ISLAMABAD—Donald Trump’s new national security advisor, Gen. H. R. McMaster, will be seeing some familiar names and some familiar problems coming across his desk in the next few days, and months, and very likely years. And they’re not good news.
Afghanistan and Pakistan are coming back into view as centers of terror and unrest potentially every bit as dangerous to the United States as the so-called Islamic State that operates in Iraq and Syria. And Afghanistan’s a part of the world where McMaster discovered his hard charging left him with limp results.
In 2010 his mission was to curb corruption in the U.S.-backed Afghan government—graft, bribery, and theft that undermined everything Washington thought it was trying to do. But some of the people that the United States sent out to build the Afghan nation turned out to be just as corrupt as the locals. And McMaster, even though he worked to understand the Afghan culture, sometimes lost patience.
Asked at a teleconference what he thought Afghans saw as an acceptable level of corruption, McMaster shut down the questioner, acting as if the inquiry made no sense at all and was, indeed, completely unacceptable.
Of course, the problem continued. And what we see now confirms what Af/Pak hands have known all along: the corruption is not just about money, it’s about the whole record of the Afghanistan and Pakistan conflict. You can’t trust the governments you support, not when they are talking about money, and much less when they talk about peace or about “victory.”
What we have seen in the last few days is a bloody reassertion of killing power by various factions of the Pakistani Taliban, known as the TTP—the same group that came very close to blowing up an SUV full of explosives in Times Square in May 2010.
Within the space of a few days, and after almost two years of relative calm, Pakistan has been hit by five suicide bombings and other attacks: On Feb. 13, the target was a protest rally in Lahore, in the rich province of Punjab that used to be considered the peaceful heart of Pakistan. Thirteen people were killed, including two senior police officers. One of those, Mueben Ahamd, was an intelligence officer known for his extensive operations against militants. The Taliban splinter group Al Ahrar claimed the attack.
On Feb. 14, as police tried to defuse a bomb in Quetta it went off, killing two people and wounding 11 . On the 15th, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle rammed a government van carrying senior judges in Peshawar, and other bombers hit a government compound in Mohmand.
On Feb. 16 the attack was on a Sufi shrine in Sehwan in the south of the country, and 88 people died. An offshoot of ISIS claimed responsibility for that atrocity, but in the complicated web of jihadist factions, there are links between ISIS and the Taliban on both sides of the Af/Pak border.
Pakistani authorities promised a merciless crackdown. Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, the chief of the Pakistani army, promised that “each drop of [the] nation’s blood shall be avenged, and avenged immediately.” He vowed there would be “no more restraint for anyone.” And roundups of suspected terrorists began immediately.
But on Tuesday, at least five people died when suicide bombers tried to storm a courthouse in northwest Pakistan.
All this comes after the Pakistani military has conducted several massive military operations against the TTP and other jihadist groups, repeatedly proclaiming that the back of the organization is broken. What the latest attacks prove is that the organization may be wounded, but it is far from dead. Which is, of course, the point the Taliban on both sides of the border want to make.
Muhamamd Khorasni, a spokesman for the TTP militants, sent an email last week announcing that all the fractured Taliban groups are coming together and have appointed a new deputy head of the organization, uniting what had been separate factions.
Another TTP source told The Daily Beast that the organization was dispersed after government offensives that began in 2014, but their ideology and commitment remained and they were able to rebuild. “Your Western media forecasted that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan collapse, but the Taliban regrouped and reorganized. That is exactly what the TTP has been doing since the Pakistan army operations. It bounced back , reorganized, and will take revenge.”
“TTP leaders had a meeting on Jan. 20 near the Af/Pak border,” this source claimed. “All the groups agreed in principle to combine attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
At the same meeting, according to this source, some leaders suggested a general amnesty for those ex-TTP Taliban who had switched their allegiance to ISIS. “We hope they will come back,” he said.
The feeling is that ISIS has no future in the Af/Pak wars, according to several TTP sources. An Afghan Taliban source told The Daily Beast there have been “no clashes between Afghan Taliban and the Afghan chapter of ISIS for a long time, and the Afghan Taliban want ISIS to merge with them.”
The chances of that apparently have improved after U.S. drone strike took out Afghan-ISIS leader Hafiz Saeed Khan last summer. According to this source, he has been replaced by Abu Haseb, who is Afghan, but who used to be a commander in the Pakistani Kashmiri organization Lashkar-e-Taiba.
None of this bodes well for the United States. As a former TTP commander told The Daily Beast, “We are very clear about our Jihad to install an Islamic regime in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but of course the United States are our lifetime and definite Enemy Number One.”
The ongoing blame game between the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, each blaming the other for allowing if not indeed encouraging the rebels fighting their neighbor, has given the Taliban on both sides of the frontier a chance to resume their activities and regain strength.
A well-placed European diplomat notes that the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan are now deeply interconnected, and unless the governments of those two countries find a way to pursue the same anti-Taliban agenda, ”terrorists will remain at large in the world’s most dangerous region, Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
For all these reasons, Gen. McMaster probably would agree with one of his former subordinates who said Af/Pak has been “a sucking chest wound for the United States for the last 15 years.”
Now as U.S. national security advisor, McMaster has the chance as he never has before to try to stop the bleeding. But if he is as smart as many of his colleagues say he is, he probably knows that is just about impossible.
Sami Yousafzai reported from Islamabad, Christopher Dickey from New York