by Kyle Orton
Thursday, 26
August 2021
Explainer
18:35

As Kabul burns, we need to talk about Pakistan

The country has deep links with groups like the Taliban
by Kyle Orton
ISIS-K is centred in the Khorasan region of Afghanistan

The suicide bombings at the Kabul airport are almost certainly the work of the Islamic State’s “Khorasan Province” (ISKP), the branch of the organisation in Afghanistan and Pakistan that was officially recognised by Islamic State (ISIS) “Centre” in 2015. The group had been oddly quiet since the fall of Kabul, and we can now see why.

A lot of official commentary from the U.S. government and analytical work influenced by this has written off ISKP over the last few years after a series of Taliban offensives against the group. The reality was that ISKP had withdrawn from overt view and was recuperating and waiting, particularly for the prison breaks it knew would accompany a Taliban conquest of the country. 

These intra-jihadi clashes became a part of the political narrative because they occurred in tandem with the so-called peace process, which excluded the Afghan government, and forced the release of thousands of jihadists, fatally wounding the Afghan state. The “process”, a cover for American withdrawal, required legitimising the Taliban, and at senior levels in both the Trump administration and the Biden administration. One way this was done was to claim the Taliban could be a counter-terrorism partner, certainly against ISKP and even against Al-Qaeda

The Taliban cannot fight Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has sworn an oath of allegiance to the Taliban leader, and on the battlefield they are completely intertwined. One of the most visible Taliban leaders in Kabul has been Khalil Haqqani, who is a senior operative in the Haqqani Network. This network is deeply woven into Al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan and has leaders simultaneously holding senior positions in the Taliban. These organisational overlaps are reinforced by family ties. In short, there is no real-world distinction between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. 

There is a distinction between the Taliban and ISKP, and indeed a venomous hatred. But what is clear from the attack at the airport is that either the Taliban was complicit — allowing attacks that will halt an evacuation that they oppose — or the Taliban was unable to stop it. In either case it is risible to suggest that the Taliban can assist in counter-terrorism.

At root, the distinction between ISKP and the Taliban is their nature: ISKP is a non-state actor and the Taliban is a wing of Pakistan’s (deep) state. The network of jihadists that has just taken over Afghanistan — led by the Taliban and the Haqqani Network — is just the latest iteration of Pakistan’s jihad project in Afghanistan, which began no later than 1974. The ISI has recruited, trained, armed, funded, and often led the Islamist militants in Afghanistan in order to create a colonial dependency because the ISI believes it is in a civilisational war with India. And unless Pakistan controls Afghanistan, India will, and this will “encircle” Pakistan.

In the twenty years we have been in Afghanistan, despite the work of scholars like Christine Fair and Hussain Haqqani and journalists like Carlotta Gall, the Pakistan “dimension” has remained under-emphasised in the media and public discussion. Indeed, even in recent days reputable publications like the Financial Times have printed outright ISI propaganda. There are signs of this being corrected, and it is very helpful that officials like former SIS/MI6 director Sir Richard Dearlove are speaking out. 

It is too late to save Afghanistan, but at least it might set us — at long last — on a better policy track in dealing with Pakistan as it is: a state sponsor of terror that has killed thousands of our people and tens of thousands of Afghans.

Kyle Orton is an independent terrorism analyst. He tweets at @KyleWOrton

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James Joyce
James Joyce
10 months ago

We need to talk about Pakistan? No, we don’t. We need to understand that Pakistan is the enemy of the West. Period. Let’s bring back the concept of “containment,” as used for the former Soviet Union. The parallel is not exact, but why even bother to try to understand various groups, various tribal loyalties, various politicians and massive corruption? Let’s ring fence Pakistan and let them sort it out. It is not a vital interest to the West.
Lest there be any doubt about this, let’s remember the raid that killed UBL. He was hiding in Pakistan. Someone must have protected him for many years. Ostensibly, Pakistan was an “ally” of the US, but what kind of ally? Why the need for a surreptitious black ops night flight, all the secrecy, and destroying American kit once one of the choppers crashed? Because it crashed in the territory of our ally? Or because Pakistan can’t be trusted. At all. Zero.
Pakistan has been playing a double game since….forever. Let’s leave them to their own devices. And let’s have the West stop issuing ANY visas to anyone until they get their act together. Time to play hardball!

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
10 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Yes, one of the big mistakes people make is to assume that other cultures will behave or react in the same way as they do.
Sadly I don’t see the US playing hardball about anything. Biden is cowering somewhere with his handlers and will soon address the press with his script and his narrowed Clint Eastwood eyes, then get tetchy, swivel and go back to his handlers rather than answer questions. The question should be who his handlers are, so that one knows what the challenge is.

Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
10 months ago

It appears he’s hiding away from facing the press over the bomb attacks killing 12 US soldiers today. No press conference coming up apparently. Absolutely astonishing from the ‘Commander-in-Chief’
He’ll have to update the little memo book he keeps in his inside pocket (weirdly) tallying US soldier deaths in Afghanistan. There hadn’t been any in months, but now he has a dozen more to scribble down (if he can still write) purely down to his utterly moronic, insanely weak and chaotic withdrawal.
Will he OWN IT? Or just double down on blaming Trump some more?
He’s finished after this I suspect. I don’t see how he can continue.

RJ Kent
RJ Kent
10 months ago

Handlers or carers?

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
10 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

“why even bother to try to understand various groups, various tribal loyalties, various politicians and massive corruption?”. Because a conviction that something is true comes from pattern completion – the better your knowledge fits together the greater your certainty it is true. Two people who have acquired knowledge in different contexts will each have an equally strong conviction that their opposing views are right. In order for either to claim their knowledge is superior they must first expand their context to include the context of their opponent, they might then either understand what they need to add to their context or what was missing from the other persons context. To do this they have to have a nagging sense of incompleteness and the curiousity to always seek to learn the context that has led to others having an opposing view. The polarisation in political opinion is because neither side makes this effort. They stay in the context they know, the one they are comfortable with, the one that they are convinced is true. They fit everything new into that context. No one learns, debate fails to increase anyone’s knowledge.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
10 months ago

I will say this again, I believe that earlier Aris Roussinos piece is a precise inversion of what is likely to pan out in Afghanistan and surroundings. The taliban will not bring stability, however religio-autocratic and stifling. Afghanistan will more likely instead descend into chaotic and brutal civil war, dragging nearby countries in in its wake – certainly Pakistan, likely India and Russia, but also the US again and also Europe including the UK are likely to be sucked back in – just the migrant flows alone will see to that. The time when the taliban could maintain control there was before 9/11 when no one was paying attention to Afghanistan. Now there are simply too many players fighting too many proxy wars there, not just Pakistan but the West, various Arab countries, not to mention Russia and China. Pakistan is the epitome of a failed state, whose military apparatus was instrumental in setting on fire it’s adjacent neighbor. Wildfires are not all that controllable though. Where do you think the fire spreads to next? But if this now also sets Pakistan alight, it will do us in the West no favours at all.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
10 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I have a fear you could well be right – but for a different reason. It is a fantastically poor land with Vast mineral resources. Now days it takes a tiny amount of very skilled labor to extract minerals, so that will not give jobs for the huge number of unemployable youth. The other side is stability is needed to fund the resource extraction – so incentivizes stability.

Then is the Tribalism. If the Cobalt mine is on one tribe’s land and nothing on another’s – that could be very problematic as sharing is not such a custom there.

I have been optimistic, I suppose in thinking a strong man would arise like Iran, Libya, Iraq had – but if not you will be right about chaos.

Let us hope Biden and his Party carry such blame as is warranted for this fiasco of a handover of power.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
10 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Yep, utterly frightening.

J Bryant
J Bryant
10 months ago

This is a very educational article, at least for me. What a quagmire of political, and more importantly, tribal alliances the whole middle east is. Most of our news coverage of the situation is woefully naive, imo.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
10 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I do not know this writer, but he says one thing I find very hard to believe, ” In short, there is no real-world distinction between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. “

That is why I posted the wiki quote above. His position thet Al-Qeda and Haqqani are one, and Haqqani and Taliban are one = Al-Qead are Taliban I fund hard o believe.

The Deobandi Taliban have never been interested in proselytizing their position outside Afghanism, wile Al-Qaeda is all about exporting their Whabbi Salifism ideology I thought. One a dedicated isolationist, the other internationalist. I just never saw their link except when Haqqani invited Al-Qaeda in in the 1980s to fight the Russians. For their use that way – not an ideological joining.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
10 months ago

The idiocy of US foreign policy in the Middle East seems almost inexplicable from a rational point of view. As people rail about Islam as a ‘death cult’ per se, there are few questions about the West’s close relationships over decades with Saudi and Pakistan, who are both major sponsors in their different ways of the most extreme forms of politicised and aggressive Islamism. In the case of Pakistan the overt favouritism to this increasingly Islamised state seemed to be due to little more than a fit of pique over India’s pursuing a rather smug non-aligned doctrine, a socialist-light policy at home, and buying some military equipment from the Soviets.

Every so often someone in authority makes this, what ought to be a rather obvious point, and it looks like there will be some pressure on Saudi Arabia, most notoriously after 9/11, then it is quietly forgotten again. Of course this support makes all the bleating about human rights elsewhere look transactional and insincere.

Either the US does have some bizarre machiavellian plan, or more likely there is no coherent strategy at all and the political, foreign policy and military establishments just carry on with their ingrained muscle memory.

How for example can we explain prioritising the invasion of Iraq – another act which has greatly weakened the West’s influence. It should have been known this would lead to huge instability in the area, and an increase in Iranian and jihadi influence. Some people claim there was a coherent reason, whether oil or whatever, but it seems as likely that under the idiotic George W Bush presidency, that it was a personal / political case of ‘unfinished business’ from the first Gulf War, combined with a hubristic sense of overwhelming power.

In any case, these egregious errors of self harm are exactly those we can expect the hard-headed Chinese NOT to make.

Last edited 10 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
10 months ago

How terrible. I have always felt Pakistan was at the heart of this issue, I am not surprised by hearing it is. I did think Al-Qaeda was diminished almost completely in Afghanistan for some reason – the Afghani do not like Foreigners in their internal affairs and I thought of Queda as Arabs mostly, and mixed foreigners. I also thought ISIS had been squashed there, but this says they just become sleepers….

My optimism for Afghanistan may have been wrong, still, the Taliban have to look to China, USA, and Russia to get investment in the resource extraction which is the only way they can support the nation, and that only happens if there is some stability – this was the reason for my optimism. I would guess if ISI and the Taliban want ISIS gone it will be done. I did not know Al-Qaeda was the Haqqani as I thought they were all Afghani.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haqqani_network

“On 26 July 2020, a UN report stated that the Al Qaeda group is still active in twelve provinces in Afghanistan and its leader al-Zawahiri is still based in the country,[43] and the UN Monitoring Team has estimated that the total number of Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan were “between 400 and 600 and that the leadership maintains close contact with the Haqqani Network and in February 2020, “al-Zawahiri met with Yahya Haqqani, the primary Haqqani Network contact with Al Qaeda since mid-2009, to discuss ongoing cooperation””

This WIKI (I know wiki is corrupted) says they are in close contact – but does not mention blood ties….

James Joyce
James Joyce
10 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Do you disagree with my thesis that Pakistan is the enemy?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
10 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

yes, I disagree. Think they are in the other camp from us, but then we are kind of the ones who set out the rules, and so that is problematic. I like Iran more than Pakistan, but cannot think either really actually our enemy – just in a state of hostility to what we are to them, and also really their own enemy too, as both could be so much better for their own people and neighbors if only they wanted to be. Enemy is too strong a word for me – it means someone you would wish destroyed, open and full hostility. I think they are more strong opponents, which means we should be able to work together..

James Joyce
James Joyce
10 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I agree with you on Iran but NOT on Pakistan. The situation in Iran is terrible, largely caused by the USA–at least historically. The situation in Pakistan is caused by the Pakistanis…

David Yetter
David Yetter
10 months ago

It has always struck me that the problem with Pakistan is that its intelligence services have an agenda separate from that of the elected Pakistani government (come to think of it that’s a problem in a lot of countries, certainly including the United States, and probably including the United Kingdom and the rest of the “Five Eyes”), and that the Pakistani intelligence services are an enemy of the West, even when the elected Pakistani government is quite friendly.