Thousands of Pakistani terrorists from Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and other groups are currently fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan in a clear violation of the 2020 peace deal signed by the Taliban and the US, according to reports from security agencies.
The assessments come at a time of growing alarm in the international community, including India, at the Taliban’s rapid resurgence in Afghanistan that some intelligence agencies fear is poised to wrest control of key parts of the country from the Afghan government.
A majority of the LeT and JeM fighters are active in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces in eastern Afghanistan and Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the country’s southeast, according to information gathered by Afghan and Indian security agencies, people aware of the matter said. All four Afghan provinces share borders with Pakistan – Kunar and Nangarhar with the erstwhile tribal areas and the other two with Balochistan.
Terrorist fighters from other Pakistan-based groups such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jamaat-ul-Arhar, Lashkar-e-Islam and al-Badr have also been spotted fighting alongside the Taliban in sizeable numbers, these people said on condition of anonymity.
Pakistani terrorists have also been sighted in Ghazni, Khost, Logar, Paktia and Paktika provinces in south and southeast Afghanistan, the people said, citing the latest reports from security agencies. In these regions alone, the number of Pakistani fighters from LeT has been estimated at 7,200, the people added.
“LeT men are being hired as advisers, commanders and administrators by the Taliban in several areas,” one of the people cited above said. “There has also been fresh recruitment of fighters in Pakistan by LeT and JeM for fighting in eastern Afghanistan,” the person added.
Reports suggest that Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the military chief of the Afghan Taliban and son of late Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar, is working closely with LeT and JeM commanders.
Security agencies have also learnt of hundreds of Taliban fighters being trained in LeT camps at Hyderabad, a town in Pakistan’s Punjab province located between Faisalabad and Dera Ismail Khan in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. The training was done with the support of the Pakistani military, the people said.
“The LeT and JeM terrorists are deployed in Afghanistan in groups of about 200, which includes five to eight suicide bombers. There are also reports of Pakistani intelligence officials being embedded with these groups, which is a tactic that was resorted to in the past,” said a second person.
The information gathered by the security agencies is largely in line with the findings in the latest report by the UN Security Council’s analytical support and sanctions monitoring team, which was issued in June and said the Afghan Taliban had shown no signs of cutting ties with al-Qaeda and other foreign terrorist groups.
“A significant part of the leadership of Al-Qaida resides in the Afghanistan and Pakistan border region, alongside Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent. Large numbers of Al-Qaida fighters and other foreign extremist elements aligned with the Taliban are located in various parts of Afghanistan,” the UN report had said.
In mid-2020, the UN sanctions monitoring team had stated in another report that 6,500 Pakistani terrorists were operating in Afghanistan, and JeM and LeT played a key role in bringing foreign fighters into the country.
There have been reports that LeT and JeM, both blamed for high-profile attacks in India, have sent hundreds of fighters to Afghanistan since 2019, following increased pressure on Pakistan from organisations such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and Western powers to crack down on terror groups.
The Taliban have dramatically expanded their hold on Afghan territory in recent months, leaving the US-backed government in control of little more than 20% of the country, according to data compiled by the Long War Journal, Bloomberg reported on Saturday. The insurgent group now holds 204 of 407 districts, up from 73 at the beginning of May, while the Afghan government only controls 74 currently. The rest are contested.
The latest UN sanctions monitoring team’s report cited an unnamed UN member state as reporting that “there is regular communication between the Taliban and Al-Qaida on issues related to the peace process” in Afghanistan. The report further said that al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which consists primarily of Afghan and Pakistani nationals, “operates under the Taliban umbrella” from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces.
AQIS is “reported to be such an ‘organic’ or essential part of the insurgency that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to separate it from its Taliban allies”, the report said, adding that the widow of former AQIS leader Asim Umar was among 5,000 Taliban prisoners freed in 2020 as part of the agreement with the US.
The Haqqani Network, which has close ties with Pakistan’s military and intelligence, “remains a hub for outreach and cooperation with regional foreign terrorist groups and is the primary liaison between the Taliban and Al-Qaida”, the UN report added.
Taliban’s failure to cut ties with foreign terrorists is a clear violation of the agreement the group signed with the US in Doha in February 2020, which paved the way for the drawdown of American forces. Under the pact, the Taliban had made a commitment to take several steps to prevent any group or individual, including al-Qaeda, from using the soil of Afghanistan.
Sameer Patil, fellow for international security studies at Gateway House, said reports of LeT’s presence in Afghanistan are not new but the group’s involvement in the current violence are worrisome. “The presence of LeT in parts of Afghanistan is not new. But the withdrawal of US troops and expanding control of Taliban since last year have encouraged LeT to increase its presence and activities. Clearly, the group is looking to up its activities after lying low for the past few years,” he said.