The Taliban tightrope

May 25, 2016


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

THE killing of Mullah Akhtar Mansour signals a more aggressive US policy stance, as hopes of the Afghan Taliban coming to the negotiating table fade. The death of the recently elected Taliban leader, who had only just managed to consolidate his authority over the group, has given a new twist to the festering Afghan crisis. That the attack was carried out well inside Pakistan’s territory has worsened the predicament — exposing Pakistan’s vulnerability in balancing an alliance with the United States with maintaining relations with the Afghan Taliban.

Authorised personally by President Obama, the strike marks the most significant American incursion into Pakistan since the 2011 US forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden. By striking in Balochistan — hitherto off-limits for remote-controlled Predators — the US has signalled its willingness to extend the war against Afghan insurgents to targeting sanctuaries within Pakistan, including the Taliban leadership council headquarters, or the Quetta Shura.

It remains a mystery when precisely Pakistan was informed about the strike. US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that Pakistan was notified, although it is not clear whether the notification was given before or after the attack.

According to official US statements, Mullah Mansour was targeted on Saturday afternoon on the main RCD Highway, which connects Pakistan with Iran; despite this confirmation, Pakistan’s Foreign Office remained silent for almost 24 hours. Predictably, Pakistan has accused the United States of crossing the ‘red line’ and claimed the attack was a violation of its sovereignty, while failing to offer any plausible explanation to account for the presence of the insurgent leader on its soil.

However, most intriguing are reports that Mullah Mansour was returning from Iran and travelling on a Pakistani passport, which raises some serious questions about the Taliban’s Iran connection. Another intriguing question is who provided the ground intelligence to the US for the precision strike that killed the Taliban leader and his driver.

Mullah Mansour’s death has further exposed the confusion in Pakistan’s Afghan policy.

This is surely a huge blow to the Taliban — still reeling from news of the death of their founder and supreme leader, Mullah Omar — and is bound to trigger a new battle for succession that may further fragment the group. This incident has occurred at a time when the militia is extending its control over Afghan territory and testing the mettle of Afghan security forces. It may also be the reason the Taliban are hardening their negotiating position with the Afghan government.

It was obvious that the new leadership was not willing to participate in any peace efforts without some preconditions — creating an embarrassing situation for Islamabad, that was expected to bring them to the negotiating table. The escalation in civilian casualties from insurgent attacks in Afghanistan brought the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan to new lows.

The incident has further exposed the confusion in Pakistan’s Afghan policy. Islamabad has long argued that the only way to end the war in Afghanistan is to bring the Taliban into the mainstream. It has repeatedly rejected calls to take military action against the insurgents — whose support networks operate freely within Pakistan — stating that all diplomatic options must be exhausted first. But it has failed to deliver on its promise, claiming that insurgents need incentives to join the peace process. Those incentives were never clearly defined, which has lost Islamabad a lot of credibility as a facilitator.

Pakistan has also been accused of reneging on its pledge — made during the quadrilateral talks and a key component of the peace process’ road map — to take action against the irreconcilable insurgents. There are fewer takers of the argument that Pakistan does not have any influence over the Taliban leadership.

The shift in US policy has compounded Pakistan’s dilemma, drastically limiting its options. There is nothing Pakistan can do if the US expands its drone operations to take out more Taliban commanders. Meanwhile, any use of force against Taliban leaders could trigger a wider conflict – potentially bringing the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban together; a nightmare scenario for the security establishment. There are several candidates for the Taliban leadership, but no obvious successor. Neither of the two deputies who may take charge in the immediate aftermath are proponents of peace and reconciliation.

Many observers believe that the void will further strengthen the position of Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the most powerful insurgent faction. Having been elevated to the position of deputy to the now deceased leader, his influence seems to have increased due to his role in rallying the support of other senior leaders for Mullah Mansour. His elevation to the top could be a red flag for the US, who consider him an extremely dangerous insurgent commander with strong links to Al Qaeda; Pakistan’s alleged patronage of the Haqqani network has been a major source of tension between Islamabad and Washington.

However, most observers believe that the leadership mantle will fall on the shoulders of Mullah Omar’s eldest son, Mullah Yaqub, who was the main challenger to Mullah Mansour before he accepted a senior position within the Taliban hierarchy. Nonetheless, it is not clear how effective he will be as the Taliban’s supreme commander.

It remains premature for the Obama administration to declare the death of Mullah Mansour as a ‘game changer’ and a ‘milestone’ for Afghanistan’s elusive peace process. There is little indication that the militia will change its hard-line position on peace talks after the death of its leader. In fact, there might be an escalation of insurgent attacks in Afghanistan, with each faction attempting to establish its dominance. One major concern is that if the Taliban fragment, it could strengthen international jihadist groups as more hard-line elements join the likes of the militant Islamic State group and Al Qaeda.

This will have serious repercussions for Pakistan that seems to have little control over the Afghan Taliban who have themselves established strategic depth inside Pakistani borders. With no clear strategy in place, tough times are ahead for Pakistan that is fast losing its balance on the tightrope it walks on with the United States and Afghanistan.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2016