Why, in the dead of winter, two months before the traditional start of Afghanistan’s fighting season, has the country been rocked by four attacks that killed more than 150 people?
The trigger was not a change in the Taliban’s fighting calendar, analysts say, nor was it necessarily evidence of intensified competition between Taliban and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) to lead the insurgency against the Western-backed government.
Rather, they say, it was a violent Pakistani response – using its Islamist insurgent clients – to President Trump’s recent pressure on Pakistan to rein in militant sanctuaries, or else.
A Western official in Kabul who asked not to be further identified dismisses the competition theory, and warns that continued pressure on Pakistan is likely to produce an even more violent reaction.
He points out that the explosive power of suicide car bombs – as used in two of the most recent strikes, one claimed by the Taliban, the other by ISIS – has grown and cites reports of an increased flow of high-grade explosives across the border over the past year.
“When you do the explosive residue tests on a lot of these, you end up with military-grade explosives that are not widely available,” he says.
“We’re not talking about fertilizer bombs. We’re talking about plastic stuff, Semtex, whatever, that you just can’t buy in a grocery store,” says the official, noting that those results point to a state sponsor, of which there are “relatively few” in the region.
“These are the same sources – almost certainly Pakistani intelligence – picking and choosing a few different cells that they’ve been cultivating for years, sometimes branded with the Taliban flag, sometimes branded with the [ISIS] flag,” says the official.
“The widespread assumption is that this [violence] is Pakistan pushing back against the new American strategy. This is Pakistan giving a small taste of what it’s capable of,” adds the official in Kabul. He notes that “a lot of circumstantial evidence” indicates an increased flow of military-grade explosives from Pakistan in the past year.
“Pakistan has a wide menu of options still available to it … and if we continue down this path [of pressure] – and I think we will continue down this path – it’s going to continue getting worse.”
Mr. Trump on Jan. 1 tweeted that the US had “foolishly” given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the last 15 years, and got “nothing but lies and deceit” in return. “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.… No more!” he tweeted.
Days later, Washington suspended roughly $2 billion in security assistance to nuclear-armed ally Pakistan, until it takes “decisive action” against the Taliban and affiliated Haqqani network. The rising pressure on Pakistan comes as the US is stepping up its 16-year war effort with thousands of new troops, an expanded campaign of airstrikes, and new, looser rules of engagement.
Pakistan denies harboring Taliban and other hard-line Islamists, though its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has for years had close ties and influence over militants of all stripes, and facilitated their attacks across the border in Afghanistan.
Afghan officials take harder line
The result of the new US pressure appears so far to have been felt most sharply in Kabul, where the Taliban in late January attacked the Intercontinental Hotel, and then used to devastating effect an explosives-laden ambulance to kill more than 100 people at the gate of the Ministry of Interior complex.
In addition, the far smaller ISIS branch in Afghanistan, which calls itself Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), used two men in explosive vests to initiate an attack on a Kabul army post, killing 11. And IS-K claimed responsibility for targeting the offices of Save the Children in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, killing four in a gun battle launched by a suicide car bomb.
Anti-Pakistan and anti-Taliban sentiment has since soared in Afghanistan. Afghan officials have also taken a harder line against the Taliban, and rejoiced in Trump’s declaration last week that reversed long-standing US policy by ruling out talking to the insurgents, thereby dismissing any chance of a negotiated peace, for now.
In a televised address on Feb. 4, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani accused Pakistan of being a “Taliban center” and said “we are waiting for Pakistan to act.” Earlier, after the hotel attack, Mr. Ghani had said the attackers were acting “on the orders of their masters.”
Afghanistan’s intelligence chief, Mohammad Masoum Stanekzai, accompanied by the country’s interior minister, last week visited Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, and said they “shared undeniable evidence that the attacks were planned there.”
Such a connection is not a surprise, say analysts. The Taliban in recent years has grown as a movement, and fractured at the same time – between hardliners and moderates, for example, and with a far less Pashtun-centric make-up that includes ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and others. But Pakistan’s ISI has kept very close ties with the most extreme elements, and exercises influence over them.
“The Taliban have become less and less about Islam, and more about Islamabad itself,” says Javid Ahmad, a fellow at both the Atlantic Council in Washington and Modern War Institute at West Point.
“For Pakistan, the Taliban is a pet movement. For the Taliban, Pakistan is a Santa Claus,” says Mr. Ahmad.
One result is that the Taliban is not an independent movement, and hard-liners routinely sabotage efforts by moderates to take up the Afghan government’s and US offers to talk peace, says Ahmad. “The Taliban are given the power to kill, but not to negotiate."
Another result is that the Taliban often have more sophisticated equipment on the battlefield than the Afghan police and military, including sniper rifles with sights made in Iran and Pakistan, night-vision goggles, even surveillance drones and Humvees.
“Now where did they get all these things from? It is not the Iranians providing this stuff, it’s not the Russians,” notes Ahmad. “Given the reports we have, open-source, it’s to a large extent the Pakistanis,” he says.
Rare deviation from the script
Pakistan has long denied any such involvement in Afghanistan. After the Kabul ambulance bombing, for example, a Foreign Ministry official said Pakistan “stands with its Afghan brothers in this hour of grief.” The official said Pakistan had recently handed over 27 Afghan militants, and claimed that 470 attacks originating in Afghanistan had been carried out on Pakistani soil.
And yet, Pakistan’s prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, last September appeared to confirm that those responsible for a May 2017 truck bomb near the German Embassy in Kabul, which killed more than 150 people, had come from Pakistan.
Three or four people “crossed over the border” and a vehicle traveled to Kabul “and was parked in an embassy compound before it blew up,” Mr. Abbasi told the Financial Times in an unexpected acknowledgment by the new premier that strayed from the usual ISI script. His office later denied the remarks.
“The [Pakistani] army and its supporters have repeatedly pointed to the heavy casualties among troops fighting the Pakistani Taliban. Yet only the army itself can change policy toward those Afghan Taliban hiding in Pakistan,” wrote Ahmed Rashid, a veteran Pakistani analyst and author, in the Financial Times Jan. 10.
Pakistan supports the Taliban to limit the influence of rival India, and the army is concerned about Trump’s calls last year to tighten ties with India, and work with it in Afghanistan, notes Mr. Rashid, author of the 2012 book, “Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Options for both US and Pakistan
While Pakistan makes its calculations, the Trump administration seems much more focused on the military challenges of America’s longest-ever war than its deteriorating relationship with Pakistan.
Trump made no mention of Pakistan in his State of the Union address on Jan. 30, but praised “new rules of engagement” in Afghanistan. A White House “fact sheet” released the same day stated that US commanders now have the “authority and resources needed to deny terrorists the safe haven they seek in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
The president is “making clear to our allies that they cannot be America’s friend while supporting or condoning terror,” said the White House. Suspending aid to Pakistan was “was sending a long overdue message.”
The changes were welcomed by some US military commanders in Afghanistan, who have embraced the new “fight and win” approach Trump spelled out last August. Military hardware is currently being redeployed to Afghanistan from the anti-ISIS fight in Iraq and Syria.
The aim is to “continue to put pressure on the Taliban until they realize they’ve basically got a binary choice: they can negotiate and reconcile, or live in irrelevance and die,” US Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch, head of the air campaign in Kabul, told the Defense One website.
Pakistan and the US both have many options. The US can boost the pressure on Pakistan by imposing sanctions, or strip Pakistan of its non-NATO major ally status, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested last August. It could also declare Pakistan a state-sponsor of terrorism.
Likewise, the US military largely depends on Pakistan as a gateway for supplies in landlocked Afghanistan, and convoys have been shut down in the past, or attacked. And analysts note the lack – so far – of Baghdad-style double truck bombs, or surface-to-air capabilities that could disrupt US-led drones and aircraft, but say such strikes would be a way for militants to escalate at Pakistan’s behest.
The Afghanistan violence “is a forceful response by both the Taliban and their patrons in Pakistan to the Trump administration,” says expert Ahmad. “In the months ahead, Pakistani officials will be reminded increasingly that business as usual is no longer acceptable to the United States.”