US Avenged the IS-K attack at Kabul Airport. But Where Does it Go From Here?
An IS-K planner was killed in the drone strike, but the US would want to finish the whole group.
The attack at the Kabul Airport, even as desperate Afghans were trying to leave, is as tragic as it was apparently expected. The blast killed at least 13 US service members and a number of civilians. The death toll has crossed 170, and over 200 people were wounded. An emotional President Joe Biden promised vengeance, and apparently it was swift. The US announced a drone strike against an Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) ‘planner’ in Nangarhar, in the early hours of August 28. That is an area controlled largely by the Haqqani network, together with a sprinkling of cadres of the Islamic State of Khorasan ( IS-K). The trouble is there are no lines between them.
The twin attacks by suicide bombers, together with a random firing by a terrorist, took place at the airport and the nearby Baron Hotel. The attack seemed to be aimed at hitting Afghans milling around at that point, with the attackers having a surprisingly free run into the area, despite the Taliban significantly strengthening control and access to the airport, according to the Pentagon. The US forces had been warning of an impending attack by the IS-K and were hurrying out of the country with Taliban assistance. Never mind the irony of a superpower being escorted out by the very force it was ostensibly trying to evict; what’s interesting is where that intelligence came from, and why the IS-K would want to attack a power that is leaving behind an entire country for it to establish a base in
The Strange Nature of the IS-K
The Islamic State of Khorasan is a peculiar group. Most western writing sees it as an affiliate of the Syria-based Islamic State. President Biden declared it as an ‘an arch-enemy of the Taliban’. The truth is, it’s neither. The IS-K began as a group that was made up of former Tehreek-e-Taliban fighters, who fled the
Pakistan operation in the tribal areas. In that capacity, they were wooed by the Afghan intelligence and propped up a group in Nangarhar. As clashes between the IS-K and the Taliban began, strong protests were made by the Taliban to Syria based leadership, which sternly barred its “affiliate” from attacking the Taliban.
The Haqqanis then came down heavily on the group, leading to its splintering. Soon after, US forces were targeting and killing IS-K leaders with a speed unheard of in counter-terrorism operations. It seemed someone on the ground wanted them dead. What followed was a turnaround. From allying with Kabul, the IS-K turned against the Afghan government. Another IS-K ‘turned up in the north, which Moscow accused the US of supporting, while an IS-K emerged in Kabul. The Kabul group seemed far more capable than its counterparts elsewhere and its leaders and networks unknown. The strange nature of the IS-K was also apparent in its make-up. In Nangarhar, the IS-K seemed almost entirely Pakistani, while in the north, they were almost entirely Central Asian. In Kabul, no one could tell.
Is IS-K the Haqqanis Themselves?
By 2020, the IS-K was launching large attacks against Shias and then against an entirely peaceful Sikh community, never before targeted even by the Taliban.
Curiously, one of the attackers was Mohammed Mohsin from Kerala. India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) had begun to notice cadres from Kerala joining the IS-K through an insidious online recruitment drive in 2018, even as reports later emerged of their families incarcerated in Afghan prisons. It is worth noting that Indians had so far resisted the lures of the IS in Syria, or even in the Kashmir conflict.
The Afghan intelligence, however, arrested Aslam Farooqi originally from Orakzai in Pakistan, and who was formerly with the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Then there’s the cherry on top. The 12th UN Monitoring Report in June 2021 notes strong collaboration between the IS-K and the Haqqani network, with the possibility that its leader Shahab al-Muhajir was perhaps earlier a Haqqani commander. Afghan authorities have long said that the IS-K in Kabul is none other than the Haqqanis themselves.
What Will be the Fallout?
Now, it seems that the US has delivered on its promise of vengeance. That was important not just for US voters, but for a world that was increasingly viewing the US as a “has-been”. Honour has been satisfied, at least for the moment. But the story is far from over. The ‘planner’ has been killed, but, presumably, his group remains. And there is no doubt that the US will want to kill the rest as well.
But those remaining cadres are likely to have slipped across to Pakistan, just a few kilometres across. The question, then, is who will provide the intelligence to the US? The present warning of an attack presumably came from the remnants of the Afghan intelligence still tied to the US. The once hugely capable National Directorate of Security can still provide inputs on their movement. Whether they will be believed is another matter.
A second possibility is that the IS-K could regroup and attack again. That depends on what it hoped to achieve from the attacks in the first place. It is worth recalling that Mullah Baradar was originally arrested in 2010 by the Pakistanis for ratting on them and seeking peace separately with the new President Hamid Karzai. At the time, that didn’t suit Islamabad, and probably the US itself. Now it seems that Baradar is again being reminded of who the boss is, as he packs his men, such as Gul Agha and Mullah Zakir, into top positions. It’s notable that Kabul now wants a US diplomatic presence even while other rumours talk of a possible Turkish force. In other words, Kabul wants protection.
A Rocky Road for the US
A third possibility, which could be strengthened with further attacks, is that the US retains not only its embassy but also a Special Forces group that would track down the attackers for itself. Alternatively, the Group could be sea-based on a carrier, only coming in when reliable intelligence is available. That means flying over Pakistani airspace. And that translates into more goodies for Islamabad. In other words, another motivation is to keep the US in Afghanistan and ensure a continued flow of funds.
Fourth, and least likely, but most effective, would be for the US to bomb Pakistan’s Waziristan and related areas where the source of the trouble lies. It is true that President Biden has always been more aware of Pakistan’s mischief than most other Presidents, and once wondered why the al-Qaeda in Pakistan was not being targeted.
As Senator and Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, he was also an author of the legislation that would have tripled aid to Pakistan, but tied it to “certification by Secretary of State that Pakistani security forces are making concerted efforts to prevent al-Qaeda and associated terrorist groups from operating in the territory of Pakistan … prevent the Taliban from using the territory of Pakistan as a sanctuary ... and not materially interfering in the political or judicial processes of Pakistan”.
It made the Pakistani army furious, and nearly disrupted bilateral relations. That could also happen again. But the actions of a Senator and that of a President can be rather different. Moreover, it will also require the US to get rid of its strategic blinkers and face up to the reality that they are being played like a fiddle by Islamabad.
Meanwhile, heed the advice of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot who would say that in murder, always look at who benefits. What happened at the airport was, after all, pure murder.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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