Daesh, Haqqanis and Sanctuaries
By Imtiaz Gul
Express Tribune, September 28, 2016
Abandoning a project in which the United States and its partners have invested 15 years, billions upon billions of dollars, and thousands of lives with no acceptable outcome in sight is harrowing. Although the United States’ engagement in Afghanistan has not resulted in many of the outcomes it might have preferred, the real failure would be maintaining the current course knowing that doing so is likely to only prolong ultimate defeat —This excerpt from a recent Foreign Affairs article by Andrew Shaver and Joshua Madrigal sums up the dilemma that the US today faces in Afghanistan. The authors quote Astro Teller, CEO of Google’s X, as saying: Failure is “the point at which you know what you are working on is the wrong thing to be working on or that you are working on it in the wrong way. You can’t call the work up to [that] moment… ‘failing’— that’s called ‘learning.’ And once you frame it that way there’s this moment where if you stop now, if you course correct now, you can be shame-free. But if you keep going forward, the shame starts to build.” Using Pentagon data, the authors point out that violence in Afghanistan following Obama’s 2009 troop surge has remained at levels vastly exceeding those observed during the initial years of the war. Meanwhile, measures of insurgent activity, from kidnappings to weapons sales, have remained at levels at or above those observed when the United States “surged” troops into the country.
Not surprising that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) lost nearly 900 men during the month of July alone, a fact that the top US commander in Afghanistan General John Nicholson admitted in a public meeting late August. In a September 23 briefing at Pentagon, Nicholson gave a detailed account on the Daesh/IS in the region. He said some 20 of the 98 designated terrorist groups are in Af-Pak region, Daesh being among them. This group, he said comprised up to 1,300 “Pakistani Pashtoon fighters, mostly from the Orakzai agency, currently spread out in the eastern Afghan provinces Ningarhar, Paktia and Paktika. He recalled that top 12 IS terrorists including Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai were taken out killed in Ningarhar. Others included Omar Khalifa Naray and Shahidullah Shahid. The latest addition to the list is the former Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Azam Tariq, killed in southeastern Paktika province on Saturday night. The Afghan ambassador Dr Omar Zakhilwal called Tariq’s elimination as “yet another proof that Afghanistan is not involved in shielding terrorists as ‘assets.’ “In fact, to date, every TTP leader of importance has been killed by our or/and coalition forces in Afghanistan.”
This also points to the TTP/Daesh’s largest concentration in eastern Afghanistan, which according to Gen Nicholson was limited largely to Ningarhar and the greater Paktia region, apparently because of the hunt by the Pakistani army and the para-military. “These (guys) once belonged to the TTP , and then changed allegiance to Daesh under Saeed Khan. They are also joined by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) fighters, mostly in Ningarhar, with some presence in Kunar,” Nicholson said.
Some reporters attempted to mischievously draw the General into speculating as to which foreign groups or forces were “supporting ISIS in Afghanistan. But Nicholson put down that attempt by saying he had found no linkage between foreign forces and the Daesh terrorist. “We haven’t any large-scale convergence and cooperation among different groups.” Yet, as a whole, Nicholson painted a mixed picture of the security landscape in Afghanistan, saying some 20-25 per cent territory in Afghanistan was contested between the ANSF and the Taliban groups. The Haqqanis, he said, constitute the primary threat to us all in and around Kabul and the US-NATO forces continue to monitor them closely. And, as usual, Nicholson complained that Pakistan needed to do more than it has done so far against the Haqqanis, implying that this group enjoys shelter and sanctuaries on the Pakistani territory. Such a postulation also evokes questions by Pakistan on the safe havens that the anti-Pakistan Daesh-turned-TTP enjoys in eastern Afghanistan. Afghan and US officials say the operation against them has been going on and expect a similar Pakistani action against the Haqqanis. And why not. One should not exclude the other. Pakistan can certainly take calibrated action against the combatant Haqqanis to convince the detractors of its sincerity in the counter-terror war. Same goes for the Kashmir-focused groups.
A big worry holding back a conclusive action against all these, it seems, is the worry of a possible civil war within Pakistan itself, led and fueled by all Al-Qaeda-inspired groups in the region. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria are screaming examples of unintended consequences of a military onslaught.
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies