As Afghanistan security deteriorates, anger against Pakistan rises: Herein lies an opportunity for India

'Uprising for Change' is the chant of angry, aggrieved protesters, thronging Kabul streets, asking for the resignation of President Ashraf Ghani and the removal of his national security advisor Hanif Atmar.

Prabha Rao June 26, 2017 12:31:47 IST
As Afghanistan security deteriorates, anger against Pakistan rises: Herein lies an opportunity for India

Editor's note: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on a three-day visit to the US, where it is believed terrorism — particularly the sort that is affecting Afghanistan and threatening to destabilise the region — will be a widely-discussed topic in his meetings with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump among others. With that in mind, the following article seeks to put Afghan security concerns under the scanner. 

'Uprising for Change' is the chant of angry, aggrieved protesters, thronging Kabul streets, asking for the resignation of President Ashraf Ghani and the removal of his national security adviser Hanif Atmar.

As Afghanistan security deteriorates anger against Pakistan rises Herein lies an opportunity for India

Afghan policemen inspect at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan May 31, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

The protests that began after the bomb blast in Kabul on 31 May have continued unabated, despite several instances of firing: The latest being on 20 June at Sherpur Square which resulted in the deaths of a 16-year-old boy from Badakshan, and Ejaz ul Haq (a relative of Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Chief Executive of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) from Panjshir. Today, Afghanistan is facing a level of ethnic schisms and sectarian violence that has not been witnessed since the early 1990s.

To recap: Even Afghanistan, a country that has faced unrelenting war and appalling violence for more than a quarter of a century, was stunned at the magnitude of the blast that hit Kabul on 31 May at the peak of the morning rush hour for office, in the first week of the holy month of Ramadan. A truck used for clearing sewage exploded in front of the German Embassy on the Wazir Akbar Khan Road in the main diplomatic and heavily-guarded area of Kabul.

The death toll exceeded 150 and the number of those grievously injured was over 400. Eyewitnesses spoke of blood, body parts and debris being scattered as far as 500 metres from the blast: Residents said they felt like it was an earthquake, and a tower of smoke was sent into the sky. Buildings and embassies over two kilometres away were affected, and a 15-foot-wide crater was formed at the blast site.

Since then, grief, diatribes, recriminations and conspiracy theories have filled Kabul, all of which have underscored the increasing fragility of the National Unity Government.

According to the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and the Afghan Police, the bomb was made of 1,500 kilogrammes of military grade explosive — RDX — that had been placed in a sewage clearance tanker. There is no sewage system in Afghanistan, and contracts are given for sewage clearance to locals after exhaustive background checks by the local police, especially for those contractors who service the 'Green Zone', the diplomatic area that also houses the presidential palace, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and the NDS.

Queries have been raised by the locals, the Opposition, the diplomatic corps, and NATO commander as to how the truck — carrying such a massive load of explosives — could have passed several check posts without being challenged.

The truck's route, given the one-way divisions and concrete blocks placed on the road for safety, as seen on the map, would have needed to go via the MOFA and NDS, crossing myriad checkpoints leading to the presidential palace to reach Zanbaq Square, towards a check post alongside the German Embassy where it was blown up. Incidentally, this check point leads directly to the Indian Embassy.

Passing into this area carrying high-grade explosives undoubtedly points to insider involvement, according to some members of the Afghan Parliament. This is plausible, for, according to an initial input from the NDS, the sewage truck had adequate documentation. The devastation left by the bomb blast claimed mainly Afghans as victims; around 31 of Roshan Telecom‘s employees were among the dead, followed by Azizi Bank employees, school children, and embassy guards.

The US Embassy suffered maximum casualties, with around 11 US security contractors — who were working in Camp Eggers, a US facility across the German Embassy — killed in the blast. In a less-reported incident, the Kabul Police intercepted two terrorists with explosives on a motorcycle in Haji Chaman road, Kabul at 3.30 pm on 31 May. They committed suicide after they were apprehended, but police claimed  they were positively identified and their links to the Taliban and Haqqani network were known.

NDS head Masoom Stanekzai, using the above input, and information from human intelligence, stated categorically that the blast was not the handiwork of the Islamic State. Stanekzai blamed the Taliban and more specifically, the Haqqani network for the incident, and by association, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Subsequently, Ghani announced death penalty for 11 Taliban and Haqqani cadres incarcerated in Kabul for various terrorist acts, including Anas Haqqani, the brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani network and the deputy of Taliban emir Haibutullah Akhundzada, and Hafiz Rashid, who trained suicide bombers for the Khost Province.

The Taliban, which had been had been quick to deny any involvement, sent an audio message, warning that the Ghani administration was following instructions from 'foreign masters' and cautioned that hostages in the group's custody — Canadian Joshua Boyle and American Caitlan Coleman, and their children, as well as American citizen Kevin King and Australian national Timothy Weeks, both professors from the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul — would be publicly executed if harm came to their cadres. The Taliban issued a video on 16 June demanding the release of all Taliban cadres in Puli Chakri and Bagram Jails, failing which executions would follow.

The group followed up the threat with an attack on Bagram Airfield, which claimed the lives of eight Afghan guards. This, along with the Ghani government's May 2016 decision to hang six Taliban prisoners, resulted in a series of attacks against judges and courts. Despite denials by the government, the administration has quietly backed off giving terrorists the death penalty.

Public anger against lack of demonstrable retribution by the government has been fueled by allegations of corruption. Despite the continuing threat of the Taliban and the Islamic State in Afghanistan, several high-tech security gates and scanners for plastic explosives, as well as metal embedded ones had been supplied by China last year to prevent just such attacks. According to officials from the interior ministry, administrative wrangling and the inability to sort out some technical glitches have resulted in the gates being unused and stored in a warehouse.

Corruption has also engendered large-scale infiltration by the ISI and the Taliban in the NDS, interior ministry, Afghan Police, and Afghan Army. A former NDS head opined that it was impossible to bring in 1,500 kilogrammes of illegal, military grade explosives into the country without the connivance of a government agency.

Non-Pushtoon parliamentarians have openly stated that the ‘Pushtoonisation’ of the security forces has engendered large scale penetration by the ISI acting through the Haqqani network, which has given a major heft to the Taliban, even in traditional Tajik and Hazara areas. They claim the immediate correlation are the attacks on the police and army by their own, which has become an almost daily occurrence.

Public rage was also fueled by the fact that the NDS had reportedly warned the German Embassy of an imminent attack two or three days earlier, and the embassy had shifted its personnel to a side not exposed to the road, thereby minimising injuries to its staff.

However, no such specific warning had been given to Roshan Telecom and Azizi Bank. The public therefore, thought that the government was less concerned with the lives of Afghans and that Roshan Telecom, which was set up by Aga Khan Foundation, was not a priority.

Riding on these sentiments, Opposition, including Jamiat and Hazara leaders, civil rights activists, and women’s groups organised protests in Kabul on 2 June under the banner ‘Uprising for Change’. They demanded that Ghani should step down, disband the National Unity Government and form an interim one, as a preamble to fresh elections.

The protests exacerbated the ethnic divisions between Tajiks and Pushtoons. which led to firing and the deaths of seven protesters, including Mohammad Salim Ezadyar, the son of Mohammad Alam Ezadyar, the Deputy Speaker of the Meshrano Jirga (Upper House), and a seasoned Tajik ex-Northern Alliance leader who was shot.

Biraj Patnaik, South Asia director, Amnesty International condemned the use of excessive force on peaceful protesters, stating that this showed disregard for the lives of ordinary people. Counter calls for Pushtoon solidarity came to the fore, with a well-directed social media campaign (some of which was from Pakistan) to create further divisions in Afghanistan and erode the credibility of the Opposition: Largely the leaders of the Northern Alliance. Expectedly, allegations of Indian involvement in the protests and rumours of Iranian funding made the rounds.

Predictably, there was another attack during Salim Ezdayar’s funeral on 3 June at the Khair Khana  cemetery in Kabul. Almost all the Opposition leaders were in attendance. According to the NDS, three suicide bombers — like Shoe Bomber Richard Reid who attempted to blow up an American Airlines aircraft in 2001 — were deployed.

One was taken alive. His interrogation revealed that the bombers were trained in Mawlavi Ahmad Madrasa in Quetta, Pakistan and had been sent to Kabul for the suicide attack. Thus a straight line could be drawn to the Taliban's Quetta Shoora.

To contain the crescendo of anti-Taliban and anti-Pakistan sentiment, Sirajuddin Haqqani issued a statement on 11 June in the Taliban mouthpiece Voice of Jihad. Haqqani claimed his network was not involved in the Kabul blasts: no group has yet claimed responsibility.

Pakistan, meanwhile has blamed the incompetence of the Ghani government for the incident, thrown out conspiracy theories about "countries interested in disrupting Afghanistan-Pakistan relations" and issued maudlin condolences.

However, their credibility is at an all time low. US defence secretary Jim Mattis, in a 13 June briefing to the Senate Armed Services Committee said, “We are not winning in Afghanistan.” Mattis advocated a more muscular policy which would bring in an additional 4,000 troops — supplementing the 8,500 US troops and 5,000 NATO members active in Mission Resolute Support — indicating that Washington is in it for the long haul in Afghanistan.

In a 22 June video conference between US national security adviser General HR McMaster and his Afghan counterpart Hanif Atmar, Washington’s continuing commitment to Afghanistan was underscored, while the contours of a new bilateral agreement on security issues were worked out.

According to Ghani's spokesman Najibullah Azad, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi is scheduled to visit Kabul soon, and interact with Afghan officials on ways and means to improve Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. According to Azad, Wang will work out the framework for the next quadrilateral meeting between Afghanistan, Pakistan, US and China.

However, the difference this time is that Beijing will insist that Pakistan support Afghanistan’s policy on fighting insurgency. China, naturally, is worried that escalating violence in the region could seriously hamper the establishment of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, (CPEC), which is an integral part of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.

These initiatives notwithstanding, the prognosis remains grim, as Pakistan’s role as enabler and provider of sanctuaries for the Taliban and the Haqqani network continues. The Haqqani network is now in control of much of the Kurram Valley in Pakistan, which, apart from giving it access to the Khost province of Afghanistan, where the network has a traditional presence, also gives it easier access to Kabul.

US forces periodically target leaders of the network. US drone strikes — the latest was on 13 July in Hangu — have targeted only second tier network leaders. Which means that the Taliban and the generals in Rawalpindi retain their ability to create chaos in Afghanistan.

What then is the road map for India?

According to the latest Pentagon report, for "Afghanistan's most reliable friend" greater  involvement is on the anvil, along with strengthening the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). The primary target, of course, will be securing India's missions in Kabul, Jalalabad, Herat and Kandahar.

Enhanced perimeter security, with scanners to detect plastic explosives, and the newer versions such as triacetone triperoxide are needed. The Kabul blast has demonstrated the ease with which sewage carrying lorries can be used as weapons of destruction. India's missions, including the one at Kabul, have septic tanks on their premises. This is a vulnerability which can be easily exploited.

Several missions, including the US one, have sewage tanks with channels leading well out of the embassy precincts. This facility needs to be expeditiously introduced in our missions as well. Another possibility is to have captive sewage removal trucks from India, with Indian staff on the grounds of the missions.

The same would hold for diesel and petrol trucks, which periodically fill up in the missions. Given the frequency of insider attacks, abundance of care must be the new normal. Strengthening our security is a pillar in our campaign to roll back terrorism in Afghanistan and contain Pakistan.

The author is a senior fellow at IDSA, Delhi

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