Twin blasts in Kabul: A crisis made in security vacuum in Afghanistan
With the day coming to an end on Thursday, desperate Afghan citizens waiting at the Kabul airport for a safe passage to the US had hoped for a respite from the stifling heat. Some of them were even standing in the knee-deep water of a sewage canal, waiting for the formal departure processes to be completed. But there would be no respite for them, as lurking in the twilight were the terrorists of Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), waiting to detonate the suicide vests they were wearing. As time for the evening prayers neared, the first explosion happened. It was near the Baron Hotel—close to the airport—that was being used as a centre to gather foreign nationals to be taken to the airport for evacuation.
The blast was followed by open gunfire by the terrorists, and then a second blast near the Abbey Gate, where the Afghans waiting in the knee-deep canal became the target. What followed afterwards was a scene of utter chaos and devastation as panic spread in the surrounding areas, and the Taliban along with the locals scrambled to take the injured to hospitals.
As of writing this column, the death toll stands at more than 103—at least 90 Afghans, including children, and 13 American service members. It was a total disaster but not so much of a surprise, however. Terror attack alerts had been issued by several countries including the US and the UK prior to the ISKP attacks on Thursday.
As recently as August 22, the US president's national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, had asserted on CNN's "State of the Union" that, "The threat is real. It is acute. It is persistent. And it is something that we are focused on with every tool in our arsenal." The attack modalities were anticipated to be ranging from missile attacks to bomb-laden truck explosions to the use of suicide bombers. And the authorities—both the Afghans and the international community—knew that an attack(s) was imminent.
The Taliban, in its response, "strongly condemned" the attacks, and added that they had warned the US. The US had also shared limited information with the Taliban to help it secure the perimeters around the Kabul airport. The question is: Despite all the warnings, terror alerts, and the security measures deployed by both the US and the Taliban, how could such a ghastly and brutal attack take place, and right under their very noses?
The are two ways to look at it—from the Taliban perspective and from that of the US.
The Taliban has only recently taken control of the country, and that too with their ruthless use of muscle power. Having ousted the former Afghan government, the Taliban resources are mostly engaged in ensuring stable governance. Fighting the US and capturing towns was one thing, but running a country is a different ball game altogether. With their hands full trying to establish a new governance system and, more importantly, with an intel and security system that is still not well-organised, the Taliban cannot do much on its own to hunt down the ISKP and prevent their well-orchestrated terrorist attacks. A stable security mechanism could have mobilised resources to go door-to-door, search every hideout seeking out the terrorists, but under the current circumstances, one cannot expect this from the Taliban.
Now, if we talk about the international community, their military presence in the country has been significantly reduced, as has been their ability to gather intel effectively. Their network of informers has also been affected—if not fully dismantled—following the Taliban's re-emergence. The foreign troops are mostly focused on the evacuation of foreign nationals, their allies and aids. At best they can tighten security at the Kabul airport and the evacuation handling centres. In their current capacity, more cannot be expected of them either.
Understandably, the withdrawal of foreign forces, the sudden rise of the Taliban and fall of the corrupt Afghan government, and the hurried evacuations have all combined to create a void in the Afghan national security mechanism, which the ISKP leveraged to make this bloody show of a comeback. After a relatively tough phase in 2019 and the first half of 2020, when the ISKP had been pushed to Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, their attacks have become more frequent in 2021. Between January and April this year, the ISKP had launched 77 attacked across Afghanistan, as opposed to 21 during the corresponding period in 2020, according to UN counterterrorism officials.
The fear is, the ISKP will take advantage of the prevailing disconnect between governance and security in Afghanistan and carry out more such attacks to create a position of influence within the country. While fighting the ISKP will pose a new set of challenges for the Taliban, it will also expose the region to further risks of terrorist presence.
While the Taliban itself is regarded by many governments as a terrorist organisation, they are now seeking political legitimacy and acknowledgement from the international community. The ISKP, on the other hand, is a hard-core terrorist organisation that feeds on violence and is likely to attempt further attacks to create a sense of fear in Afghanistan and among its neighbours.
So, what now?
In response to Thursday's attacks, US President Joe Biden—whose authority has been dented by this incident exposing him to criticism from both the Republicans and Democrats—has vowed revenge: "We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay," he said, and asked the military commanders "to develop operational plans to strike ISIS-K [or ISKP] assets, leadership and facilities". How this will be done remains to be seen. Does this mean the US will strike strategic Afghan locations to root out the presence of the ISKP? Would they have the moral courage and appetite for this, especially as they are only just trying to pull out from this "never-ending war"? Perhaps.
The Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid has also reiterated their commitment to the international community that they will "not allow terrorists to use Afghanistan as a base for their operations." This incident, however, has taken away from the Taliban's reputation that they have made through their trailblazing gains against the foreign forces in Afghanistan, and has put them in a precarious position where even those who might see them as a potential ally—including China and Russia—might now question their ability to neutralise internal security threats.
Rooting out the ISKP, however, would be difficult, especially since the mountainous and semi-mountainous terrains of both Kunar and Nangarhar would make it hard for the US to target and eliminate ISKP elements. One must not forget the US' Tora Bora failure.
On the other hand, for the Taliban, hunting down individuals in such rough terrains would also be difficult, although they are better-equipped with the knowledge of the geology, since they had also used similar hideouts not so long ago. But without additional intel and logistics, it will be a tough challenge for them.
How does one eliminate the ISKP threat?
One way of dealing with this problem is through strategic collaboration. While having to form a strategic alliance with the Taliban might seem distasteful to many Western countries, this might be a potential solution to address the threat of ISKP's rise. With no presence on the ground after the planned August 31 pull-out, the US and its western allies might have to consider forming strategic security partnerships with the Taliban so that both parties can leverage and combine their strengths to make ISKP pay for this heinous crime.
While Afghanistan being ruled by the Taliban is not a desirable outcome for anyone, it being used as a base by ISKP is a more horrifying prospect. US Centcom Commander Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie has already said that the country is sharing some intelligence with the Taliban for security reasons: "They don't get the full range of information we have. But we give them enough to act in time and space to try to prevent these attacks" (CNN). However, to eliminate ISKP, this limited-scale collaboration between Afghanistan and the West needs to go on for some time. It cannot be a stop-gap measure, otherwise the ISKP will leverage the current chaos to turn it to its advantage.
There is no alternative to collaboration to neutralise ISKP, and the world powers must come together in this fight against the Islamic State offshoot in Afghanistan. Both the Taliban and the international community are responsible for the rise of the ISKP, and both now must work together to eliminate it.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle: @tasneem_tayeb