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Is Pakistan spooked after Taliban kills terror kingpin who belonged to Kashmir?

Pak Defence Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif (left) and ISI chief Lt.Gen. Nadeem Anjum (right) rushed to Kabul on Wednesday

Within days of the killing by the Taliban of Aijaz Ahmad Ahangar, a Pakistani delegation led by Defence Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif landed in Kabul. More importantly, Asif’s entourage that arrived in Afghanistan on Wednesday included Lt.Gen. Nadeem Anjum Chief of the ISI, Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency marshalled by the military, apart from other less significant senior officials. 

It is obvious that Pakistan is hemorrhaging, and needs to arrive at some understanding with the Taliban on several counts to stop the bleeding. First, the movement of goods and services needs to be restored through key border crossings including Torkham, where the Afghans and the Pakistanis have heavily clashed this week. The problem goes deeper as the Taliban disputes the Durand Line, the colonial-era relic that defines the boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Islamabad is fully aware that powerful Pashtuns who nest under the Taliban have had a long-standing demand for Pashtunistan occupying vast stretches of territory that belong to Pakistan.

Second, the Taliban’s help is also vital to restrain Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which is causing mayhem, striking at will in several Pakistani cities including Peshawar and Islamabad. The group has also revealed its presence in the pivotal Punjab province, Pakistan’s heartbeat, by launching a recent strike in Mianwali.

But Ahangar’s killing would be ringing alarm bells to a new decibel level altogether. Taliban’s strike against an arch-terrorist who wanted to draw the dreaded Islamic State into Kashmir, and pull it into the ambit of global Jihad, is a huge loss. Conversely, it is good news for arch-foe India, which is working energetically to impart a new post-terror identity to the Union Territory since August 5, 2019 on an economic, security and cultural plain. On January 5, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs had designated Ahangar as a terrorist. In little over a month, he is gone.

India Narrative had reported earlier that Ahangar was the architect of a March 2020 suicide bombing by Kasaragod-born Muhammad Muhsin, who killed a security guard and 24 worshippers at the Gurdwara Kart-e Parwan in Kabul. He was believed to be responsible for a suicide attack involving Ijas Kallukettiya Purayil, a one-time dentist from Kerala’s Kasargod, at Jalalabad.

News that Ahangar had been slain was broken by the Islamic State Pakistan (ISPP) official media channel. It added that the Taliban had killed the former head of Islamic State Hind (ISHP) on February 14 in Kabul. However, Amaq, the official publication Amaq of the IS Central is yet to confirm Ahangar’s demise.

The Pakistani delegation arrived in Kabul at a time when divisions within the Taliban ranks have sharpened dramatically.

Taliban’s interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani and the arch-conservative Haibatullah Akhunzada, the spiritual head and supreme leader of the outfit, seem engaged in a red-hot struggle for ascendancy. The Taliban defence minister Mullah Yaqub, another pivotal figure who draws his legitimacy partly because he is fathered by Taliban’s one-eyed founding patriarch Mullah Omar, is known to be close to the Haqqani faction.

The fault lines among the top Taliban ranks have deepened also because of the tribal affiliations. Akhunzada belongs to the tribe of Durranis—Pashtuns who have traditionally ruled Afghanistan. On the contrary, some of the prominent leaders of the Taliban 2.0, including Mullah Yaqub belong to the Ghilzai tribe.

The last time when the Gilzhais exercised leadership was during the time when the Soviets forces had crossed the Hairatan bridge and assumed power in Kabul in 1979. Despite being communists, Afghan leaders Hafizullah Amin and the Babrak Karmal, were noted for belonging to the Ghilzai tribe.

Haqqani is also not a Durrani. Instead, he belongs to the Haqqani tribe.

In the run-up to the Pakistani delegation’s visit, the rivalry between Haqqani and the Akhunzada has turned bitter, and public.

On February 11, Haqqani bull-horned his differences with Akhunzada from his home base in Khost. “Our views and thoughts have dominated us to such an extent that power monopolization and defamation of the entire (ruling) system have become common…this situation cannot be tolerated.” He added that the Taliban administration should desist from adopting policies that would drive a wedge between “the ruling system and the people, allowing others to exploit it to defame Islam.”

From his lair in Kandahar, Akhunzada’s Kandahar faction riposted by saying that Haqqani must not vilify the Emir in public, citing this as a violation of best Islamic practices.

Apparently, the sub-text of the spat between conservatives and ultra-hardliners led by the Kandahar faction, was women’s right to education, which was leading to the Afghan Taliban’s isolation. Even conservative Arab governments including Saudi Arabia were turning their back on the Taliban because of its fixation to unambiguous and unpalatable medievalist practices. Turkey, another heavyweight in the Muslim world has also not hesitated in publicly airing its angst on the issue of women’s education in Afghanistan.

So, at a time when geopolitical alignments are shifting frenetically, what can Pakistan do to get back into the game?

Islamabad’s obvious default position would be to go back to the Kandahar faction, and support Akhundzada in the power struggle with Haqqani and Co. Manipulating the Supreme Leader may not be that hard. Akhundzada, who has lived mostly in Pakistan under the protection of the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi from drone strikes. Akhundzada knows how nasty Pakistan can get. In 2016 the ISI had sold out Akhundzada’s predecessor Akhtar Mansour. Mansour was killed in a US drone strike in Balochistan, while returning from Iran

In order to claw back into the game, Pakistan could well push the Afghans into a Loya Jirga—an assembly of tribes and factions to turn the balance of power inside the Taliban in its favour. Worse, it can attempt to revive another civil war inside Afghanistan, with the backing of powerful friends in the West, who have certainly not forgotten their unseemly exit from Kabul under fire, when the Taliban rode to power on August 15, 2021.

Also Read: Two mysterious killings in Afghanistan, Pakistan bring a major setback to terrorism in Kashmir