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The Great Game Revisited: Geopolitical Manoeuvring and Militancy in South Asia

© AP Photo / Ebrahim NorooziA Taliban fighter mans his weapon during celebrations one year after the Taliban seized the Afghan capital, Kabul, in front of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.
A Taliban fighter mans his weapon during celebrations one year after the Taliban seized the Afghan capital, Kabul, in front of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.  - Sputnik India, 1920, 07.04.2024
In the era of proxies and hybrid warfares, countries employ non-state actors to advance their interests and confront their adversaries without directly risking the lives of their own citizens. This approach often leads to the unintended consequence of innocent civilians in other countries becoming casualties.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, numerous active terrorist groups are functioning as non-state actors. These include Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP*), ISIS-K**, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM), Hizbul Mujahideen, and separatist groups as per the South Asia terrorism report.
However, this year, ISIS-K has demonstrated itself to be an even more ruthless and brutal terrorist organisation, carrying out terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and now Russia.
Two bomb blasts occurred in the Iranian city of Kerman on January 4, 2024, during a commemoration for a prominent Iranian general who the US killed in 2020. These attacks were claimed by ISIS-K. Similarly, on March 22, 2024, the same terrorist organisation, ISIS-K, carried out a brutal and lethal attack in Moscow, resulting in the loss of 139 lives.
On Thursday, an attack by the Jaish al-Adl terror group, operating from the Pakistan-Iran border, resulted in the deaths of 11 Iranian soldiers.

A Threat to Global Peace & Security

The attacks of ISIS-K raise the question here: if ISIS-K is an Islamic organization, then why does it primarily target anti-American states rather than attacking US allies, Israel, and other anti-Islamic states or organizations that are involved in killings in Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria?

"Forget the peace doves and olive branches—the new battleground for global security is chaotic! The rise of non-state actors (NSAs) like ISIS-K paints a grim picture for global security and civilian safety in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Pakistan," Salman Javed,a South Asian geopolitical analyst, told Sputnik.

Furthermore, it is noteworthy that these groups have found safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan, both of which have already suffered due to the so-called American's "war on terror."

"I think, the recent increase [ISIS-K] in attacks from Afghanistan shows the limitations of the 2020 US-Taliban agreement. Despite reported cooperation between the US and the interim Taliban*** government, the ability of ISIS-K to operate across borders raises concerns about potential attacks beyond Afghanistan," Mr S. Javed told.

He further elaborated, "This isn't just about ISIS-K. The TTP, with its history of recruiting from Pakistan's tribal areas, further destabilises the region."
However, due to US military interventions in Afghanistan, from Iran to Afghanistan and from India to Pakistan, thousands of people have lost their lives, been displaced from their homes, and have been radicalized, leading to the spread of hatred and extremism among communities in these regions.

What Have NATO and the US Left in Afghanistan: the Legacy of Terrorism?

The escalation of terrorism from South Asia to Central Asia is commonly linked to conflicts, interventions, sponsored elements, and unwise policies endorsed by the US, which prioritises its own interests above all else. Before the US and NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the sole presence of a terrorist organisation in the region was that of the Taliban.

"Frankly speaking, all these terrorist groups have been strategic alliance and working partnership with US, CIA and Pentagon in fight against communism/USSR in the past however, after the departure and subsequent collapse of USSR, these rented so-called Jihadi groups had been discarded and discredited by the international establishment," Dr. Mehmood Ul Hassan Khan, an geopolitical expert, & Executive Director at the Center for South Asia & International Studies (CSAIS) told Sputnik, "In shorter term, it seems to be no concrete role of the US and NATO in this region against these terrorist groups which are being used to marginalize China and its economic projects in the region by the anti-China regional countries and the global establishment."

He further added, "It seems that the US Military Complex Theory is at its peak to implement China’s Containment Theory and China’s Economic Collapse Theory in the region by using these non-state actors against Chinese nationals and CPEC projects."
Nevertheless, subsequent to the pullout and the Doha agreement of 2021, Afghanistan currently harbours over five operational terrorist organisations. In addition, Pakistan, being a neighbouring country, has also emerged as a fertile environment for extremist organisations.
These terrorist groups' acts have made the gravity of the threat to world peace and stability quite clear. ISIS-K has reportedly killed 300 people in fifteen separate terrorist acts in South and Central Asia in the last three months. Because of this, we need to know who is funding and directing the attacks by ISIS-K.

"ISIS cells, operating from Afghanistan as a launching point, have carried out attacks in Russia, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey this year. This resurgence of non-state actors like ISIS-K is a chilling reminder that these groups don't play by the traditional rules.Their brutal tactics, as evidenced by major attacks like the 2021 Kabul airport attack, a streak of targeted attacks in Pakistan in the pre- and post-general election context, an attack in Iran on the death anniversary of Qasim Solemani, the Turkiye attack, and now the Moscow attack, destabilise governments in particular and regional security in general," Salman Javed, an expert concluded.

Overall, it would appear that the explanation is simple: whoever attacked the Nord Stream pipeline in Europe is also behind the attack in Moscow, be it ISIS-K or some other masked militant organisation. Notably, the main suspects of terrorist attack in Crocus City Hall in the case tried to flee the scene in a car but were detained and charged with terrorism. Russian authorities believe their plan was to flee to Ukraine, where the masterminds of the attack had arranged a safe haven for them. An investigation is underway.

Transnational Terrorism's Impact on Regional Relations

However, the activities of ISIS-K and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran have strained relations between the three neighbouring countries. Recent terrorist incidents include Iran and Pakistan violating each other's airspace and Pakistan taking military action in Afghanistan against the TTP by conducting air strikes.
Since the emergence of cross-border terrorism, the relationship among South Asian states has strained.
"The terrorist actions of the TTP, Haqqani networks, ISIS-K, and other militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan have instigated a series of conflicts among South Asian nations, mainly infiltration, cross-border heavy shelling, surgical air strikes, and the mutual blame game, which sabotaged the good repo of bilateral ties, decreased trade volumes, and weakened prospects of trans-regional connectivity, socio-economic integration, and FDIs," Mehmood Ul Hassan Khan, a geopolitical analyst told Sputnik.
*banned terrorist group
**ISIS (ISIL/Daesh/Islamic State/IS), a terrorist group banned in Russia and many other countries
**under UN sanctions
Security officials inspect the site of a bomb blast that killed two people and wounded 22 others at a busy shopping district in Lahore on January 20, 2022.  - Sputnik India, 1920, 13.01.2024
Sputnik Opinion
Rise of Militant Groups Sparks Terrorist Turmoil in Pakistan & Afghanistan
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