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Advantage Pakistan as ISIS Rises in Afghanistan

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AFGHANISTAN-ZABUL-MILITARY OPERATION by .
Afghan army soldiers take part in a military operation in Mizan district of Zabul province, Afghanistan, April 23, 2018. At least 16 Taliban militants were killed and four others injured after Afghan army waged an operation in restive southern province of Zabul, the defense ministry said Tuesday. (Xinhua/Sanaullah Seiam) (wtc)

Pakistan organised a meeting of the heads of Intelligence agencies from Russia, China, Iran at Islamabad to discuss counter terrorism cooperation especially on the growth of the IS in Afghanistan ….writes Dr Sakariya Kareem

AFGHANISTAN-ZABUL-MILITARY OPERATION by .
Afghan army soldiers take part in a military operation in Mizan district of Zabul province, Afghanista. (Xinhua/Sanaullah Seiam) (wtc)

The West and other nations have a divergent view on the situation in Afghanistan, particularly when it comes to counter-terrorism. As both sides have differing views, it helps Pakistan to play both sides beautifully. Little wonder then that the US is back to its muddling ways in Afghanistan. For Pakistan, it leaves the field open.

Seen in this context, the recent meeting of the four intelligence chiefs of Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran needs to be closely monitored as intelligence channels are more discrete and what happens below the radar can only add to the prevailing confusion in Afghanistan.

Pakistan finds it very useful to claim that ISIS is present in Afghanistan. A sectarian outfit that targets Shias is right up the street of Pakistan’s ISI, which in the past has spawned Sunni extremist organisations for political purposes. Two strands appear clear here; one that the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP, which is backed by the ISI, remains the main warhorse, while the returning foreign fighters will be used or channeled into Central Asia. It is this which should concern Russia. Russia should also be aware that these fighters are being pushed by Pakistan into Central Asia, with a view to destabilizing regimes that are in place.

Afghanistan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. (File Photo: IANS)

In the last several years, Russia has been telling the world that presence of ISIS in Afghanistan is a reality and it looks at this as posing a threat to Russia’s southern borders.  Currently, Russia is taking the line that with defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, foreign fighters are returning to their country of origin and several have transited into Afghanistan, with a view to fighting US forces there.

While the fact of a retreat by ISIS forces may be accepted, mainly through Turkey and from there to Afghanistan via Central Asia, the actual numbers that are present in northern Afghanistan is a matter of dispute. Russians put the total number of such fighters in Afghanistan around 7,000-8,000 while the Afghans insist that the number is not more than 3,000.

The Islamic State in Afghanistan is treated as a terrorist organization by the US, while it plays ‘talks’ with the Taliban, another Pakistani creation. The US has for long focused its attention on the al-Qaeda as the main counter-terror target. This is because, as is well known, it is the al-Qaeda which targeted the American mainland in 9/11. The Taliban on the other hand, only targets, US soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. Strangely, that is why the Taliban remains an ‘insurgent’ group and not a terrorist organization and the US is willing to do business with them. Here again Pakistan has managed to get the US to talk to the Taliban. History repeats itself!

Afghan security personnel cordon off the site of the attack on a military university in Kabul. (Xinhua/Rahmat Alizadah/IANS)

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is very active these days in promoting the threat of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. In fact, it has been doing so since 2015 almost a year after ISIS flags, & pamphlets appeared in Peshawar and Lahore. It was in 2015 that the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) announced its formation in Afghanistan. In this context, Pakistan organised a meeting on 12 July 2018 in Islamabad of the heads of Intelligence agencies from Russia, China, Iran to discuss counter terrorism cooperation with specific attention being given to the growth of the IS in Afghanistan.

Detailed discussions were reportedly held on joint measures to stop Afghan-based ‘loyalists’ of the ISIS terrorist group from threatening the territorial boundaries of the four participant countries. At the end of the discussions, Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia agreed to adopt an integrated approach for rooting out ISIS from Afghanistan for ensuring regional peace. A similar exercise was undertaken in China recently where all four countries stressed the need for mutual cooperation in the face of the rising threat of IS in the region.

Reviewing the prevailing situation in Afghanistan, the meeting discussed the return of ISIS fighters from Syria and Iraq and whose presence was threatening Afghanistan. It was clarified that cooperation between the four countries was against ISIS and other terrorists group and not directed against any country. The focus of attention in the meeting was the ISKP in Afghanistan and to find ways to prevent the arrival of foreign fighters from the Middle East into Afghanistan. These fighters were from Central Asia, Iraq, and other countries. The four nations agreed on the need to share intelligence information with regard to foreign fighter returnees.

Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani (2nd R) poses for photos during the “Kabul Process for Peace and Security Cooperation” conference in Kabul Feb. 28, 2018. (Xinhua/Rahmat Alizadah) (zcc)

It is clear that there is a Pakistan-Russia concert in the convening of this meeting. The Russians have long argued that presence of ISKP in Afghanistan poses a threat to Afghanistan and Russia’s southern borders. For Pakistan, ISKP is not a threat, but a creation of the ISI. But given the presence of IS cells within Pakistan it makes sense for Pakistan to wake up and do something about it.  Russia’s SVR (external intelligence) chief, Sergei Narkshin told the meeting (according to TASS) over 10,000 ISKP terrorists were active in nine provinces of Afghanistan. The Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani claims that there are only around 2000 ISKP fighters in Afghanistan.

While the ISKP is a Pakistani creation, more specifically an ISI creation, the looming presence of foreign fighters in northern Afghanistan is both an advantage and disadvantage for Pakistan. As long as these fighters can be localized or even sent into Central Asia, it is advantage Pakistan. However, given the linkages IS Central had with groups like Jundullah, SSP and Jamaat-ul Ahrar in Pakistan, it would worry Pakistan if some foreign  fighters, infiltrated into Pakistan especially the tribal areas. That is what Pakistan’s ISI is today trying to prevent. Alternatively, ISI would want that such foreign fighters merge with the main ISKP in Afghanistan so that its numbers can be bolstered.

Pakistan’s game in this regard is further exposed when one finds reference to ISKP planning suicide attacks in Pakistan. Lest we forget, the main enemy of the Pakistan state is the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. It is only outfits like the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and other organizations which had one point in time pledged bayat to ISIS Central, that carry out suicide attacks on behalf of ISIS. True, these outfits carry out sectarian strikes in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, but they are not ISKP.

KABUL, Nov. 16, 2017 (Xinhua) -- Photo taken on Nov. 16, 2017 shows a damaged building at the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan. At least 10 people were killed and nine others wounded after a suicide bombing ripped through a banquet hall in northern neighborhood of Afghanistan's capital of Kabul on Thursday, police and witnesses said. (Xinhua/Rahmat Alizadah/IANS) by .
Image shows a damaged building at the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan. . (Xinhua/Rahmat Alizadah/IANS)

Reports suggest that during the recent meeting of intelligence chiefs in Islamabad, Iran expressed its reservations on the rising influence of ISIS in Afghanistan. Echoing the Pakistani line, Iran suggested that there were safe havens for terrorists in Afghanistan, especially where the writ of the Afghan government did not run. The obvious reference here is to northern Afghanistan.

Strangely, even the Pakistan Foreign Office refused to acknowledge that the ISI had organized a meeting of the intelligence chiefs of four countries. This information was revealed to the world by Sergei Ivanov, chief of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service’s media wing. Ivanov said that Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service had represented Russia. Ivanov told TASS that focus of discussions during the meeting was on Islamic State in Afghanistan. This makes it clear that the idea of the meeting was Russian in origin and implemented by the Pakistanis.