The chaos in Kabul airport on August 31 marked the conclusion of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. It left the world, especially those watching the end to two decades of American military presence in Afghanistan, stunned. The American operation started off as one to seek out and eliminate those responsible for the carnage of the 9/11 terrorist strikes in New York. But Osama bin Laden, the main culprit responsible for the terrorist strikes, was swiftly moved across the border to the Cantonment city of Jalalabad in Pakistan. Osama was finally killed in a raid by US Special Forces in 2006.
Strangely, the US has continued to treat Pakistan as a “major non-NATO ally” despite these developments. Pakistan’s support for the Taliban continued unabated, while astonishingly, successive US Administrations persisted with a policy of trust and cooperation with Pakistan till the day they left Kabul, leaving behind an Afghanistan under total Taliban control. All this, amidst a serious feud between the Taliban and another international terrorist outfit, the Islamic State of Khorasan.
The Biden Administration has faced scathing criticism domestically and even from its NATO allies, together with abject ridicule from its rivals, like China and Russia. The Biden Administration is till licking its wounds from its hurried and ignominious departure from Afghanistan. Contrary to popular expectation, the Taliban leadership was well prepared to quickly outmanoeuvre and easily defeat the American trained and equipped Afghan army, within a few weeks.
The greatest threat to regional security now arises from the continuing contacts and presence of international terrorist groups, like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. India would now face an even greater terrorist threat, because of the presence of the Pakistan based Haqqani Network in the Afghanistan Government, where its leader Sirajuddin Haqqani is the new Interior Minister.
Sirajuddin Haqqani and members of his family have been closely involved with ISI-backed terrorist groups, like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, operating not only in Jammu and Kashmir, but across India, for over two decades now. The Jaish-e-Mohammed was responsible for the attack on India’s Parliament in December 2001. Interestingly, the founder of this group, Maulana Masood Azhar, has long-term connections with the ISI.
He was arrested and jailed in India, after entering with a false identity document. He was rather irresponsibly released during the Kandahar hijacking of IC 814, in December 2000. He turned out to be a greater menace after his release, by organising major terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir. Both the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Lashkar-e-Taiba have close links with the Haqqani Network, whose leader is now set to become Afghanistan’s Interior (Home) Minister.
It is interesting that the composition of the Afghan Government was finalised, after being stalled for several weeks, immediately after the visit to Kabul of Pakistan’s ISI Chief, Faiz Hameed. The ISI Chief arrived in Kabul at a time the Taliban Government was, de facto, headed by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. This was, in many ways inevitable, given the fact that virtually every leader of Afghan terrorist groups had spent around two decades or more of his life in terrorist camps in Pakistan. Mullah Baradar, in fact, had the rather strange distinction of being jailed by the Pakistani authorities for nine years, reportedly at America’s request.
No leader of any standing
What has now emerged is an Afghan Cabinet that lacks any leader of standing. Mullah Baradar was welcomed as a responsible and soft spoken leader who led the successful Taliban diplomatic effort in Doha, with skill. He was soon to be replaced by Mohammad Hasan Akhund as the “Acting Prime Minister”. While holding senior responsibilities in the Taliban Leadership Council, Akhund’s main claim to fame was his close relationship with Taliban founder, Mullah Omar.
His only other claim to fame was his display of religious intolerance and bigotry, when he ordered the destruction of the historic Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001. This was condemned internationally as an act of religious bigotry, which hurt the sentiments of the over 535 million Buddhists across the world. Mullah Akhund also has the dubious distinction of being designated a terrorist by the United Nations.
The other appointment that has raised eyebrows across the world is the decision to designate Sirajuddin Haqqani as Afghanistan’s Interior (Home) Minister. Interestingly, Haqqani and other leaders of the Haqqani Network live in Pakistan, with their homes located both in North Waziristan and the capital Islamabad/Rawalpindi areas.
India cannot but take note of the fact that as Interior (Home) Minister, Haqqani will appoint Governors of Provinces on the eastern land route to India, through Pakistan. In effect, Haqqani will supervise all cross-border terrorism across Pakistan’s northern borders, in collaboration with the ISI and the Pakistan army. The composition of the Taliban Government has evoked shock and criticism worldwide. It is the first time that internationally designated terrorists have been appointed to high office, anywhere in the world. With Haqqani holding charge of the Ministry of Interior, he will appoint “like-minded” people as Governors of Provinces from where terrorists from Afghanistan and Pakistan will be trained, armed possibly with captured American supplied weapons, and infiltrated into J&K and elsewhere in India.
Moreover, terrorists from Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups will similarly find their way into countries across the world, for 9/11-style terrorist strikes. Pakistan will have to face criticism of being the epicentre of global terrorism.
Afghanistan is a country that now desperately requires economic assistance for its people to just survive. At the same time, its brutal actions like the attack on Panjshir, directed against its own Tajik population, with air support, reportedly provided by the Pakistan Air Force, is an obviously criminal act. Dealing with a country whose Prime Minister is a UN designated terrorist, with four other Ministers also facing similar charges, is obviously going to be problematic.
These are issues that New Delhi will undoubtedly raise in its discussions with friends and allies, including Russia, which is evidently closely linked with the Taliban. India would also now have to cooperate increasingly with Iran and Afghanistan’s neighbours like Tajikistan to evolve a coherent policy to meet the challenges it will face on its western borders.
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan