Two major events on February 2 appear to provide strong evidence of the presence of the battered Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in eastern Afghanistan. They also make one understand the Afghan Unity Government’s worries about the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) in eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar. In short, they signal the need for a multilateral counterterrorism strategy.
Security officials in Peshawar claimed on February 2 to have arrested Waheed Ali alias Arshad, previously dubbed “Terrorist A” – the main facilitator of the attack on the Bacha Khan University. The arrest was made in Nowshera.
They said Arshad, who is said to be in his early 30s, had hired a taxi to take him to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border at Torkham. He has reportedly confessed that the planning of the attack on the university was carried out for six months in the Achin district of Afghanistan, which he said Khalifa Omar Mansoor was using as his base. The key Taliban commander had initially planned to target Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, but cancelled the plan because of the security arrangements on that campus.
An equally surprising news the same day said there were joint Afghan-US airstrikes in the mountainous area of the Achin district in Nangarhar, which destroyed an Islamic State radio broadcast station and the group’s internet communications, among other facilities.
The air raids killed five staff of the ‘Voice of Caliphate’ radio
The air raids also killed 29 IS fighters, including five staff at the so-called “Voice of Caliphate” radio, according to provincial government spokesperson Attaullah Khogyani.
The spokesperson said the IS has established its headquarters in Achin, from where the terrorist group has been trying to expand its influence and stage attacks elsewhere in Afghanistan. A US military spokesman, Col Michael Lawhorn, also confirmed the operation but refrained from sharing operational details with reporters.
Officials and residents in Nangarhar say the Islamic State FM radio station had been airing two-hour daily programs for three months. But the broadcasts have stopped since Monday evening.
The mountainous district of Achin appears to have emerged as a hotbed of IS-affiliated terrorists. Most TTP leaders, including Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai, Shahidullah Shahid, Ehsanullah Ehsan, and Khalid Khan Sajna, have also reportedly taken shelter in and around Achin. Following the disruption of their command and control in the military operation Zarb-e-Azb, they crossed the border and set up bases in Nangarhar.
During a visit to US Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad in mid-December last year, Defense Secretary Ash Carter had spoken about the emergence of a new terrorist haven in the province.
“We are seeing little nests of [IS] spring up around the world, including here in Afghanistan… But I will say that that is a threat that we track very closely,” Carter told reporters. “It is one that we are determined to defeat — not here just in Afghanistan but around the world — and will defeat.”
Lt Gen John W Nicholson, picked to replace John Campbell to lead US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services committee on January 28 that militants linked to the TTP have taken shelter in the border areas of Nangarhar province, including Achin, and have joined forces with IS.
“The recent operations in North Waziristan have helped, as well as their stationing of additional regular Pakistan military soldiers in the tribal areas… Some of this has pushed some fighters into Afghanistan, which has contributed perhaps somewhat to, for example Nangarhar, some of the (security) issues there,” he said. “The emergence of IS in Afghanistan has disrupted Taliban operations and compounded their internal discord as the two groups fight each other and compete for resources.”
Also, in December, Afghan government officials had first confirmed the death of IS chief Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai in a drone strike on a target in Achin. The confirmation was however later retracted, probably for political reasons, with officials now saying that commander lives in Pakistan.
The IS also claimed responsibility for the January 13 attack on the Pakistani consulate in Jalalabad, in which it killed seven security personnel and wounded 10 people, including three civilians.
During a meeting on the sidelines of a Pakistan-Afghanistan Track-II meeting in Kabul in December, national security advisor Hanif Atmar and other Afghan leaders had spoken of a number of Pakistani terrorists who had found refuge in Nangarhar. He had praised the Zarb-e-Azb operation but also cautioned against its fall-out for Afghanistan.
But the convergence of terrorists in eastern Afghanistan – including Fazlullah and Omar Mansoor – should not have come as a surprise.
During one of the discussions with his Afghan and US interlocutors some time in 2011 or 2012, former army chief General Ashfaq Kayani had bluntly asked whether they were ready to act as an anvil if Pakistan Army acted as a hammer against militants and terrorists in North Waziristan.
“They will all slip into your territory and you will then accuse us of having pushed terrorists into Afghanistan,” Kayani had reportedly told the American and Afghan generals.
One can draw three major conclusions from the recent developments.
Firstly, the IS – primarily made of TTP fugitives and mercenaries – stands out today as a common threat to the Afghans, Pakistanis, and the US-led troops in Afghanistan.
It was probably in this context that former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Janan Mosazai, warned of a “potentially devastating threat to both countries.”
“We believe that [IS] is a serious threat and if left unchecked, if left unaddressed, it can exacerbate in a significant way the security challenges that this region – especially Afghanistan and Pakistan – are already facing,” Mosazai said at a public seminar.
Secondly, the US conversation on counterterrorism, it seems, has clearly shifted away from the Haqqanis to the IS, underlining the thrust of the new US policy.
“They are not part of that designation right now. The Haqqanis are principally a focus of the Afghan security forces,” Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee in the January 28 testimony, when asked whether US forces target the Haqqanis as part of their counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan.
Nicholson went on to explain that the focus of US counterterrorism actions are militants linked to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group to prevent them from becoming a threat to the United States.
Thirdly, there appears to be a trilateral understanding that, although the Afghan Taliban – such as the Haqqanis and Mullah Mansoor – may not subscribe to the IS ideology or follow its torchbearers in the region, the two groups are tied in a marriage of convenience and draw on each other for support and shelter. Otherwise, TTP renegades would not have found safe havens in those areas.
This ideological synergy among the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani terrorists in eastern Afghanistan represents a formidable threat, and demands extraordinary action by both Afghanistan and Pakistan to confront it.
Islamabad and Kabul would do a big service to their people and to the extended region if they put the past acrimony behind and evolve a joint counter-IS strategy as a first major step against the forces of terror.
The writer heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad