Afghanistan — the limits of intelligence and the way forward

Pakistan’s uneasiness is natural after the recent spike in TTP/Da’esh-sponsored attacks

Inam Ul Haque August 17, 2023
The writer is a retired major general and has an interest in International Relations and Political Sociology. He can be reached at and tweets @20_Inam


Around the 2nd anniversary of Afghanistan under Taliban on 15th August, there are certain important developments in Pak-Afghan relations. On August 1, 2023, Foreign Minister Bilawal, irked by ambivalence of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) towards the TTP issue, commented: “We will act under international law to defend ourselves. If the Afghan authorities don’t act, then action inside can be one of the options but not the first option.” He expected IEA action against TTP and offered help if there was an IEA capacity issue.

Pakistan’s uneasiness is natural after the recent spike in TTP/Da’esh-sponsored attacks, ostensibly planned and executed from Afghan soil with Afghan participation. As a rare response, Afghan interim defence minister Mullah Yaqub in an interview during first week of August revealed that Moulvi Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban spiritual leader, has declared attacks outside Afghanistan ‘haram’ and not jihad, through an internally circulated decree not shared with the press.

On 7 August, COAS Gen Asim Munir ratcheted up the pressure repeating Army’s position of not pursuing dialogue with TTP, during a tribal jirga in Peshawar. He reiterated “...there is no option for these terrorists except to submit to the writ of state of Pakistan before they are decimated, if they persist on their wrong path.” In a close follow-up, the recently appointed special representative on Afghanistan, Ambassador Asif Durrani, during his three-day trip to Kabul delivered a stern message for IEA to stick to its commitments made under Doha Agreement in restraining TTP. About the purported ‘executive order’ by Moulvi Akhundzada declaring attacks against Pakistan forbidden and haram, he urged making the cited order/decree public for it to make an impact.

The above factual situation leads to some policy pointers.

First, as repeatedly argued in this space and elsewhere, Pakistan needs to pursue “religious diplomacy” with Kabul, and Moulvi Akhundzada is the way to go. This point seems to have sunk. And it will accrue benefits otherwise not possible from a recalcitrant, reclusive and devout cohort of Kandahar-based IEA ideologues, the movers and shakers of the IEA and the wider Taliban movement including their brothers-in-arms, the TTP. Quetta (read Kandahar) shura still is the final arbiter of IEA’s domestic policy, external relations especially the vexing issue of TTP. Our religious maneuver seems to have made some progress as Mullah Yaqub, the interlocutor-on-scene, is the son of Mullah Omer, the founder of TTA/IEA. Religious diplomacy must be relentlessly pursued.

Second, it must also be understood that going whole hog against TTP is not possible or practical for IEA, due to their internal divisions on the issue, their deep-seated combat comradeship with TTP rank and file, and the issue’s ‘perceived’ religious dimension. It is hoped that Afghan politics and sociology would ultimately work overtime to settle the issue. Previous writings contain details. TTP ultimately would become IEA’s proverbial ‘bone stuck in the neck’. For the moment, IEA leadership seems to have realised that TTP terrorism can negatively affect their security calculus, economic prospects and Pakistan’s indispensable relevance and benevolence, hence this ‘executive order’.

Third, Pakistan’s relevant policy establishment has repeatedly erred about Afghanistan when driven by personal impulse and not institutional input. A close door session in August 2021 (just before Kabul fell) was briefed by the then spy chief — as leaked to the press — that Pakistan did not support a Taliban military take-over of Kabul; that it was opposed to an 18th Century mindset; and that TTA and TTP were different sides of the same coin. This to one’s understanding was deeply personal assessment, not backed by institutional input, extremely ill-timed, ill-advised and derogatory about an ascendant asset.

Before that, in February 2021, the then Army Chief during a meeting at GHQ ‘reportedly’ apprised the visiting CENTCOM Chief, General Frank McKenzie, that IEA control of Kabul would be strongly contested by Afghan National Army, offering stiff resistance. He assessed IEA would take more than a year to capture Kabul once the US left, a period sufficient to negotiate an ‘inclusive government’. Based on such input and their own intelligence, the US initial estimation for IEA to capture Kabul was 9 months subsequently revised to 3 months.

One finds it hard to believe the assessment of an all too familiar situation going haywire; and leads one to reckon that the presented stances were more likely based upon personal proclivities, likes and dislikes, and not upon hardcore institutional input. Interestingly most of us, the Afghan watchers, were expecting outcomes, as these unfolded, being too obvious. The fall of Kabul exposed the limits of the US and Pakistani intelligence alike.

The next miscalculation was expecting the IEA to arrest all TTP operatives, killing some while handing others over to Pakistan once Kabul fell. Anyone with some understanding would have known the gullibility and simpleness of such expectations. However, this should be seen separately from Pakistan’s overall correct support for the IEA, as frequently criticised by the liberal, vehemently anti-Pashtun and anti-IEA brigade. Criticising general support for IEA is not knowing the wider regional geo-strategic construct. Pakistan today stands relieved from a hostile western front.

The most recent faux pas is to pursue negotiations with TTP under the aegis of Haqqanis, inside Kabul, through a motley crowd called jirga, headed by the spymaster in person, with full backing of the then COAS and the PTI government. If only TTP demands were any guide, this exercise was doomed to failure, as it did.

Why such repeated miscalculations? The US being extra-regional, extra-ethnic and extra-religious may be exonerated. Pakistan’s errors of judgement need some explanation. Staffing intelligence agencies and foreign office’s Afghan desk, for example, with officers and operatives not immersed into Afghanistan’s socio-anthropological understanding, geo-strategic and political knowledge, etc is sinfully criminal. Cadre with compatible language skills, background and perhaps ethnicity may avoid future missteps like it was in the heyday of Soviet war.

Relying on tribal jirgas during crises is a poor strategy and has never yielded and never will. State interlocutors should be savvy, accomplished and beyond credit-taking and tamgha syndrome. Resolution of intractable issues needs patience, perseverance and capability...not rank alone. And in Afghanistan, other ethnicities also need to be engaged besides the dominant Pashtuns.

In sum, our intelligence scorecard despite having a superior resource is mixed. It could be better!

Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2023.

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