With the death of the Taliban chief within a year of taking over, focus is now on the Taliban’s future and strained US-Pakistan ties
New Delhi: Within a year of being ‘elected’ leader, the Afghan Taliban’s second emir has been killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan’s Balochistan province on Saturday – raising question marks about the future of Taliban and its consequences for the fragile US-Pakistan relationship.
His predecessor, Mullah Omar had also died in a hospital in a Pakistani metropolitan city, but the news was kept secret for two years till the Afghan government announced it publicly in July last year.
“I can’t imagine that the Pakistanis are very happy. It remains to be seen if the Pakistanis will complain loudly that their sovereignty had been violated or that they will just swallow this quietly. They had after all invested a lot in Mullah Mansour. He was their guy,” Rakesh Sood, India’s former ambassador to Afghanistan told The Wire.
News about the Taliban chief broke via a tweet from the Pentagon press secretary, who announced a “precision airstrike” against Mullah Mansour. There was no mention of the location of the strike, but the vagueness of the description – “remote area of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region” – in the US Department of Defence’s official statement was a clue that the attack was inside Pakistani territory.
The first official statement implying that Mansour was dead came from the Afghan president’s office. “In the event of Mullah Mansour’s killing, a new opportunity presents itself to those Taliban who are willing to end war and bloodshed,” a tweet from the official Twitter account of the Presidential palace noted on Sunday afternoon.
The National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, was the first to get off the fence and confirm both Mansour’s death and the location of the strike with a tweet on Sunday:
Within the hour, the number two in Afghanistan’s National Unity Government, Abdullah Abdullah also tweeted. “#Taliban leader #AkhtarMansoor was killed in a drone strike in Quetta, #Pakistan at 04:30 pm yesterday. His car was attacked in Dahl Bandin,” he posted.
By that time, photographs were available from agencies which purported to show the mangled, burnt-out remains of the taxi in which Mansour was travelling under an assumed name. Two bodies, one of them in a crate and another wrapped up in clothes, were photographed at a Quetta hospital morgue. According to AFP, there was “huge difference” in the way in which the bodies were treated, with a plainclothes intelligence official accompanying the ‘nephew’ who claimed Wali’s body.
Interestingly, the AFP report also indicates that Mansour could have been returning from Iran under a Pakistani passport issued to Muhammed Wali.
The official line given for taking out the Taliban supreme leader was his refusal to join the talks. “Mullah Akhtar Mansour obstructed development and progress in Afghanistan and obstinately insisted on continuing the war,” the Afghan president posted on Twitter.
The US’s DoD also provided the the same argument: “Mansur has been an obstacle to peace and reconciliation between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, prohibiting Taliban leaders from participating in peace talks with the Afghan government that could lead to an end to the conflict”.
Later, US secretary of state John Kerry also noted in his pit stop in Myanmar that Mansour was a “threat” to the effort of “bringing an end to the violence and suffering the people of Afghanistan have endured for so many years now”.
The Pakistani establishment maintained an unusual silence more than 24 hours after the drone strike, the only statement coming from foreign office spokesperson Nafees Zakarai, who said on Sunday evening that Pakistan was “seeking clarification” on reports of Mansour’s death within Pakistani territory.
“Military action is not a solution,” he added, noting that Pakistan wanted the Taliban to return to the negotiating table. It was only late on Sunday night that the Pakistani foreign office confirmed that Islamabad learned about the drone strike after it took place.
“On late Saturday 21st May, 2016, the United States shared information that a drone strike was carried out in Pakistan near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area, in which reportedly the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhter Mansoor was targeted. This information was shared with the Prime Minister and the Chief of Army Staff after the drone strike,” said the foreign ministry.
It confirmed that ‘Wali Mohammed’ with a Pakistan passport and a “valid Iranian visa” entered from the Taftan border and took a taxi, which was bombed on May 21. The body of the taxi driver had been claimed by relatives, but the identity of the “second body” was being “verified”.
“While further investigations are being carried out, Pakistan wishes to once again state that the drone attack was a violation of its sovereignty, an issue which has been raised with the United States in the past as well,” said Pakistan’s foreign office.
According to Michael Kugelman, a South Asian expert at Washington-based Wilson Centre, Mansour’s death is a “big blow” to the already-strained US-Pakistan relationship.
“The Pakistanis have been humiliated by a US air strike that targeted a critical Pakistani asset on Pakistani soil. This is the first time a U.S. drone strike targeted a “good Taliban” figure on Pakistani soil. And unlike with drone strikes of the past, when the Pakistanis cooperated with the Americans on hits against al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban figures, we can assume that Pakistan knew little to nothing about this in advance,” he told The Wire.
Earlier on Sunday, Kerry said that he “notified” Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif on the phone after the strikes that Mansour had been “likely killed”.
In New Delhi, an Indian official said that it was highly unlikely that Pakistan would have provided the US with coordinates of Mullah Mansour, who had been “their man” in the Taliban.
“Since Washington isn’t as keen to seek Pakistan’s cooperation in Afghanistan, it’s willing to be less patient about Pakistan’s refusal to deal with the Haqqani network, or to try to get the Taliban to the peace table. In a sense, the hit on Mullah Mansour is a logical consequence of Washington’s unwillingness to wait it out anymore with Pakistan,” he added.
The Royal United Services Institute’s Shashank Joshi described the strike as “unprecedented” and a “milestone event”, but does not believe that the aftermath will be “Abottabad Mk. II”.
“However, I think the Pakistani military will be concerned that the US is willing to stray into Balochistan and that its intelligence is sufficiently good to have found Mansour in an area that – unlike Waziristan – is largely within the Pakistanis’ control,” he said.
Washington ups ante
The attack also comes as Pakistan faced a diplomatic setback with the US Congress putting a hold on subsidising Islamabad’s purchase of eight F-16 aircraft. Congress had set Pakistani the action against the Haqqani network as one of the conditions for removing its hold on the use of $430 million from Foreign Military Financing programme.
The drone strike in Balochistan will not, however, herald a major US campaign in the province, believes Joshi, “but it could put a lot more pressure on the Taliban”. Over the years, Pakistan has so far refused to give the green signal to US drone strikes in restive Balochistan, where the Quetta Shura is based – with nearly all unmanned attacks limited to the tribal regions.
As far back as 2009, a Guardian article quoted US officials as saying that with military casualties rising on Af-Pak border, Washington was considering going in to Balochistan, despite Pakistan objections. But obviously, as statistics of drone strikes show, the US hasn’t overridden Pakistani concerns on that front – till now.
“The strike has major implications for the Taliban. It will make the Taliban realize that its sanctuaries in Balochistan are not untouchable, and that the Taliban’s top leadership is vulnerable even in places where it would expect to be most safe,” said Kugelman.
However, a former US state department official, who has had extensive experience in the region, believes the latest drone strike is unlikely to lead to a more interventionist role by the US in Balochistan. “While I don’t know, I suspect this was a target of opportunity rather than a carefully planned and timed operation. The firing of a drone into Balochistan is also probably a unique decision for this case rather than a change in policy,” former Senior Advisor to the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Barnett R Rubin told The Wire.
He flagged the “Iran connection” as requiring further digging. “What was he doing there? Planning strategy against ISIS?” asked Rubin.
Hekmatullah Azamy, a researcher at Afghan think-tank, Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, has been in contact with insurgents and believes that the “Taliban may accept the news (about Mansour’s death)”. Taliban’s official communication channels have been rather silent about Mansour’s fate, with only minor Twitter accounts denying the death so far.
“The Taliban aren’t doing well under his leadership and this year’s offensives aren’t as successful as last year’s. Some argue that internal divisions led to his killing and his rival group shared details about his whereabouts,” he told The Wire.
Azamy added that there were suspicions about Pakistan’s role within the Taliban. “Two weeks ago, a source told me that Pakistan is secretly cooperating with the Afghan and US intelligence to pinpoint the leadership in Afghan soil. The source said that Pakistan is afraid of taking military action against the Taliban in Pakistan because it may lead to consequences so the country is trying to weaken the group so it would be urged to negotiate,” he said.
The timing of the drone strike – just three days after the quadrilateral coordination group met unsuccessfully in Afghanistan – is noticeable. Last month after the truck bomb which killed at least 64 people, Afghan President Ghani called an unprecedented joint session of parliament and lashed out against Pakistan and Taliban, changing his policy of outreach and reconciliation talks. In the May 18 QCG round, Afghanistan was represented not at the ministerial level but by Kabul’s ambassador to Pakistan.
“Had the QCG process been going well, with on-going Kabul-Taliban talks, I don’t think the US would have pulled the trigger even if they could have done. This reflects the fact that Ghani gave talks a chance and was rebuffed. His speech to the Afghan parliament was a turning point. I think the Afghans and the US were convinced that waiting for talks was not the right strategy,” said Joshi.
In recent months, Mansour had managed to consolidate his hold on Taliban, fending off attack from other factions, with help from Pakistan, Indian sources asserted.
Therefore, Kugelman believes that Mansour’s absence will again lead to fragmentation of the Taliban, which could have “strategic consequences” on the role of ISIS – though with the caveat that Taliban fighters still had a superiority against the ISIS threat.
“The strike shouldn’t have any tactical implications for the Taliban’s fight against ISIS, though it could certainly have some deleterious strategic consequences. The ISIS threat in Afghanistan is limited to several thousand pro-ISIS former Taliban in the east, and Taliban loyalists have had no trouble fending off these fighters. That shouldn’t change. At the same time, you could have some Taliban fighters, reeling from the realization that their sanctuaries are no longer completely safe, deciding to throw in their lot with the pro-ISIS fighters. And if Mansour is indeed dead, you could have an even bigger outflow,” he explained.
With the Mansour out of the picture, the focus will now shift to who his successor will be, with Pakistan being the key player.
The former Pakistani minister of state foreign affairs, Hina Rabbani Khar, wondered in a Twitter post: “If [Mansour] was a hurdle to peace talks will his replacement be an enabler. Or have the US and [Afghanistan] decided time for talks over. May the [QCG] RIP”.
Joshi said that the critical questions now were “who will Pakistan support as successor and
how far are they willing to push the Haqqanis within the Taliban as a whole”. “Can they [Pakistan] prevent excessive splits? If they can’t do the latter, then Pakistan’s influence really will fall, and that would be strategically disastrous. What would be the point of the last 20 years?” Joshi added.
An evaluation of Taliban officials published by the Afghanistan Analysts Network in February had said that Mansour’s “more obvious choice” to succeed him was Maulvi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a cleric, rather than the more well-known deputy, Sirajjudin Haqqani.
India would, of course, be alarmed if Haqqani took over as the head of Taliban, rather than act as the de facto power centre. The Haqqani network has been behind the attacks on Indian assets in Afghanistan, including the 2008 bomb blast at the Indian embassy.
However, Sood did not think that it will be “easy going” for Pakistan to make Haqqani the Taliban chief, when he has a $10 million bounty on his head and the US Congress is also breathing down Islamabad’s neck.
Azamy also agreed that Haqqani will not get support from within the Taliban, especially from the southern commanders.
He felt that it was more likely that “hardliners like Qayyum Zaker will likely take the helm and revive their deadly military campaign”, thereby further ending hopes of talks with the Afghan government. “There is also a possibility of a new group with a new brand – we don’t know yet,” he added.
In Kabul, the US led the airstrike inside Pakistan’s Balochistan is likely to be seen as a sign of victory for President Ghani.
“It’s the result of his hard stance on the Taliban that he announced in the parliament after the Kabul bombing. He wants more airstrikes and night raids against the militants but people like [former Afghan president Hamid] Karzai are against it,” said Azamy.
Ghani’s continued engagement with the US could also be seen to have paid off, with Karzai, suspicious about Washington’s motives, unlikely to have maintained the relationship.