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EFSAS Commentary

Pakistan’s role in the Kabul Gurdwara attack has been established, and its mounting despondency is becoming starkly evident


The specter of Pakistan’s near certain involvement in the gruesome terrorist attack on innocent worshippers at a Sikh Gurdwara in Kabul on 25 March, in which 28 people were mercilessly killed, had been raised in the EFSAS Commentary titled, ‘Despite loud confessions of guilt by ISIS over the Kabul Gurdwara terrorist attack, the orchestrators might actually be different’. It had been postulated that the choice of target, the historical fact of Pakistan being behind all other major attacks over the years against Indian interests in Afghanistan, and the claim by the perpetrators that the attack was aimed at avenging Indian actions in Kashmir, all left little doubt that it was the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that had orchestrated the attack and had used its terrorist proxies, the Haqqani network and the Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT), to do the dirty work on its behalf. The recent arrests by Afghan security forces related to the attack have confirmed EFSAS’ assessment of the ISI’s involvement.

The Afghan media house TOLO News reported that Abdullah Orakzai alias Aslam Farooqi, a key leader of the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), the name under which the ISIS operates in Afghanistan, was arrested along with a few of his associates during a “complex operation” by the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) in the southern province of Kandahar on 4 April. TOLO News added that Farooqi had been appointed as ISKP’s shadow governor in Afghanistan after the killing of Abu Omar Khorasani last year, and that he had been deployed from ISKP’s military wing in Peshawar to Abdul Khel valley in Achin district of Nangarhar province of Afghanistan.

The NDS, meanwhile, released a statement in which it confirmed the arrest of Aslam Farooqi for his involvement in the Kabul Gurdwara attack and revealed that he was a Pakistani national hailing from the Orakzai agency in northwestern Pakistan, and that he belonged to the Mamozai tribe. The NDS added that four other Pakistani nationals & ISKP members – Masoudullah and Khan Mohammad from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Salman from Karachi, and Ali Mohammad from Islamabad, had also been arrested with Farooqi. The NDS disclosed that Farooqi enjoyed “close relations” with Pakistan-based and backed terrorist groups such as the Haqqani network and the Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT), adding that he had confessed to having links with “regional intelligence agencies”, a euphemism for the ISI.

News agencies, meanwhile, have averred that Farooqi had earlier been associated with the LeT. That was crucial, as the bulk of those that joined the ISKP did so from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terror group, which was not favorably inclined towards Pakistan. The LeT, on the other hand, is fully backed by the ISI and has based its existence and activities around this crucial fact. Equally significant was the NDS’ disclosure that Farooqi also had links with the Haqqani network.

Farooqi’s arrest, therefore, brought the ISKP’s Pakistani connections into sharp focus. Kabul-based security analyst Hussain Ehsani alluded to this when he said that “This is a great achievement by the NDS. Due to the structure of the group, I think this would weaken the ISKP. But equally important, the NDS statement said that in his confession Farooqi has said ISKP has a good relationship with the LeT and Haqqani network”.

Farooqi and his associates are being questioned by Afghan security agencies, including on what motivated them to order the attack on the Gurdwara, the specific role that the ISI had played in the attack, any future attacks in Afghanistan that might have been planned, and the extent and scope of Farooqi’s relations with Pakistani intelligence agencies. The organizational structure of the ISKP and the personnel associated with the outfit as well as the nature and depth of the ISKP’s, and Farooqi’s, ties with other Pakistan-sponsored terrorist groups such as the Haqqani Network and the LeT are also being delved into by Afghan security experts.

The initial results from Farooqi’s questioning did not take long to come. Within a couple of days of Farooqi’s arrest, Afghan security forces zeroed in on a further 37 ISKP members and arrested them. A majority of the 37 were Pakistani nationals. This led Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh, a former chief of the NDS, to tweet, “I am sure he is already singing & will sing more to the dismay of his patrons in & out. A treasure of intelligence. Make him talk”. The unmistakable allusion in Saleh’s statement to the ISI being Farooqi’s external patron was palpably obvious.

The fact that the tune that Farooqi was singing before the Afghan security forces was strongly and irrefutably implicating the ISI in the Kabul Gurdwara attack, as well as the consternation that this was causing within the Pakistani military establishment, was further illustrated by news breaking in the international media this morning. In order to protect itself from further damage, Pakistan has, in an astonishing move, summoned the Afghan Ambassador to Islamabad and demanded Farooqi’s extradition to Pakistan. Pakistan’s Foreign Office issued a statement that confirmed this. It said, “Farooqi was involved in anti-Pakistan activities in Afghanistan, he should be handed-over to Pakistan for further investigations”. Pakistan’s reference to “anti-Pakistan activities” of a terrorist who was clearly a Pakistani asset elicited ridicule and exasperation. It also drew sharp reactions from senior Afghan officials such as the former NDS chief, Rahmatullah Nabil, who mockingly tweeted, “PAK military & ISI thinks that #AFG is in their territory. They never complied with AFG government’s request for handover of Mullah Baradar, Sadar Ibrahim, Mullah Daoud, Mawlawi Mirahmad Gul, Mullah Abdul Salam and dozens of high ranking Taliban, who were arrested in PAK”.

Recent reports and data indicate that the ISI has been finding it increasingly difficult to find any traction in Kashmir in recent months, and has been faced with multiple reverses vis-à-vis its terrorist assets. The frustrating thing for the ISI is that its expectation that the Indian government’s 5 August 2019 moves would result in a groundswell of extremism with Kashmiri youth taking up arms en masse and joining the ISI’s violent campaign of jihad have been belied. Despite all its other negatives and drawbacks, the clampdown on communications imposed by the Indian government, especially on the internet, has actually contributed in no small measure to this.

The ISI is also smarting at being unable to carry out any terrorist attack of substance in Kashmir over the last 9 months, while about 50 terrorists have been killed there by Indian security forces in the last 3 months alone. The desperation that this has bred in the ISI ranks became evident on 5 April, when the ISI attempted to infiltrate five terrorists under extremely challenging circumstances and lost all five. As the Indian Army described it in a statement, “The Indian Army launched a daring operation at the LoC (Line of Control) and engaged Pakistani-supported infiltrators in a close-quarter battle in heavy snow, neutralising the entire infiltrating batch of five”.

On the back foot in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and emboldened by the prospect of the imminent return of the Taliban, whom it created and has nurtured for decades, at the helm in Afghanistan, the ISI appears to be setting up to turn Afghanistan into an alternate and more conducive arena to target Indian interests. Reports indicate that some of the ISI’s Kashmir-centric terrorist assets have begun bolstering their presence in Afghanistan. The LeT had initially been formed in Kunar province of Afghanistan, and it has continued to maintain a presence there. Reports suggest that it is now in expansion mode in Kunar as well as the adjacent Nangarhar province. It has also managed to find footholds in the adjoining Nuristan and Laghman provinces. The Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), meanwhile, has reportedly recently appointed commanders for as many as 12 Afghan provinces, including Kunar, Nangarhar, Paktia, Parwan, Kunduz, Ghazni, Nimroz, Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan.

The ISI’s aim appears to be two-fold. It has come under intense international pressure to abandon its long-practiced policy of using terrorism in pursuit of political goals. Its main Kashmir-centric terrorist proxies such as the LeT and the JeM and their leaders and members have also been in the glare of the international spotlight. The ISI, in response, has been trying hard to divert attention from its terrorist proxies by indulging in cosmetic arrests and farcical disappearances of the leaders of these outfits. The ISI seems to believe that relocating some of the leaders and members of these terrorist groups to Afghanistan, where myriad terrorists of all hues pre-exist, would make it easier for its assets to slip under the radar. The ISI also appears to believe that with J&K having become much more impregnable in recent months, it may be worth the while to focus a part of its energies on targeting Indian interests in Afghanistan.

J&K has historically been, continues to be, and will remain, at least in the foreseeable future, the most important issue for Pakistan. Next in priority for the Pakistani military establishment would, arguably, be getting India out of Afghanistan, or at the very least reducing its influence there. That is why as the intra-Afghan talks stutter and meander along and a state of confusion, flux, and adversity looms overhead, India would do good to put in place a robust mechanism to protect its interests in Afghanistan.

International pressure to force Pakistan to desist from pursuing its nefarious designs in Afghanistan, a course of action that will only serve to further vitiate and destabilize the already highly fragile situation in a country in which the international community has invested a lot of time, resources and blood, must constitute an integral component of such a mechanism.