PEACE IN AFGHANISTAN: Who is brewing trouble in the region?

Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani

The recent talks in Beijing to bring peace in Afghanistan contain four players – Pakistan, US, Russia and China besides officials representing the Afghan government. The quartet tactically kept India at bay. Are they going to strike peace? How can you trust Taliban and who is the real culprit spiking peace in Afghanistan? ….Rifan Ahmed Khan explores 

Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani

In its latest report, the United Nations’ Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team has pointed out that the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), two key Pak-sponsored groups, were responsible for training and providing shelter to a large number of foreign terrorists.

Terrorist groups sponsored and sheltered by Pakistan are the main stumbling block in ending decades of violence in Afghanistan. There are over 20 regional and international terrorist groups fighting the Afghan and US forces in Afghanistan and almost all of them are from Pakistan. These men, trained mostly by retired and serving Pakistan Army officials, number between 8000 to 10000.

To quote the report, “Foreign fighters continue to operate under the authority of the Taliban in multiple Afghan provinces at undiminished levels.”

The Taliban is supported and protected by Pakistan in multiple ways. The report, without mentioning Pakistan’s active and evident support, pointed out that the Taliban as a result had total control of 25 districts in Afghanistan and was engaged in a pitched battle with the Afghan forces in some 200 out of the country’s 421 districts.

Not only has the Taliban flourished under the patronage of Pakistan, so has Al Qaida. The report’s warning in this regard is ominous:  “Al-Qaida has grown stronger operating under the Taliban umbrella across Afghanistan and is more active than in recent years.” Al Qaeda had lost much of its strength and influence after its founder Osama bin Laden, living under the protection of Pakistan Army in Abbottabad, was killed by the US Special Forces in May 2011. Since then, the global terrorist group, under the leadership of bin Laden’s son, has expanded and consolidated in the Afghan-Pakistan borders, especially in Badakhshan and Paktika districts. The report pointed out that al-Qaida was “intensifying its concentration in the Afghan-Pakistan border area in close cooperation with Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and the Haqqani Network.”

Taliban fighters attend a surrender ceremony in Nangarhar province, eastern Afghanistan (File)

The combined force of Taliban and al Qaeda, with the active support of the Haqqani Network and LeT, has created a sanctuary of sorts in Pakistan and Afghanistan for terrorists from different countries. These safe havens are in Pakistan’s tribal agencies of Mohmand, Bajaur, Orakzai and South and North Waziristan. In Afghanistan, the terrorist hubs are located in Kunar, Loya Paktiya and Zabul.

These safe havens are controlled and managed by Pak-based groups like the Haqqani Network and LeT, besides the Taliban which has thrived under the patronage of Pakistan Army since 2001. A Haqqani Network division with 1,800 to 2,000 men lead the Taliban operations in the provinces of Khost, Paktiya and Paktika. The power and influence of the Haqqanis can be gauged from their domination of shadow government positions like that of shadow provincial governor and district governor posts in these three districts.

The Haqqani Network is helped by the cadres of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. One faction operates in Afghanistan, as part of the Haqqanis and the other loyalists of TTP founder Baitullah  Mehsud, operate in the tribal areas, mostly against Pakistan.  After the TTP leader Maulana Fazlullah’s death in a drone strike in June 2018, TTP is now led by Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, a religious scholar and veteran fighter. Under his command, the group, with a cadre strength of 3500, has gained strength and operates along the Afghan-Pak border areas of Kunar, Paktiya and Paktika.

The Kunar province has become the hotbed of terror. The LeT has been active in this province for long and has considerable grass-root support in the area to facilitate recruitment, training and fund-raising activities. According to Afghan officials, the LeT cadre strength was about 500 in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces. The group was earlier quite active in the area, working as a mediator between the Taliban and the Islamic State but has given up this role recently.

The other Pakistani group active in Afghanistan is Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, which has split into two factions. The group itself was formed after a split in the TTP. With more than half of the cadre in its ranks, Jamaat Hizbi Ahrar, has gained considerable influence under the leadership of Maulvi Umar Khorasani. The other faction has retained the older name Jamaat-ul-Ahrar. Both are active in Nangarhar, one of the border districts of Afghanistan. The cadre hails from Mohmand Agency of Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The Taliban directly controls the Central Asian groups in Afghanistan.  The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has a cadre strength of not more than 100, half of whom are relatives; the group operates in Faryab and Jowzjan. Another small group is the one led by Khatiba Imam al-Bukhari with about 40 fighters. It is affiliated with al Qaida and carries out terrorist operations for the Taliban.  The Islamic Jihad Group, controlled by the Taliban, has about 50 men and is mostly active in Takhar and Badakhshan.

An Afghan soldier stands guard on a building at the site of a car bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 18, 2014

Some of these Central Asian groups have not given up the mission of carrying out attacks in Central Asia, the Taliban has prevented them from doing so. The Taliban is not keen on being branded as an international terrorist organisation. The possibility of these groups returning to their older objectives cannot be discounted once the Afghan reconciliation process makes progress. These groups can shift their allegiance to IS and carry out international attacks. For instance, the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, which operates in Badakhshan and consists of approximately 400 foreign terrorist fighters, has sought the help of al Qaida and the Taliban in their terrorist activities outside Afghanistan. The group is active in Xinjiang province in northwest China.  The group is known to have pockets of safe havens in Gilgit-Baltistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan in Pakistan.

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