Panjshir attack pits Iran against Pak’s ISI, changes regional equations

New Delhi, Sep 7: It is evident that Pakistans ISI, backing the Taliban, has marshalled the sophisticated operation in the Panjshir valley on Sunday to decimate the National Resistance Front, led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, the son of the legendary Tajik-Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.

The ISI has been brazen about its support to extinguish the last remnants of resistance to the Taliban, which spectacularly rolled into Kabul on August 15. Faiz Hameed, the ISI chief, openly flaunted his visit to Kabul on Saturday. The carefully choreographed trip had two major objectives. First, Hameed wanted to quickly end the infighting inside the Taliban, which, despite multiple announcements failed to form a new government. Second, Hameed, a rival to Pakistan’s army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, was obsessed about taking charge of the operation in Panjshir. Once the resistance was quickly wrapped up with the use of massive fire power, it would pave the way for the formation of a handpicked government in Kabul, which could be remotely run by Islamabad. Pakistan, in turn, would acquire “strategic depth” which an emboldened Islamabad could use in its confrontation with India in the future.

There were also other tertiary objectives which the ISI hoped to achieve. For starters, Pakistan wanted to demonstrate that armed with Chinese weaponry such as drones, it had become a regional power in the heart of Eurasia. Finally, the Pakistanis wanted to message India that they had mastered modern warfare technology, weaving it into mind-games to assert psychological ascendancy.

Yet, as on previous occasions, ISI is likely to be swallowed by its own hubris. The battle lines with India have already hardened. But the equation between Iran and Pakistan, which appeared to be on the mend, has gone steeply and catastrophically south after Sunday’s ISI driven Panjshir attack.

The Iranians, wanting an inclusive and balanced government in Kabul, have been enraged by the attack on the ethnic Tajiks–people, which Iranians consider as their own. The Iranians have always viewed the Afghan Tajiks are part of their geo-cultural space, following the deep influence of Persian culture on the community. Iran is also highly sensitive about the well-being of the Hazara community, which has been targeted by the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K). The ISI had penetrated IS-K by embedding Aslam Faruqi as the IS-K chief—a fact that the Iranians would find impossible to ignore.

In an obvious reference to Pakistan, Iran on Monday “strongly condemned” the “foreign interference” in Afghanistan after Pakistani drones and helicopters pounded the Panjshir valley–the ground zero of the anti-Taliban resistance.

“Everybody should know that the history of Afghanistan has proved that foreign meddling will result in nothing but failure,” warned Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh while strongly condemning the “extremely worrying” situation in northern Afghanistan.

Khatibzadeh condemned in the strongest terms and expressed regret at the martyrdom of Afghan leaders. The Iranian spokesman was referring to Fahim Dashti, a spokesman of Ahmad Massoud’s National Resistance Front (NRF), who was killed during Sunday’s attacks. Another NRF commander, General Abdul Wadud Zareh, uncle of Ahmad Masoud also died in a drone attack.

Blinded by a culture of impunity, and a racial bias towards the Shia community, which calls the shots in Iran, the ISI has missed factoring the depth of Iranian fury towards Islamabad after the Panjshir attack.

The ISI masterminded attack has had at least two major “big picture” implications. First, it is likely to drive a rift between the Panjshiris and the West, which did not come to their support when needed most. Over the previous decades, the Panjshiris have sacrificed for the West by serving as their key allies both during the anti-Soviet Jihad in the eighties and then against the Taliban post-9/11. The rancour of being used as stooges by the Americans and the NATO to promote one-sided geopolitical goals is unlikely to disappear soon.

Second, the Panjshiris are likely to develop a “Eurasian” rather than a “western” geopolitical mindset, where neighbouring countries like Iran, India, the Central Asians and India would emerge as natural partners against a “rogue” nuclear armed Pakistan, and an opportunistic West which has already vacated the scene.

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