Taliban took over Afghanistan on 15th August, must faster than the US anticipated.
More than that, it shocked beyond imagination the lay security watchers and intelligence enthusiasts that how could a rag-tag group of ill-trained rebels with light weapons outsmart the army trained by the world’s most advanced and elitist forces.
This question has baffled many. The dominant discourse3 in the initial media coverage following the fall of Kabul hovered around the incompetence of the political leadership, corruption in the Afghan government, frequent change of the commanders in ANDSF, and the Afghan security forces’ timid surrender to Taliban. Plus, the dominant media discourse focussed on the US’ betrayal, the victory of the Taliban against a much superior force signalling the end of ‘pax-Americana4’. Some prestigious global media outlets5 either outrightly celebrated the victory of the Taliban or expressed subtle jubilation6. In India, a range of academics and diplomats have reasoned that the Taliban will be the future government; hence, India must enter into talks with the Taliban. However, as this happens one has to wait and see as to how does a strong anti-Taliban resistance shapes up in Afghanistan. Following the afore-mentioned narrative, some serious scholars like Michael Rubin7, Christine Fair8, and Kyle Orton9 tried to dig deeper and investigate the role of Pakistan, the big daddy of the Taliban, and global jihadism. They outlined Pakistan’s endemic ties with the Taliban and how it sabotaged the US counter-terrorism effort in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. Christine Fair writes that in the ‘Operation Evil Airlift10,’ immediately after the US invasion of Afghanistan in Oct. 2001, Pakistan evacuated battle-hardened and deadly Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists from Kunduz.
Pakistan continued to support the Taliban with training, weapons, cash, shelter, recruitment, and medical aid over the last three decades11. Taliban’s Quetta Shura operating from Pakistan has been the key decision-maker in the Taliban, not the Qatar-based Taliban authorities. Allegedly, the ISI exercises tremendous control over the Quetta Shura. Binoria mosque12 and Haqqania Madrasa13, the Deobandi madrassas of Pakistan, are the intellectual nurseries of the Taliban’s religious ideology and the major suppliers of their cadre strength. Pakistan’s Deoband ecosystem has a long history and robust socio-political clout, on account of which they have deep-rooted ties with the Pak Army. Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Pakistan’s key proxy terrorist group responsible for the Pulwama suicide bombing is a Deobandi outfit. Many of its senior leaders like Masood Azhar, Sadatullah Khan, and Maulana Fazlur Rahman Khalil commenced their Jihadist careers in the Pak-backed Afghan Jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s. JeM has strong ties with the Taliban. In the Nangarhar Taliban camp, NDS had killed10 JeM cadres in a raid, proving strong tactical level ties between the two organizations14. Hence, Pakistan has been hands-in-glove with the Taliban and other jihadist entities in the region ever since the Soviet invasion. Americans failed to identify what NYT journalist Carlotta Gall15 addresses as the “Real Enemy” who kept spilling American blood using the US assistance money training the jihadists.
However, Pakistan’s share of the blame is not confined to its historical ties with the Taliban, outlined above. Reportedly, GHQ Rawalpindi has played a critical role in orchestrating the current Taliban coup. This part is missing in the dominant media discourse due to the lack of information on the subject. In Kabul’s recent capture, Islamabad played a more heinous and lethal role, which merits an independent investigation. However, the author’s analysis, aimed to initiate a debate on the said aspect, is based on the inputs of his informed interlocutors in South Asia’s strategic community. Hence, the subject needs a systematic investigation by the state and international agencies.
Reportedly, Pakistan’s external intelligence service, ISI, sabotaged the US withdrawal with the help of some of the key players in the Afghan peace process. The agency has a notorious history of cultivating high-profile American diplomats. FBI investigated16 its ties with the veteran US diplomat Robin Raphel. Robin Raphel facilitated the creation of the Hurriyat Conference17, a Kashmiri separatist organization and an intellectual arm for terrorist groups in Kashmir.
In the recent coup also, Pakistan resorted to such deceitful covert and underhand dealings with some of the key stakeholders and individuals in the Afghan peace process. Such underhand dealings created conditions that enabled inaccurate strategic forecasts hiding Pakistan’s true intent and machinations to stage an aggressive Taliban onslaught and seize Kabul immediately after the US withdrawal. Also, the smokescreens created by Pakistan successfully hid China’s ulterior geopolitical motives and economic interests in propping up Taliban, and perhaps its role in staging the swift Taliban takeover and the consequent US humiliation, which at the moment is, at best, a matter of strategic speculation.
Notably, the US intelligence had, at some level, came to know of Pakistan’s devious role and realized the demerits of the hasty withdrawal decision in abject surrender to a terrorist regime. In his recent NYT article18, the former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker suggested that it was a mistake to continue Trump’s Afghanistan policy and the key individuals associated with the peace process. However, they could not do much of a course correction. After the Doha accords, when the Taliban was violating the agreement and continuing its terror acts, the Americans realized that their best option was an honourable exit in the given situation. In effect, it meant an interim government with members from the Taliban and Afghan government and reasonably peaceful withdrawal. They expected the complete Taliban takeover after six to nine months, and they were prepared for that. For reasons ranging from a blind obsession with Pakistan inevitability, self-perceived vulnerability, and the hasty and impulsive decision-making, they believed that Pakistan’s role in facilitating the honorable exit was crucial.
However, Pakistan was planning a complete spoiler for the US. Through underhand dealings, GHQ Rawalpindi single-handedly shattered Afghan unity, sowing seeds of dissension and friction. As a result, there was complete confusion, lack of coordination, no clear line of instruction, and lack of air support for ANDSF operations. Notably, the Afghan Security Forces, which have become a punching bag after 15th August, is the force that has fought bravely with the Taliban for the last 20 years. Moreover, once Amrullah Saleh came out openly after 15th August and declared intent to resist the Taliban, with Ahmad Masud, the same force started mobilizing as a resistance force in Panjshir.
Further, Pakistan and its proxies deluded the US in keeping New Delhi out of the ambit of the key negotiations. Indians, guarded and skeptical under the thin line of distrust and unease that ails Indo-US relations in perpetuity and their own indecisiveness, also did not display any nuanced and forward-thinking approach to carve out a space for themselves. On the other side, a much bigger conspiracy was in place. Afghanistan was never about a bunch of rag-tag rebels of the Taliban and its patron, Pakistan. At a deeper level, the state actors like Russia, China, Iran and Turkey were facilitating and navigating the Taliban’s swift and smooth journey into power, all for their respective geopolitical and geo-economic reasons. However, with its rigid and constrained focus on the Taliban and ridiculously high levels of trust in Pakistan, the US failed to understand the oriental statecraft and came out as a miserable failure.
Pakistan’s deep-seated involvement in the Taliban’s swift return becomes explicitly evident when ISI’s proxy Haqqani Network’s principal figures like Khalil Haqqani19, a terrorist with a bounty of $5 million, is given the Kabul’s security and a crucial role in forming the Taliban government. Further, ISI Chief Faiz Hamid’s visit to Kabul and engaging in discussions on security and future governance structures also raises disturbing questions about Pakistan’s role in the Kabul fiasco.
Following the hasty and bungled American withdrawal, the anti-US state actors have begun a massive information war, presenting the US as a superpower defeated by a bunch of rag-tag rebels and an ally that its friends can never trust. Also, there is an attempt to present the Taliban as freedom fighters, resistance to the foreign occupants. However, before such versions become mainstream discourse, they need to be deconstructed objectively. In hindsight, it is still unreasonable to call it the end of pax-Americana, i.e., the superpower status of the US.
The Taliban did not defeat the US. Post-2014, the US had ceased its combat activities. They were mainly training the ANDSF. The number of their troops had fallen below the figure of 800020. However, even the tiny presence of 5000-8000 troops had such tremendous psychological impact that the Taliban, with all the Pakistani support, could not dare to dislodge the Afghan government. Americans had to leave one day, and after the US forces killed Osama Bin Laden, it was increasingly clear that the withdrawal would have to start soon. At the most, one can argue that the timing and the manner of withdrawal was an ill-thought strategic choice. However, digging deeper brings forth the original Himalayan blunder of the US, which takes us way back to 2001. The biggest strategic blunder of the US was trusting Pakistan.
Had the US, after dismantling the Taliban regime in 2001, gone after Pakistan chasing all the terror groups, Al Qaeda cadres, and the Taliban and harshly compelled the Pak army and intelligence to abandon its support and safe havens to terrorist groups, Afghanistan would have been very different from what one witness today. It is so because the Taliban and its ideology, in essence, run counter to Afghanistan’s national identity. Taliban is a Pakistan’s project for its geopolitical end of securing a strategic depth. The Americans never heeded the advice of their Indian friends. They deliberately ignored the real enemy, i.e., Pakistan, which sponsored, trained, and sheltered the terrorist groups with US aid money.
This one blunder has nullified the other investments that the US did. The US presence of 20 years created a robust middle class and civil society, which has launched a campaign against Pakistan on social media. However, now, when Americans are gone, they are powerless and vulnerable, completely at the mercy of Pakistan and its Taliban proxies.
After the Kabul blasts, it seems once again the US is repeating its 20-year-old strategic blunder by believing that the Taliban is a responsible actor and ISKP is the real threat. Well, projecting the Taliban as reformed and responsible may provide some face-saver to Americans when President Biden’s image has taken a deep dive. However, whatever may be the American compulsions to buy Pakistan’s ISKP story, the fact remains that ISKP has proven ties with Haqqani Network (HQN), ISI’s ‘veritable arm’, in the words of Michael Mullen21, and Taliban’s sword arm. Since its formation in 2015, the ISI has infiltrated the ISKP with JeM, LeT, TTP, and Taliban men.
A series of its leaders, such as Aslam Farookhi22, Huzaifa-al-Bakistani23, and Aizaz Ahangar24, have ties with the ISI. HQN was the in-charge of Kabul’s security. Given its military muscle and influence, it is difficult to imagine that a 2nd rung terror group like ISKP can send its fidayeen squad to Kabul airport’s high-security zone without the HQN’s tacit support.
The US might want to understand that by blaming ISKP, Pakistan is looking for deniability for itself and recognition for the Taliban. Anyone with a basic understanding of ISI’s covert operations knows well that the ISI, which has mastered the art of proxy war, skillfully raises new terror groups with different names to claim deniability. For example, in Kashmir, ISI raised TRF (The Resistance Force) as LeT’s front because its ties with LeT are exposed25. Nevertheless, the choice is with the US. If the US continues its strategic blunder of turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s shenanigans, then Afghanistan is most likely to become what former R&AW chief Vikram Sood calls the ‘Jihad central26.
‘ There are all kinds of deadly terror groups present. The major ones include ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Al Badr, ISKP, Jaish, Lashkar, Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Haqqani Network. In all these groups, the ISI is the common denominator. In Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, all such radical Islamist groups will find safe-havens. Taliban’s victory has already emboldened them. Hence, in all likelihood, their ideology and activities will spread beyond Afghanistan. Radicals from various parts of the world such as India, Bosnia, West Asia, and Central Asia will gravitate to Afghanistan’s jihad hub. Possibly, many battle-hardened Jihadis reach Kashmir through PoK and Europe via Turkey. Under Pakistan and the Taliban’s tutelage, Afghanistan has all the potential to become a theatre of Syria–like violence. Lastly, the US cannot stay complacent. As long as the powerful ISI and its terror cohorts flourish in the Af-Pak region, another 9/11 may happen soon.
Finally, the Taliban’s victory has raised the Pak army’s stature in the eyes of its domestic and South Asian Muslim population. In Kashmir, one finds separatists and Jihadist constituency highly emboldened with the Pak-Taliban’s ‘so-called’ victory over the American forces. This makes Pakistan an acclaimed leader in the Muslim world, a critical player in Asian diplomacy and geopolitics, and China the ultimate winner with the ouster of Americans. Further, the Pak army’s enhanced credibility and power make it an invincible political force in domestic theatre, quashing all the possibilities of restoring democracy in Pakistan. Moreover, finally, with the dictatorial regimes like China, Pakistan, Russia, and Iran taking the lead and the barbaric Taliban in power, the humanitarian and progressive ideas of secularism, democracy, human rights, and multiculturalism, gender equality also take a backseat.