New York Times reported on June 14, 2017, that, “Tora Bora, the mountain redoubt that was once Osama bin Laden’s fortress, fell to the Islamic State early Wednesday, handing the extremists a significant strategic and symbolic victory.” Quoting locals, it reported that, “Taliban fighters who had previously controlled the extensive cave and tunnel complex fled overnight after a determined, weeklong assault by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS”. What is strategic and what are symbolic needs to be determined. Strategically, this force could irk Iran, Russia, China and Pakistan. Symbolically it is a measure of days to come in the region.

For clarification, Tora Bora became OBL’s refuge post 9/11. He was certainly there during the Soviet occupation and also when he fought pitched battles near Jalalabad on behest of President Rabbani. Tora Bora is a complex network of caves, dormitories, parks and even a hydroelectric power plant inside the granite hard jagged mountains built by USA during the Afghan invasion of USSR. Not targetable from the air, the nature of terrain facilitates hideouts and concentration areas from where Mujahidin used to recoup and debouch against Soviet forces. Now they do so against Pakistan.

According to an intelligence analyst, “Just a few days ago a US Bombardier G-6000 Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (electronic & signal intelligence plane) was noted while conducting extensive flights along Pak-Afghan border, covering Tora Bora in its range.”  This coincides with the time when according to New York Times, ISIS started making a foothold in same area. Earlier, on April 13, 2017, US dropped a 22,000-pound bomb nicknamed the “mother of all bombs” in Nangarhar Afghanistan. It was claimed that 92 ISIS militants including 13 Indian Raw agents were killed. It appears that MOAB had a limited effect on these US built fortifications and lives of nomadic terrorists has resumed.

Why the buildup of ISIS in Afghanistan at this stage? Why does the USA, despite its military presence, allow this to happen? Is the development part of the plans to destabilise the region? If so, who are the partners in this tag dance and how will they switch hands?

ISIS concentrations in Afghanistan are in two areas. The northern concentrations along the Uzbek and Kazakhstan border comprise central Asians with experience of fighting in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Russia is very sensitive to these concentrations and finds common cause with Afghan Taliban. Similarly, bordering Iran to the East, Iran has reasons to support these elements so as to keep ISIS away from its doors. These mutual concerns cut across religious and sectarian divides and explain why late Mullah Mansoor got close to Iran.

The ones in Nangarhar are morphing elements of Fazal Ullah led TTP (a group ethnically connected to Afghan Gujjars), Jamat ur Ahrar (Mohmand-Bajaur) and Afghans. These are all Salafi and have fought pitched battles in Pakistan. Fazal Ullah’s group with Afghan travel documents extends right into Kunar in Nuristan, another forested hideout. It is from these bases that militants have been attacking Pakistan including the APS School Peshawar, Bacha Khan University and as far as Lahore. Some of their Punjabi, Baloch and Sindhi elements hiding in wide expanses of Balochistan also have sanctuaries in Afghan strongholds of Kandahar and Helmand. These elements are enemies of Pakistan facilitated by NDS and RAW. With the help of Sunni dissidents in Iran, they enjoy external support from the Gulf. Kulbashan Yadev operating from Iran was handler of some of these groups with reach into Karachi. They also share ideology with Jundallah of Iran.

In April this year there were reports of some ISIS bases thinning out from Iraq and Syria. One assessment was that these could be militants of Central Asian, Chinese, Afghan and Pakistani origin moving to Afghanistan. In May this year, reacting to allegations of supporting Afghan Taliban, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement about an unidentified aircraft flying over Afghanistan assisting ISIS (Daesh). The Speaker of Afghanistan’s Upper House Fazel Hadi Muslimyar asked USA to explain allegations of the unidentified aircraft. The attack on Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haidri was also traced to elements of ISIS in Mastung. Their hideouts were raided by Pakistan Air Force and heliborne forces. The group was an ISIS offshoot of LeJ taking orders through operatives in Afghanistan (India-NDS). The pressing question is, why Maulana Ghafoor Haidri? Haidri is a democrat, pacifist Islamic scholar from JUI, a Deoband party that does not support sectarian divisions.  In fact, their Christian Parliamentarian Asia Nasir is the most vocal advocate of minority rights in Pakistan.

It appears that these floating groups are quickly morphing into ISIS-AFPAK but not without the support of sate actors. ISIS concentrations along the Pak-Afghan border are alarming and an indicator of a new round of violence for which Pakistan must be prepared. Pakistan’s security planners should be particularly worried because Tora Bora provides access to Kurram, Tirah and Orakzai valleys through steep narrow mountain passes and difficult terrain which is a continuation of Tora Bora. Kunar provides infiltration routes to Chitral and Dir. Wakhan Corridor provides infiltration routes to China. The nature of this threat is simple for now and could complicate. It will be a complex maze of who is who and which state actor supports which non-state actor just like Iraq and Syria.

In my article The Devil’s Triangle on March 22, 2014, I explaining the triangle of Middle East, Crimea and Afghanistan. I had explained that the Ukraine crises with Russian reaction had started a new cold and proxy war that would be contested within this triangle. According to Michael Hirsh, “The US and Russia have both crossed a Rubicon in the Ukraine crisis, and Washington must now confront the likelihood that if the standoff continues, it will dramatically alter relations on a much larger map than Eastern Europe, inviting Russian recalcitrance in crisis zones as far afield as East Asia, Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan.” I had shared my hypothesis that exploiting such standoffs, Saudi Arabia would be in a position to clip the Qatari wings and checkmate the growing Iranian (Shia) influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and other areas of the Middle East. Like 9/11, the arrival of President Trump has given these dynamics a time jump.

Middle East is now split between Saudi Arabia and its allies versus Iran. Turkey and Qatar do not approve this policy and are seen standing with Iran. The Ukrainian front has become benign due to Brexit and Trump’s insults to NATO and the EU. So the proxy wars can only spread towards confluence of three Asias, i.e. Pakistan and Afghanistan. The positive side of this turmoil is that the affected countries like Qatar, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon and even Palestine are coalescing beyond sectarian divides. The same could be replicated against ISIS in Afghanistan.

Logically, the emergence of this threat should provide reason to all countries bordering Afghanistan to cooperate with the Afghan Government and also mainstream Afghan Taliban who are anti-ISIS. Iran, Central Asian Republics and Pakistan need to coordinate and cooperate to avert and eliminate the ISIS threat. Afghan Taliban who are already splintered under Russian, Iranian and Pakistani influence need to be synergised to confront ISIS as also mainstream into Afghan politics. However this is easier said than done, without taking into account the turmoil in the Middle East. A lot depends how the USA and its allies behave in Afghanistan and how KSA with its allies over-arcs into this region. Like Israel in the Middle East, India will feel obliged to assist Saudi and US policies in the region.


The writer is a political economist and a television anchorperson.