the hierarchy of Taliban and shows how frictions within the outfit.

Days ahead therefore portend to a more sinister outcome of Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Having nurtured two different factions within Taliban ISI chief may be able to resolve difference within Taliban in immediate future but long term outcome foretells a split and breaking up of the group, in all likelihood Haqqani Network adopting to the ways of Islamic State. Besides,Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) escalating its activities in Pakistan is bound to trouble ISI for days to come.

(The author is an Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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