India has much to worry about over the rise of the Taliban, an organisation backed by Pakistan that has shown no signs of cutting ties with terror groups such as al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), according to a former CIA official who oversaw operations in Afghanistan.
Douglas London, who was CIA’s counterterrorism chief for South and Southwest Asia during 2016-18, said in an interview that he had seen no evidence of a “kinder, gentler Taliban” and that Pakistan’s support of “jihadi groups has unleashed forces that could eventually go beyond their control and threaten the rule even of the generals” in Rawalpindi.
“I think India has good reason to worry. Pakistan’s policies of supporting various jihadist groups and the Taliban were all done through the prism of Pakistan-India rivalry. They obviously see your country as an existential threat and any issue or challenge to them is viewed through that prism,” said London, who retired in 2019 after 34 years as CIA senior operations officer and chief of station.
“Now you have the Taliban in charge of Afghanistan, and I don’t see them cutting their ties with any of these groups, with the Kashmiri liberation groups that fought with them over the course of the war, the LeT and the JeM,” he said.
London’s remarks come against the backdrop of growing criticism within the US and abroad of President Joe Biden’s handling of the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. His observations are also significant as he was responsible for assessments on Afghanistan prepared for former president Donald Trump, and consulted as a volunteer with Biden’s counterterrorism working group during the campaign for the last US election.
The regional security calculus, London indicated, became more complicated because of India’s military standoff with China on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and China’s efforts to work with Pakistan to influence outcomes in Afghanistan. “Tensions obviously have only increased with China, which is a closer partner with Pakistan and is trying to cultivate stronger relationships with Afghanistan. China is concerned about what will happen if the Taliban support and cultivate Uyghur separatism, and so wish to discourage giving Afghanistan any reason to do so but I see the Taliban leaders as willing to promote and facilitate the jihadist groups with which they have long fought, partnered and even intermarried, and that’s a threat for Pakistan, India and the Central Asia republics,” he said.
London, who has written the book “The Recruiter” about the CIA’s post-9/11 transformation, described a US state department spokesperson’s recent characterisation of the Taliban and Haqqani Network as separate entities as “unfortunate”.
“Officially, we identify the Haqqani Taliban Network – that’s actually its official name in the US intelligence community – as being part of the Taliban. The Haqqanis are, by themselves, a vast and longstanding criminal network, but they… pledged allegiance to the Taliban and fought under the Taliban and really provided the teeth to the Taliban strategy, which was to destabilise the Afghan government…,” he said.
He also pointed to the deep ties between the Haqqani Network and Pakistan’s military establishment, but said he didn’t believe the network was created by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
“The Haqqanis are in bed and in league with the ISI. I wouldn’t say they’re a product of the ISI, which was responsible for enabling the Taliban and the Haqqani Network,” he said.
“They [the ISI] certainly provided great support to the Haqqanis, but it was a co-dependent relationship. The Haqqanis profited from the ISI and the ISI profited from the Haqqanis.”
London said he saw images of ISI chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed arriving in Kabul on Saturday for meetings with the Taliban: “These are all people he’s met before. I mean he was meeting them in Pakistan, though obviously they can’t acknowledge that…”
London also criticised the role of former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, in negotiations with the Taliban that lead to the peace deal signed in Doha, Qatar, in February 2020. The deal, he said, was the “worst agreement I’ve ever seen the US negotiate”.
London suggested the time has come for regional players such as India, Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian states to “realise that they need to start making some changes and finding a way to impede forces that could lead to greater turbulence and instability across the region”.