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In Afghanistan, a new ‘great game’ with ISIS, ISK and Pakistan is on with a vengeance

To understand Pakistan’s undoubtedly brilliant strategy in Afghanistan, the West only needs to study Kashmir without the usual self-limiting blinkers.

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Just days after a hugely publicised US-Taliban ‘peace’ deal, renewed violence ripped through Afghanistan —  76 attacks across 24 provinces — as the Taliban lifted its week-long commitment on ‘reduction of violence’. The Islamic State in Afghanistan claimed responsibility for two of these attacks, while the Taliban — as has been the case earlier — denied all involvement. Amid all this violence, Kabul and Herat witnessed sporadic anti-India protests, in development that both surprising and unprecedented.  Clearly, a ‘great game’ of local proportions seems to be back with a vengeance. The country has also witnessed protests against Pakistan.

Also read: How the world, especially India, should read JeM’s celebration of US-Taliban peace deal

The ISIS in Afghanistan

Some aspects of the new game is apparent in the attacks claimed by the Islamic State (IS). In Afghanistan, the ISIS is represented by the Islamic State in Khorasan (ISK), a group that declared allegiance to it in 2015. Claims of attacks on Afghan soil are sometimes made by the ISIS and at other times by the ISK. The attacks last week, identical to the one in July 2019, was carried out by a Tajik and an unidentified foreign fighter, which fits in well with the ISIS’s Salafi and Takfiri beliefs. Takfir is the practice by which a Muslim may declare another as an apostate, and dates back to at least the 7th century. This was revived by Muhammad Ibn Abd al -Wahab, founder of Wahabism in Saudi Arabia, who encouraged the stringent Salafist beliefs, and the excommunication of those who did not abide by their beliefs. In later years, takfir was used to justify violence against fellow Muslims, particularly those in power. 

But unlike the ISIS, the ISK is a creature of many parts, sometimes acting with the Taliban, sometimes violently against it, sometimes prioritising business operations, and at all times, opaque about who it takes orders from. Some aspects of this Janus-faced organisation have been recently detailed in a publication of the Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies (AISS).

The AISS paper paints a picture of a disparate group — largely made up of Pakistani cadres formerly of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The TTP relocated to Afghanistan after the Pakistan Army carried out operations in its tribal areas sometime in the middle of 2015. Other cadres include some Kashmir-specific groups like Tehreek ul-Mujahideen and various Central Asian divisions.

Also read: 7 civilians killed, 17 injured in Taliban missile attack, a week after peace deal with US

Deconstructing the ISK

Between then and 2018, however, the ISK was targeted in unusually precise US operations, indicating the availability of solid ground intelligence. The result was the destruction of its top leadership and some 548 of its commanders.

The original group then evolved into its present amoeba-like formation. One division is active around Kabul and colludes actively with the Taliban. Another is based around the Pak-Afghan border, funding itself by trafficking gems, talc, and timber even as it is violently pitched against the Taliban for control of this lucrative trade. A third group operates in the north, and is largely made up of Central Asian and foreign cadres, who while being ideologically stronger, cooperate in keeping the Pakistan-Central Asia route open. A fourth operates along the Iranian border in Herat, clearly with support from Tehran.

Also read: US’ hurry to hand Afghanistan back to Taliban is a sign India must also push its PoK project

ISK’s Indian ambitions

As the AISS report notes, nearly 90 per cent of the group is made up of Pakistanis. It is armed with Pakistani weapons and, barring one incident against the Hazaras in 2019, no longer attacks Pakistan. It has also managed to get a batch of Indian cadres. Intelligence assessments indicate that it had planned a large-scale attack in India, but failed to carry it out.

Both Delhi and the US began to take the ISK very seriously, especially after it announced a Wilayat of Hind, a “province” in India. It’s a different matter that the ISK rather belatedly announced a “province” in Pakistan as well, to which there was no response from Islamabad at all. By the end of 2019, India had negotiated with Kabul for the extradition of Indians serving in the ISK back to their home country.

In a fresh development, a new ISIS digital publication called Sawt ul Hind has emerged. Notably, it carried pictures and stories on the Delhi riots, with the clear aim of inciting Indian Muslims. Earlier, similar publications had largely targeted Kashmiris, using mostly fake videos used to drum up support against India.

There is, however, a curious anomaly between the AISS report and other sources. While the AISS report shows a very poor, almost non-existent link between the ISK and the ISIS, a UN-appointed group reports that the ISK’s leadership was changed as recently as July 2019, after a visit by the ISIS’ core leadership. But one would go with the ground assessment of a fractured group whose loyalties depend on who’s paying it.

Also read: Five reasons why India should leave ‘Af’ to ‘Pak’

India’s headache

The anti-India protests in Herat were led by a prayer leader at a local mosque and come close on the heels of statements made by Iranian leaders, including Ayatollah Khamenei, who have condemned violence against Muslims under the Narendra Modi government’s rule. Given the size of the crowds, some outside encouragement is entirely likely. A smaller protest was reported in Kabul, primarily by Turkish and Pakistani media sources. Added to this heady brew is the ISIS attack that could have killed Afghanistan’s presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, a leader known to be sympathetic to India. While New Delhi has only itself to blame for providing prime ammunition to anti-India elements everywhere, Afghans themselves need to take note that Pakistan is again moving to strengthen its hold on Afghanistan, as the US moves out lock, stock, and barrel.

It appears the US intel reports are right. The Taliban have no intention of honouring the peace deal signed with the Americans. Neither does their sponsor Pakistan. As a very wise diplomat recently noted, unlike all the other actors involved in the Afghan drama, which includes Russia, the US, India, Saudi Arabia among others, Pakistan alone has never wavered in its Afghan policy, which is to exert complete domination using multiple groups as balancing levers. To understand its undoubtedly brilliant strategy, Western diplomats only need to study Kashmir without the usual self-limiting blinkers.

The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.

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  1. Muslims are perpetual victim card players, TTP is Pak isi progeny. We don’t have to support your terrorist islamist org. ISK and ISIS in pak have mostly Paki muslim cadre and some rogue stooge fugitives. We all track record of know terrorist Pakistanis and It’s Islamic terror groups killing innocents. .

  2. Irrespective how ‘brilliant’ be Pakistan’s strategy, the truth is that there are no winners. Neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan will see any peace or prosperity. Every machination that Pakistan makes in Afghanistan, extracts a price from Pakistan itself. Instead of paying attention to the welfare of it’s own people, Pakistan has spent it’s energy, wealth and potential on extraneous affairs. The result is Pakistan today is one of the most unstable and poor countries on the planet, having to tie it’s self to the apron strings of the US, China and GCC countries just to survive. This doesn’t mean that India is not affected, its just that as usual Pakistan pays the higher price. This most probably is known to the US and the West. Just that nobody cares or maybe this is what they want.

  3. India has the worst humanrights record and still it’s write-ups are portraying Pakistan as a rouge state….mind you, had not been India masterminding violence in Afghanistan, peace could have been achieved long before….TTP is Indian craft, ISIS is made of TTP terrorists sponsored by India…..Even NATO Forces Generals have been confessing the facts of India using Afghan soil for proxicies against Pakistan. Shameful India! not at peace with any of it’s neighbours. What a country punishing it’s own citizen on one pretext or the other and at war with all of it’s neighbours.

  4. India is fast on the course of self destruction. False flag operations, human rights violations, expansionist designs, striping off the citizenships of hundreds of millions minorities, use of state in furthering hinduta agenda, open spread of hate speeches by so called illetrtate political leaderers augmented by security agencies are some of the examples. Effects may not surface in very near future but the course Indian leadership has set would eventually take it to ultimate destruction and time is not that far……

  5. What a load of bull shot! Would never expect anything less from an Indian publication


    Ghani and Saleh are pro India and work hand in glove with India to ferment terror in Pakistan. TTP is an Afghan NDS and Indian construct with some involvement from the CIA.

    This was a creation with the blessing of The USA to weaken and destabilise Pakistan. Pakistan was payment for India to assist in containing China.

    For 18 years India and Afghan Intelligence made up of remnants of The Northern Alliamce armed funded and coordinated terror attacks inside Pakistan.

    Every US President came to a natural conclusion that India is incapable of containing China and in fact shy away from confrontation with China BECAUSE India wants good relationships with its large powerful neighbour.

    India is vehemently Pakistan centric in her strategy and we have seen this intensified under The Nationalist BJP Right Wing Party.

    India has a bee in its bonnet today because the USA sees India incapable and only therefore wants a transactional relationship with India with no strategic requirement for India in Central Asia. Trump like all US Presidents before him have realised the strategic and operational importance of Pakistan.

    USA sees Afghanistan as a bottomless pit a neverending war with too many key players supporting an anti US agenda in the region including Russia Iran and China.

    USA therefore is seeking to extricate itself and make amends with The Taliban with some strings attached and has completely closed the door on India.

    India has some 16 or more consulates actively promoting destabilisation of Afghan and Pakistan border and spread terror in Pakistan. Pakistan removal of all TTP Indian Assets inside Pakistan and destroying their i fkue ce and their hideouts has made it newr impossible to recreate a 1971 type of terror campaign to divide Pakistan for the second time.

    USA sacrificed Pakistan for the greater prize namely China and with it lost her greatest pro cold war ally outaide of NATO. With it The USA has lost a strategic geographic base and a place from.where they can influence regional politics out of Pakistan.

    USA with great forsight see their presence in Afghanistan a lose lose scenario for American economy, people and long term interests.

    The Ghani government and India seek to PROLONG USA presence because it provides them with a purpose and reason to be in power or ensure influence in Afghanistan.

    India is a Spoiler
    Ghani is on borrowed time as his incompetent government.

    Between the two they will do everything possible to destroy the Afghan Taliban and USA reconciliation. The recent bombing claimed by ISIL or ISIL-K or also known as Daesh-K has Indian and Afghan NDS hands all over it. TTP an Indian and Afghan NDS asset flips and flops as TTP JuA and Daesh-K spreading terror and ensuring the war continues.

    The USA is awae and has given Ghani a dressing down but things are out of his control and these spoilers are in no mood to follow USA edicts if it means their power and influence is diminished.

    This is why Afghanistan is called The Grand Chessboard.

  6. Isisk is purely an Indian project made of leftover ttp fighters. They are carrying attacks to disrupt the peace deal that was brokered by Pakistan

  7. Pakistan policies towards terrorists have been disastrous on many occasions earlier. The present sorry state of Pakistan is a sign of its failure. To imagine that Pakistan can control / dominate Taliban who have outlasted Russia and now USA is wrong. It is quite likely that if ever Taliban comes to power then , the first target will be Pakistan’s KP province.

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