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Opinion

Ironies

FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

There is no honor in this war.

In all combat sports, like boxing, a fighter is not allowed to stomp on an opponent’s head when he is already down. The victor is directed to his corner. The vanquished accepts his fate with grace.

In Afghanistan, the US has clearly lost. The superpower is now reduced to the ignominy of hurriedly evacuating its nationals and allies through Kabul airport. Washington, despite its military might, cannot negotiate an extension of the evacuation. The Americans have lost all leverage.

By today, all evacuation operations should have ceased. The remaining one or two days will be entirely for the evacuation of the 6,000 US troops and 1,000 British commandos deployed for the rescue operation. Even that could turn out to be a perilous maneuver. Any military contingent is most vulnerable when it is in retreat.

Last Thursday, at least two suicide bombers managed to elbow their way close to American troops to detonate their bombs. Thirteen US Marines were killed. An undetermined number were wounded. Scores of Afghans, pushing close to the perimeter for the chance to escape this forsaken country, were killed and injured. Many of these were Taliban fighters.

This tragedy became even worse. The evacuation operation, difficult as it already was, became a thousand times more challenging.

Hours before the suicide attacks, Western capitals warned their nationals to stay away from the airport. They said an attack was imminent, citing reliable sources. This sort of intelligence could only have come from the Taliban.

In the hours after the attack, Western intelligence was attributing the brutality on the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) – an extremist group earlier believed to have 3,000 fighters in eastern Afghanistan. That force has been severely decimated in skirmishes with the US Army, the Afghan National Army and, lately, the Taliban. They are believed to have regained some of their fighters when the Taliban released thousands of prisoners from the Pul-e-Charki jail in Kabul last Aug. 15.

The ISKP (sometimes called the ISIS-K) is hostile to the Taliban, accusing the latter of abandoning global jihad. It has an established reputation for brutality. A few years ago, this group attacked a maternity hospital, slaughtering pregnant women and nurses at the facility.

The attack at the Kabul airport perimeter was not only meant to add ignominy to America’s defeat. It was also meant to embarrass the Taliban and undercut its claims to controlling the entire country.

ISKP is one of several groups challenging Taliban dominance. In several remote areas, local warlords have kept their arms to resist Taliban rule.

Consolidating Taliban control over a wild and diverse country once described as the “graveyard of empires” will be a long-term challenge for Kabul’s new rulers. The task will be even more challenging as the economy fails and as the various tribal ethnicities (including Uighurs, by the way) become more restless.

When the largely illiterate Taliban fighters actually occupy Kabul airport in the next few days, they will not have the talent to operate that facility. For that matter, the new bosses of Kabul do not have the talent to establish a functioning nation-state.

The ISKP’s base is along a major drug smuggling route to Pakistan. This is clearly how this fringe movement supports itself. This will be a strategic worry for Afghanistan’s eastern neighbor, along with the threat of expanded terrorist activity in the populous South Asian country. Any support Islamabad might be willing to extend to Kabul will certainly be conditioned on eradicating the ISKP.

Any functioning link the ISKP has with the mainline Taliban movement is through an intermediary Western intelligence simply refers to as the “Haqqani network.” The leader of this network is Khalil Haqqani, who carried a $5-million bounty on his head. He is now in charge of security in Kabul for the Taliban.

The Western powers have lost all capability to gather intelligence on the ground after the rapid Taliban takeover and the massive evacuation that ensued. It is very likely the advance information gathered by Western intelligence about the planned attack on the airport came from the Haqqani group.

It is significant that Washington has not blamed the Taliban for the airport attack. Days before, Biden was talking tough. He warned US troops would respond quickly and decisively should any incident materialize at the perimeter.

There was little the Western capitals could do with the information they had. Taliban fighters controlled the area beyond the airport perimeter. The heavily armed helicopters US forces maintain at the airport are useless in deterring suicide bombers.

The boldness with which the ISKP acted in attacking US troops at the airport tells us there is a constituency for the brand of ruthless radicalism espoused by this group. A jihadist movement itself, the Taliban might find itself seeking Western support to eliminate extremist jihadists in a country they ostensibly control.

Although the Western powers would rather not have anything to do with the Taliban that had just dealt them a humiliating defeat, they will soon need Taliban support to prevent the ISIS and Al Qaeda from further spreading from the Sahel to pockets of influence in Africa and Southeast Asia (including Mindanao).

This will add to the many ironies that shaped human history.

Recall how the Western powers rushed every imaginable support to help Germany and Japan recover after WWII in an effort to curb Soviet influence. The Soviet Union was an ally of the US-led bloc fighting the Nazis.

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