On the night of November 11, 2001, the Taliban melted away without a fight and the coalition forces captured the capital.Two decades later, the wheel is turning full circle. The hasty pullout of US forces from Afghanistan has accelerated its recapture by the Taliban. Surging out of their bases in western Pakistan, the advancing Taliban have met with little or no resistance. The 300,000-strong Afghan National Army (ANA) has disappeared and capital Kabul has been encircled and could fall anytime now. There now exists the very real prospect of the Taliban’s dual-tone flags fluttering over Afghanistan before September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
The fall of Afghanistan marks one of the catastrophic failures of US military intelligence. US-based counter-terrorism expert Bill Roggio tweeted on August 14 that “US military intelligence leaders are directly responsible for the biggest intelligence failures since Tet in 1968 (the Viet Cong’s offensive into South Vietnam). How did the Taliban plan, organise, position and execute this massive nationwide offensive under the noses of USMIL, CIA, DIA, NDS, ANDSF etc.” The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban could have wider ramifications for the world in general and India in particular.
The Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 saw eight years of a resistance movement backed by the US. The war ended with the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1988. The years that followed saw Pakistan’s deep state diverting vast stockpiles of ex-Afghan War arms and ammunition into Kashmir in the late 1980s to fight a proxy war that continues till date. The Afghan war honed and refined the deep state’s ability to wage covert war and also to understand how political Islam could be weaponised by proxy forces. Pakistani terrorist outfits like the LeT, HuJI and HuM were in fact set up inside Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation forces but were used by the deep state against India. Pakistan’s deep state again played a key role in raising and training the Taliban from among Pashtun areas of eastern and southern Afghanistan.
The Taliban Emirate that ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 offered sanctuary to jihadist groups from across the world, from Chechnya to the Philippines, and, of course, Al Qaeda, which fled its sanctuary in Sudan in 1996 to become an honoured state guest of the Taliban’s Mullah Omar. Thousands of terrorists trained in Afghanistan went on to fight in other battlegrounds across the world. The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, its subsequent disintegration and the attacks on the US emboldened these groups.
The fall of the Taliban in 2001 ended the use of Afghanistan as a terror base. That reality could now return to Afghanistan. Reports suggest that several British nationals had travelled to fight alongside the Taliban. The last time this happened was between 2014 and 2017 when a terrorist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) operating in Syria and Iraq, controlled a territory the size of Great Britain in both countries. ISIS actively solicited recruits from across the world and over 10,000 persons are thought to have travelled to its territories. The prospect of Afghanistan becoming another nursery for terrorist groups is what could cause serious worry in New Delhi. In 1999, four Pakistanis hijacked Indian Airlines flight IC 814 from Kathmandu and diverted it to Kandahar in Afghanistan. There, protected by the Taliban, the hijackers secured the release of terrorist leaders Maulana Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Omar Saeed Sheikh in exchange for the 150 airline passengers.
Azhar went on to launch his terrorist outfit, the Jaish-e-Mohammed, responsible for sensational terrorist attacks, including the December 2001 attack on India’s Parliament. More recently, the JeM claimed responsibility for the February 14, 2019 suicide bombing at Pulwama in which 40 CRPF troopers were killed. On February 26, IAF jets bombed the JeM training camp in Balakot, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, in retaliation to the attack. The prospect of Pakistan moving its camps into Afghanistan—away from the range of retaliatory attacks by India–is one of the scenarios that cannot be wished away. There is also the danger of warehouses of sophisticated arms and ammunition the Taliban captured from the Afghan government forces being sold or diverted to India-specific militant groups. The prospect of battle-hardened foot soldiers being infiltrated to fight in India remains a distinct possibility.
The presence of the US in Pakistan and Afghanistan meant Indian agencies could access intelligence relating to these two countries. Indian intelligence agencies cooperated closely with their counterparts in Afghanistan’s external intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security. All that will come to an end now. A former Indian intelligence official compares the situation as akin to someone turning off the lights in those countries. These developments add a worrying new dimension for India’s war on Pakistan-based terror.