Targeting the masterminds

Targeting the masterminds

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Apparently for the first time, Afghan President Dr Ashraf Ghani recently conceded that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan head Maulana Fazlullah was hiding in Afghanistan.

During the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad, he said that around 40 military actions had been undertaken against the Pakistani Taliban led by Fazlullah in eastern Afghanistan and promised to do more to kill or capture them.

Ashraf Ghani’s confession angered General Rahmatullah Nabeel, the long-time chief of the Afghan intelligence agency, National Directorate of Security (NDS), to such an extent that he took to Facebook to criticise his democratically elected president. In fact, this was one of the reasons – along with President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Pakistan to attend the Afghanistan-focused Heart of Asia conference and his renewed efforts to befriend Islamabad – that led to the NDS chief’s resignation. Did Rahmatullah Nabeel’s anger stem from the fact that the NDS had developed contacts with Fazlullah and other Pakistani militants and harboured them in a tit-for-tat response against Pakistan for harbouring the leaders of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network?

We may not know the full answer to such questions because intelligence agencies operate discreetly and normally leave no trail to find out the truth. Also, with the departure of the NDS chief appointed five years ago by the then president Hamid Karzai, and President Ashraf Ghani now free to name a replacement of his choice, it is possible that his efforts to improve relations with Pakistan will move ahead more purposefully and Islamabad too would be able to sincerely facilitate the much-needed peace talks between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban. Such a possibility would benefit both countries as the militants are presently able to exploit the situation to their advantage by using the soil of one country to attack the other.

Though it was an open secret that Fazlullah and his men had found sanctuaries in Afghanistan since the summer of 2009 when they escaped the operation by Pakistan’s security forces in Swat and the rest of the Malakand division and parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), the Afghan government until now was in a state of denial. The admission by the Afghan president that the TTP head is present in his country is significant for the people of Pakistan, particularly the families of the 147 persons who were killed at the Army Public School in Peshawar by Afghanistan-based Pakistani Taliban on December 16, 2014.

The bereaved families have been asking the Pakistan government to help them seek justice by tracking down and punishing the masterminds of the carnage. They must have been relieved somewhat that four facilitators of the APS attack have already been hanged after being convicted by the military courts, while two others have also been awarded the death sentence and one more given life imprisonment. However, they are also aware that the three masterminds of the attack are still at large and based in Afghanistan – and no doubt plotting their next assault in Pakistan.

It is no longer a secret as to who the masterminds of the APS attack were. The capture of the facilitators – Hazrat Ali who was named by the army as the financier, Maulvi Abdul Salam and Mujeebur Rahman who harboured the six terrorists in their houses in Jamrud on the way to Peshawar, and Sabeel who transported them to the APS – must have enabled the authorities to fill in the blanks and confirm the identity of the masterminds.

As the TTP had claimed responsibility for the APS attack, it could not have happened without Fazlullah’s consent and orders. This makes him one of the masterminds of not only the attack on the APS but also numerous others. Aurangzeb, who now calls himself as Khalifa Umar Mansoor, from Adezai village in Peshawar district near Darra Adamkhel was the real mastermind as he claimed responsibility for the attack. He got picture photograph taken with the six suicide bombers before they embarked on the mission, and threatened further assaults. In fact, he followed it up by organising the daring attack on the Pakistan Air Force base in Badaber. Another mastermind was stated to be one Asif aka Haji Kamran, who was believed to be the operational commander for the APS attack.

Pakistan’s military authorities identified the attackers as members of the little known Towheed al-Jihad group, which was stated to have been originally formed by late TTP commander Tariq Afridi, who hailed from Darra Adamkhel and also had an influence on militants in the Khyber and Orakzai tribal agencies. However, the group owed allegiance at the top to the TTP, which over the years has been using different front organisations to claim responsibility for some of the attacks and confuse the intelligence agencies keeping track of them.

It certainly would be challenging to locate and eliminate the masterminds of the attack. The cooperation of the Afghan government and the residual US-led Nato forces still deployed in Afghanistan are needed to accomplish this task. The former is claiming to have almost 400,000 soldiers and cops. Though they are over-occupied in fighting the resurgent Taliban, some could be spared to go after the Pakistani militants in the Kunar, Nangarhar, Nuristan and Khost provinces. Since many Pakistani militants have joined the Islamic State, or Daesh, it would also be in Afghanistan’s interest to act against them and at the same time oblige Pakistan. The US through its airpower, particularly the drones, has been targeting Daesh and other militants, but it needs to do more to target the TTP fighters threatening Pakistan.

If requested, Pakistan should provide intelligence to the Afghan government to hunt down the masterminds of the APS assault and others busy planning new cross-border attacks. The memorandum of understanding between the NDS and the ISI fell by the wayside due to the deep distrust between Islamabad and Kabul. It can be revived if the recent breakthrough in their relations is sustained to overcome the mistrust. For this to materialise, Pakistan would have to – in the words of President Ashraf Ghani – earn Afghanistan’s trust.

The most practical way to make this happen would be to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiations table and push them to make peace with the Afghan government.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email:© The News International