The intelligence about the imminent targeting of the Hamid Karzai International Airport was precise. The US, Australia and some other countries asked their citizens to stay away from the airport. Even as US soldiers risked their lives, frisking people desperate to leave the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, terrorists struck. A suicide attack was followed by an explosion and firing by suspected Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) terrorists. Both the US and the Taliban have blamed each other for the security lapse. While the Taliban claimed the attack was in an area that was protected by the US, the United States asked how terrorists armed with weapons, explosives and suicide vests could cross Taliban checkpoints.
But the devil is in the detail. When you look at pictures on day one, soldiers were inside the Hamid Karzai International Airport. Gradually over several days, as pressure grew and people became more desperate, the cordon was increased and the US marines stepped out of the airport perimeter wall. CIA chief William Burns flew into Kabul after the Taliban takeover and, according to reports, had a secret meeting with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Though no details were made public, the US is learnt to have explored the possibility of an extension of the deadline to evacuate people from Afghanistan. This was the highest level of interaction between the Taliban and the US in Kabul after the takeover.
Is the terror attack that killed 13 US soldiers, 28 Taliban fighters and more than 60 civilians in Kabul a blunt message from Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) both to the US and to the Taliban – no deals without General Headquarters, Rawalpindi, being in the loop? Is ISI the broker when it comes to developments in Afghanistan? A broker that does not want to be left out of the deal and has imposed punitive costs on both the US and the Taliban in Afghanistan for talking directly?
ISKP operating with bases around Nangarhar is seen as a splinter of the Haqqani Network. Those tracking terrorist organisations closely argue that the Haqqani network, managed by Pakistan’s ISI, is considered close to ISKP’s leadership and cadre. While there has been a battle for supremacy between the radical groups, and ISKP is miffed that the Taliban have deviated from the ideology to set up an Islamic Caliphate, a terror strike of this scale – multiple terrorists, suicide bombers, clearing Taliban checkpoints — needed a high degree of coordination. Was ISI sending out a message both to the US and to the Taliban not to cooperate and coordinate without clearance from ISI handlers in Pakistan?
Is this attack a cold message from ISI on who calls the shots in Afghanistan? The Taliban may be in Kabul but ISI is in Aabpara that calls the shots. In fact, in the past weeks, the chatter in intelligence and diplomatic circles has been on the missing Taliban chief Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. Where is the Taliban’s amir-ul-momineen, or the commander of the faithful? Some intelligence inputs seem to suggest he is in the Pakistan Army’s custody in Pakistan. He has not been seen in months, and as the Taliban discuss government formation in Kabul, Akhundzada has been conspicuous by his absence.
An assessment is that he is in Pakistan Army custody to ensure the Taliban continue to take orders from ISI on government formation in Kabul. Once ISI is firmly in control, he is likely to be released. Mullah Baradar too was locked up in a Pakistani jail for 8 years before being released in 2018. ISI was reportedly upset with him dealing directly with the US at that time.
US President Joe Biden has promised to hunt down the perpetrators of the terror strikes that killed 13 US service personnel and injured 15. He said: “To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this – We will not forgive, we will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.” But will the US make Pakistan pay?
The US has long known Pakistan’s doublespeak on terror. In 2001, the United States had threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the stone age” unless it cooperated with the US war on terror. The US had expected Pakistan to abandon supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban had been shielding Al Qaeda’s top leadership, and Pakistan’s military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf was in the line of US fire. Pakistan pretended to be a frontline ally in the war on terror and yet Osama bin Laden was found and killed barely 100 metres from Pakistan Military Academy Kakul in Abbottabad in 2011.
Pakistan’s doublespeak on terror continued and, in January 2018, US National Security Advisor Gen McMaster hit out at Pakistan’s selective approach in dealing with terror. He said: “The President (Donald Trump) is frustrated and he values what we hope would be a partnership with Pakistan. But he is frustrated at Pakistan’s behaviour in that it continues to provide support for these groups, it goes after terrorist groups, really, very selectively, and uses others as an arm of their foreign policy.” The US National Security Advisor was responding to a New Year tweet of Trump in which he said: The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than USD $ 33 billion in aid over the last 15 years and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools.”
And to know what Pakistani leaders think of the United States, Biden does not have to look far. His aides can pull out a video of Lt Gen Hamid Gul, former Director General of Pakistan’s ISI who gloated on Pak TV saying words to the effect that when history is written, it will record that Pakistan defeated USSR with US money. He then goes on to say that history will also record that Pakistan defeated the US with US money. And the audience in the studio goes ecstatic.
Lt Gen Hamid Gul’s protégé Imran Khan, also known as Taliban Khan, is today the prime minister of Pakistan. The man, who is extremely upset that US President Joe Biden has not called him yet, gloated and said Afghans have broken the shackles of slavery when Taliban fighters entered the Presidential palace in Kabul forcing a democratically elected President to flee the country. This was a direct attack on Joe Biden. And the US has been forced to take it on the chin.
The inputs are all there. The writing is on the wall. If the US is serious about punishing the perpetrators of terror, it must take action against the Pakistan Army and ISI officers, and target sanctuaries of terror in Pakistan. Otherwise, if it is just to satisfy the domestic constituency angry after the killing of 13 US service personnel, Joe Biden too can order the dropping of a 10,000-kilogram bomb on Nangarhar and claim they have taken out yet another Emir of Islamic State Khorasan. The real Emir of Terror is actually at Rawalpindi. The sooner the US and the world realise and act, the better.
(Views of the author are personal)