Pakistan’s use of its ‘strategic assets’, primarily the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), to pursue its hegemonic ambitions in Afghanistan is a source of concern to the international order. The LeT has links with the ISIS and Al Qaeda and has used terror in India and Afghanistan. Short-term gains should not inure the world to the dangers of ‘rogue’ elements outsourcing their skills. Traces of this ‘outsourcing’ have already been found in France, Denmark, the UK, Australia and Netherlands.
It was in the late 1980s that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) fostered the birth of the LeT in Kunar, Afghanistan, as a platform for Pakistanis to participate in the ‘jihad against the Soviets’. Nominally under a ‘political wing’, the Markaz-ud-Dawa-wal-Irshad (now Jamat-ud-Dawa) led by Hafiz Saeed, it is its military wing, the LeT, trained by the Pakistan army and under ISI control, which is to be feared.
LeT's 'New' Capabilities in 2008
However, this chapter ended once the Soviets withdrew. The LeT was then reassigned to Kashmir. Parts of it were honed into a sort of special forces unit, and it demonstrated this new capability in 2008, when it performed virtually as a marine commando unit, crossing the seas in a fishing vessel and beaching accurately in Mumbai. It then waged a Fedayeen-style attack on a number of targets. The resultant international outrage forced the ISI to temporarily rein them in.
After a hiatus, it was reintroduced into Afghanistan once the Taliban was ousted. This time, they were used as an expeditionary force under the ISI’s direct control to counter Mullah Fazlullah (Mullah Radio) and his Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Initially, operating from Pakistani border posts, they made forays into Afghanistan, one of which even led to a skirmish with US troops (Salala, late 2011) that resulted in the deaths of two ISI officers and 28 others.
Open Operations in Afghanistan
Today, the LeT operates openly inside Afghanistan in support of the Taliban. They have also made inroads into the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK).
The ISK came into being in Pakistan in 2014 following the army operation to cleanse Waziristan of foreign terrorists and anti-Pak militants. This led to some TTP cadres joining the ISIS and pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Various foreign Islamist groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Uighurs also joined them. Later, defectors from Al-Tawhid Brigade, Ansar ul-Khilafat Wal-Jihad, Taliban and Jundullah, joined hands, attracted by the ISK’s politico-religious goals.
Their adversaries were common — the Pakistan army and the Taliban. Though they swore loyalty to Baghdadi, links with the Islamic State were tenuous. They began aggressively pushing the Taliban out of parts of Nangarhar and expanding into Farah and Helmand before being driven out by Afghan and US Special Forces. In mid-2018, Fazlullah was killed in a drone strike and his cadres joined the ISK but they continued to lose ground in Nangarhar. To stem the reverses, the ISK felt that a change of leadership could revive their fortunes. They also needed to look for sanctuaries.
The ISK's Split
It was at this point that the ISI, concerned about the growing popularity of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), which the ISK could exploit, sought to gain control over ISK. In April 2019 (though others put the date as sometime in 2018), an embattled ISK gave in to pressure and appointed Mawlawi (or Sheikh) Aslam Farooqi, a 43-year-old Pakistani Afridi and an LeT alumnus, who was with the ISIS in Syria and has ISI connections, as its Emir in exchange for safe-havens. As part of the trade-off, the ISK agreed not to undertake military operations in Pakistan. For the ISI, a Pashtun, formerly with the LeT, as the head of ISK was an optimal arrangement, and this led to improved relations and some funding from ISI.
However, this was patchy as those from the original TTP/ISK resented a former LeT cadre leading them. The Central Asian group, supported by some Afghan commanders, instead proposed Muawiya Khorasani, a former IMU commander, as their leader. For the original construct, Pakistan was an adversary along with the US and the ‘puppet’ Kabul government. So, too, was the Taliban, which the ISK held was not fighting a pure jihad.
Consequently, the ISK split into two groups — one led by Farooqi and the other by Moawiya.
Did Pak Lose Interest in ISK?
The Farooqi group has been beefed up with some new cadres who Afghans refer to as ‘Punjabis’ – a euphemism for the LeT. It was this group that claimed responsibility for the attack on the Kabul Gurudwara, as also for an earlier attack on a Shia gathering where Dr Abdullah Abdullah was present.
A few days after the gurudwara attack, Farooqi and 19 of his associates were arrested in Kandahar; there are reports that a tip-off may have come from the ‘original ISK’. However, that so many were arrested without an exchange of fire in an area where they do not operate and which was relatively free of ISK activity hints a surrender of sorts.
There are reports that Farooqi was on the run from the Taliban and that Pakistan did not authorise him to use Torkham and directed him instead to Chaman. This is difficult to fathom – Farooqi should have had no difficulty in crossing over as Afridis are on both sides of the border. There is speculation that Pakistan lost interest in the ISK and was looking to push them towards new projects.
In May, the MSF-run hospital in Kabul was attacked. The Afghan government blamed the Taliban, which, in counter, alleged that it was the ISK supported by the Afghan intelligence. Though the attack was against Shias, it did not fit the ISK’s operational profile. For one, it was in Kabul, out of their area of operation, and demonstrated a fair deal of sophistication in terms of terrain knowledge and access to logistics – something which the foreign-dominated ISK has not hitherto shown. It also came at a time when much of the ISK’s senior leadership was in custody. The ISK, too, did not claim responsibility.
Pakistan’s attempts to prop up the ISK or to create a new entity that is essentially influenced by the LeT fits in with the long-held expectation that Pakistan will create a pressure group to keep the Taliban in check if the peace deal works. It also provides deniability for that which cannot be attributed to the Taliban or the Haqqani Network (HN) and helps to counter CIA-equipped and funded militias.
The ISK Split Served a Purpose
The split in the ISK serves the ISI’s purpose since the foreign militants driven out of Pakistan have joined the ISK(M). The ISK(F) now comprises mostly Afghans and Pakistanis.
Moawiya (real name Sayvaly Shafiev, sometimes referred to as Khorasani or Uzbekistani) is in his 30s and from Tajikistan. Radicalised in a Pakistani madrassa, his aim is to mount an Islamist challenge to Dushanbe. This group comprises many nationalities – fighters from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, a few Iranian Baloch from Jundullah and also Uighurs.
There are reports of ISIS veterans from Sudan and other Russian-speakers (Chechens, Dagestanis, etc.) joining the ISK (M) given its Russian language expertise and sanctuaries along the Central Asian borders. They were active mainly in Badakshan and Jawzjan in northern Afghanistan. Badakhshan also has about 400 militants from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and Harkat-i-Islami Uzbekistan operating mainly in the Khastak valley of Juram district, adjacent to Pakistan. They are loosely allied with Moawiya’s faction. There are also connections to Central Asian drug traffickers and racketeering networks.
Originally, Farooqi’s group is said to have numbered 8,000, while Moawiya had about half. But this was in their heyday. There have been attritions due to US airstrikes, Afghan Army operations and defections, and they would now likely number a fraction of their earlier strength.
The ISK(M)’s current situation is unclear after the Taliban take-over of Badakshan and areas along the Central Asian and China borders. So, too, the Uighurs and other Central Asian militants.
At another level, the LeT is active inside Afghanistan in support of the Taliban. Several hundred LeT militants have been spotted in Kunduz and in Kunar.
Drones are a new element used for both military operations — to coordinate fire support and conduct surveillance — and for propaganda. Their use was first noticed in October 2016, when one was used to film a suicide attack in Helmand.
They have also been used to monitor Kandahar and Bagram airbases. Last year, a drone was brought down in Kunduz. The suspicion is that they are operated by the LeT.
There are also reports of the Taliban’s elite Red Unit being involved in Kunduz. This unit (variously called ‘Red Group’, ‘Blood Unit’, ‘Danger Group’) is a Special Forces Unit of about 300. Said to comprise Afghans from refugee camps, indoctrinated in Pakistani madrassas and trained at camps along the border, they do not have any tribal affinity. They are the Afghanised equivalent of the LeT, though there are reports that they are actually Pakistani Special Forces.
They are equipped with ‘advanced weaponry’, including night vision devices, heavy machine guns and M4 carbines; they move around on motorcycles. Their uniform — camouflage salwar kameez and sports shoes — is not something available off the shelf (as is the Taliban attire). They operate from bases where they store their motorcycles and weapons. All of this precludes the possibility of these militants merging locally.
Dangers In The Future
It has always been smoke and mirrors when it comes to the LeT. If the Haqqani Network is the “veritable arm of the ISI”, as US Admiral Mark Mullen called it, the LeT is its “sword arm”. Their roles are defined — HN operates only in Afghanistan, while LeT serves as an expeditionary force, and is, for all practical purposes, a clandestine special forces unit. Their value to the Pakistan deep state is immense and it helps the Army outsource its work at little cost. Pakistan’s other concern is Pashtun nationalism, which could be fuelled if the Taliban revolts or is left unattended. The LeT, or a rebranded variant, will be a strategic option.
From our perspective, Pakistan is unlikely to succumb, no matter the pressure, to distance itself from the LeT. It is convenient for everyone, except Afghanistan (and India), to look the other way from the activities of a UN-designated terror group in northeast Afghanistan if it ends up pushing foreign militants from sanctuaries there. Past experience, however, tells us that Pakistani counterterrorism assurances are meaningless.
More dangerously, it markets the Taliban and the LeT as entities with whom business can be done. In the process, it sanctifies the role of a terror outfit like the LeT in counterterrorism operations and burnishes its image. This should be a concern not just for India but for the whole world.
(Anand Arni, a former Special Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, is with the Takshashila Institution. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)