New Delhi: “Kal Roos ko bikhata dekha tha, Aaj India toot ta dekhenge. Hum barq-e-jihad ke sholon Mein America ko jalta dekhenge” (We saw Russia disintegrate. Now we will see India fall apart. In the flames of jihad, we will see America ablaze)
I found these lines scrawled in Urdu with the legend “Mujahideen ki lalkar’ (war cry of the Mujahideen) — in a notebook in Afghanistan in December 2001. I found it in a former military camp called Rish Khor around 10 kilometres north of Kabul. It would have been unusual to find an Urdu notebook in a country where Dari is the main language. Pakistan, where the language is widely spoken, is over 200 kilometres away. The notebook, which I had later translated in New Delhi, had once belonged to a Pakistani student recruit. The camp was a former terror training academy run by Al-Qaida trained recruits from Pakistan. The recruits had been sent there by various Pakistani jihadi tanzeems including the Sipaha-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and the Harkat ul Jihad Islami (HUJI). It was run by Qari Saifullah Mehsud, who was also a key figure in the Al Qaeda-affiliated Harkat ul Jihad Islami (HUJI).
An INDIA TODAY team visited this camp two months after the Taliban had been routed and a new interim administration headed by President Hamid Karzai installed in Kabul. Rish Khor was one of several such camps set up across the country. At one of several such camps in the late 1990s, a Pakistani Al Qaida operative named Khalid Shaikh Mohammad hatched a plot to use hijacked airliners to destroy the Twin Towers, Capitol Hill and the Pentagon. These attacks in which XX Americans were killed, led to the invasion of Afghanistan by the US and its allies. In October 2001, the camp had been bombed to rubble by US fighter jets taking off from aircraft carriers parked in the Arabian Sea and B-52s flying in from the Indian Ocean island fortress of Diego Garcia.
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 pull out 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 melted away without a fight and the 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 Vietcong’s offensive into South Vietnam). How did the Taliban plan, organise, position and execute this massive nation-wide 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 jihadi 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 a 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 who captured it in slogans like the ‘Mujahideen ki Lalkaar’ as described by the recruit in Rish Khor.
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 traveled 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 an 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-Pakhtunkhawa in retaliation for 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 ends now. A former Indian intelligence official compares the situation 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.