Islamic State along Durand Line prompts new regional alliances – II
by Ramtanu Maitra on 12 Jan 2017 0 Comment
Guests Turned Interlopers


Kabul was not initially upset by the influx of muhajer families, numbering more than 2,000 according to an Afghan government estimate. The authorities believed that these militants would work against the Afghan Taliban operating in the area and fight back against Pakistani infiltrators. However, that did not happen. Although some of the fighters who had fled Pakistan did engage in skirmishes with the Taliban, others did not.


Describing this development, Osman writes: “While, since as early as 2010, the mainly TTP militants from various tribal districts on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line existed in Nangarhar’s Spin Ghar districts, their attitudes mirrored the overall lack of cohesiveness within the TTP, which usually had little control and command over the fighters, including those scattered across Nangarhar. As wider splits within the TTP ranks emerged following the death of the group’s leader Hakimullah Mehsud in November 2013, militants in Nangarhar also turned into autonomous, often ruthless factions, further divided in smaller groups. That was the pattern throughout 2014.


“It was from these ‘guests’ that the bulk of the Nangarhar-based ISKP foot soldiers emerged, following the official announcement of the Islamic State’s expansion to ‘Khorasan Province.’ Before they openly changed their allegiance (or sympathy) to IS, they exhibited other signs of regrouping under a new modus operandi. From the autumn of 2014, they started to act more autonomously of the TTP and as if trying to establish some sort of control over the areas they lived in, for instance, by casually setting up checkpoints. They also appeared to be preparing for a major battle, transporting huge shipments of weapons from Tirah valley in Khyber agency with unprecedented quantity and frequency.


“This coincided with a new wave of muhajer families arriving from Khyber agency and North Waziristan. In part, this was triggered by the Pakistani army’s Operation Khyber 1, which started in October 2014, and the subsequent Operation Khyber 2, which started in March 2015. According to Pakistani officials, the two-phased Khyber operations, which targeted Khyber and parts of Orakzai agencies, were aimed at repelling militants who had fled there from the Zarb-i-Azb operation in North Waziristan. This increased relocation was concentrated in Achin, Nazian and, to a lesser extent, Deh Bala and Kot districts.


“It took the local population several months to understand what their muhajer ‘guests’ were actually up to. In May 2015, they woke up to the fact that the guests had changed their own flags to those of the IS. The militants then turned Mahmand, which had been the center of the increased migration, into ISKP’s headquarters. The highly mountainous terrain, hard to conquer for outsiders but providing easy supply and exit routes to Tirah, was the perfect choice for the command center of the new group, which had previously cached huge amounts of weapons transported from Tirah in Mahmand’s Takhta and Kharawy areas.


“Mahmandis (residents of the valley) remember ISKP’s initial rule from mid-May until early July 2015 as a period of great relief. They initially thought that ISKP was a pro-government force in a new garb and cited the group’s commanders as stating that ‘we are here to fight the ISI Emirate,’ referring to the Afghan Taliban and their link to the Pakistani intelligence service. Their reaction to the Afghan National Security Force made the new group of old fighters look even more benign to the residents, who also cited the ISKP fighters as saying ‘we have nothing against government forces.’ An Afghan National Army soldier from Mahmand told AAN: ‘We celebrated the coming of Daesh and the disappearance of the Taliban. We could come home and roam around without any fear of being stopped by Taliban.’”


ISKP Takeover of Nangarhar


It is evident that the ISKP fighters exhibited that benign posture initially to establish themselves in the area. Once they succeeded in getting a foothold, the group “mounted a campaign of protracted violence against farming households in parts of the southern districts of Nangarhar,” according to David Mansfield, in his February 2016 report.


“Locally there are doubts as to whether those groups currently flying the banner of IS in these valleys have direct links to Syria and Iraq. The prevailing view amongst those that have been forced to leave these upper valleys and the neighboring villages and districts is less one of Taliban dissidents unhappy with the new leadership re-branding themselves as Daesh,” Mansfield wrote.


“Rather,” he continued, “the narrative that gains greater resonance is one where Pakistan’s forces have rebranded their funding, supporting a new group of militants that will serve the ambition of maintaining instability on the borders and maintaining leverage over the Taliban leadership; a reminder to the Taliban that they are not the only show in town.


“As is ever the case in rural Afghanistan, the truth is defined not by the facts but by what the population believes to be true. And for those living in the southern districts of Nangarhar, neither the government nor those proclaiming to be fighting for Islamic State are what they say they are. On one hand, those in the government, whose mobility has become restricted to the district centers and main roads, are seen as self-serving. They are viewed by large swathes of the rural population as being unable to provide the requisite leadership, security and economic support; they are ‘a government in name only.’ On the other hand, those in Daesh are seen as interlopers: largely Pakistani militants reliant on foreign funding and weapons” (The Devil is in the Details: Nangarhar’s Continued Decline into Insurgency, Violence and Widespread Drug Production, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, David Mansfield, February 2016).


The TUTAP Protests


From these detailed reports by researchers and analysts, it is clear that the ISKP has established itself in a relatively small area along the Af-Pak border, but there has been little evidence of a game-plan to secure control over the vast area known as the Khorasan - at least, not until the ISKP claimed responsibility for the suicide attack on the TUTAP protests in Kabul on July 23.


TUTAP - an acronym for the participating countries Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan - is an initiative designed to close the large gap in Afghanistan’s current need for electrical power by connecting existing “insular” grids within the country and linking this unified grid system to neighboring countries. The plan would allow the export of surplus electricity from Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics to Pakistan and be used to cover seasonal power shortages in participating countries by the use of two-way lines (Power to the People: The TUTAP Protests, Thomas Ruttig, Afghanistan Analysts Network, May 16).


According to the original TUTAP plan, the grids were to be connected through Bamiyan province, in the central highlands, where most of the country’s Hazara Shi’as live. In 2013, the Karzai government changed that 500kv power transmission line route to bring in the power from Turkmenistan to Kabul - bypassing areas with large Hazara communities. Hazara Shi’as believe that the re-routing was done to satisfy the dominant Pushtun Sunnis and demonstrated yet another instance of bias against the Hazara Shi’a community, which accounts for up to 15 percent of Afghanistan’s estimated 30-million-strong population.


The Hazara Shi’as began protesting in Kabul in May, and by all accounts the protests were peaceful. On July 23, however, a suicide bomber who had slipped in among the protestors blew himself up, killing at least 80 of the Hazara protestors. ISKP claimed responsibility. If the ISKP was, in fact, behind the killing, it would mean they have not only developed a killing capability beyond eastern Afghanistan, but they have also developed a network within Afghanistan’s capital.


Kabul’s Turnabout


Whether or not ISKP actually had a role in the killing of Hazara Shi’as in Kabul and elsewhere, its existence has already brought about a sea-change amongst the regional powers in attitudes toward the Afghan Taliban - starting in Kabul. And that raises an interesting question: Was Kabul also involved in the ISKP’s emergence, allowing the group to germinate in eastern Afghanistan?


For several decades, Kabul’s chief problem has been the Taliban, while its secondary problem was the Pakistan-aided Haqqani faction of terrorists. Kabul has been extremely vocal against Islamabad for helping both the Haqqani group and some of the Afghan Taliban. In particular, Kabul targeted the Quetta Shura group that operates from within Pakistan’s Balochistan province bordering southern Afghanistan and has brought a few Pakistani anti-Shi’a terrorist groups under its umbrella.


So it was somewhat surprising to see Afghan President Ghani extend a friendly hand during his November 2014 visit to Pakistan, soon after he became the Afghan president. During that trip, Ghani - along with his high-ranking delegation, including Defense Minister General Bismillah Muhammadi, Afghan Chief of General Staff General Sher Mohammad Karimi and other senior Afghan security officials - paid a visit to Pakistan’s military GHQ in Rawalpindi to meet then-Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif.


Such a visit by the Afghan head of state to meet the top Pakistani general is not only unusual; in hindsight, it suggested some sort of deal was in progress. What transpired during the meeting has not been revealed. And subsequently, President Ghani came out strongly against Pakistan’s continuing meddling in Afghan affairs. But then, surprisingly, in September 2016, President Ghani formalized a peace treaty with the Hezb-i-Islami (G), a small armed group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pushtun Mujahideen. According to Kabul, this was done to lure other non-Taliban fighting groups to support Kabul.


There are two distinct reasons why this peace pact smells of a deal with Pakistan. To begin with, Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami faction is a tiny and dormant group that has confronted neither the Taliban nor any other group. His role during the Civil War period (1991-1996) is one of an extreme level of butchery. That includes indiscriminate shelling of civilians in Kabul, targeted assassinations of intellectuals and disappearances of political opponents. Hekmatyar’s followers are accused of throwing acid at women and of running an underground torture prison in Pakistan.


Reacting to Hekmatyar’s signing of the peace treaty with President Ghani, Omar Samad, former Afghan ambassador to Canada and France, a Senior Central Asia Fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., and now senior adviser to Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive of Afghanistan since 2014, said: “It is difficult to imagine that Hekmatyar, who until a few months ago was one day courting the Taliban, and another day al-Qaeda, would undergo a sudden personality makeover, unless he felt that he has reached the end of the militant path he started on 40 years ago” (“Controversial Warlord Under Fire Over Afghan Peace Deal,” Ayaz Gul, Voice of America, Sept. 29).


The Hekmatyar-Ghani alliance is intriguing from another standpoint. If, indeed, President Ghani were truly disillusioned with Pakistan’s role vis-à-vis Afghanistan, why court Hekmatyar - a well-known puppet-Mujahideen of Rawalpindi? A product of pan-Islamist groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood at Kabul University in the early 1970s, Hekmatyar lives, and has lived for decades, in Pakistan with his family. Since 1979 when he was projected as a “major” Mujahideen leader by Washington, the Pakistani ISI took charge of his career.


Like most Muslim Brotherhood/al-Qaida affiliates, Hekmatyar also mouths anti-America rhetoric. But Washington likes him because, as Wahid Mujhda, now a Kabul-based analyst who had earlier fought against the Soviet invaders and interacted with the leaders in Peshawar, pointed out, Hekmatyar was an efficient “Russian-killer.” “Americans said they supported Hekmatyar because he was a good killer of Russians. They didn’t care who was cursing the United States; what was more important to them was who killed more Russians,” Mujhda says (“Hekmatyar's Never-ending Afghan War,” Mujib Mashal, Al Jazeera, Jan. 28 2012).


But, above all, Hekmatyar is Rawalpindi’s man. In 1972, Hekmatyar murdered a Maoist student in Kabul University, an act that landed him in prison for two years. After his release, he fled to Pakistan, where he founded Hezb-e-Islami in 1975 and developed ties with the ISI. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan was in a high Islamist phase and felt deeply threatened by the godless communists on its border. Hekmatyar became the ISI’s chief proxy warrior against the Soviets - with the help of what would eventually be some $600 million in U.S. aid (“Our Man in Kabul?” Michael Crowley, New Republic, March 9, 2010).


Hosted by Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami, then flying high with the covert-Jamaati Gen. Zia ul-Haq at the helm, patronized by the ISI, funded by the CIA and Saudi Arabia to the tune of US$ 600 million, and armed by the Chinese, Hekmatyar was given carte blanche to run the massive Shamshatoo refugee camp near Peshawar that fed fighters into the jihad (“Meet Gulbuddin Hekmatyar,” Counterpunch, Peter Lee, March 9 2009).


After Hekmatyar concluded the peace treaty with President Ghani, former lawmaker and leader of the National Participation Party of Afghanistan, Najibullah Kabuli, speaking at a press conference in Kabul, urged Hezb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar not to act on the instructions issued by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (“Kabuli asks Hekmatyar not to act based on ISI’s instructions,” Khaama Press, July 1).


(To be concluded…)

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