Deep in despair

Print edition : June 24, 2016

Residents of Ahmad Wal in Balochistan gather near a vehicle destroyed by a drone strike on May 21. Mullah Mansour is believed to have been killed by the strike. Photo: AFP

Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada. Photo: AFP

Mullah Mansour. Photo: New York Times

Supporters of the banned Jamaat-ud-Dawa burn a U.S. flag during a protest in Peshawar on May 27 against the drone strike that killed Mullah Mansour. Photo: A. MAJEED/AFP

The Taliban appoints a new leader in the wake of the killing of Mullah Mansour and vows to continue with its military offensive, putting paid to all hopes for peace in the near future.

The assassination of the Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour by an armed drone dispatched on the express orders of the President of the United States, seems to have quashed all hopes of a revival in the Afghan peace talks in the near future. Mansour was killed along with the driver of the taxi he was travelling in on a highway in a remote part of Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Although the car and its occupants were charred beyond recognition, the passport which Mansour was carrying was found intact and displayed to international media. The Pakistani passport that Mansour was using was in the name of Wali Muhammad.

The story put out by Washington was that the Taliban leader’s movements were tracked when he undertook a clandestine visit to Iran to see his family. As soon as he crossed the border back into Pakistan, his vehicle was targeted by drones sent from Afghanistan. It was the first American drone strike in Balochistan province, the de facto headquarters of the Afghan Taliban leadership. It took the Pakistani government completely by surprise.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the military chief, Gen. Rahil Sharif, said that the American military action inside Pakistani territory violated Pakistan’s sovereignty. It took almost a week for the Pakistani government to acknowledge that a U.S. drone strike had killed the Taliban leader. The Obama administration made no efforts to hide the real message to the Pakistani authorities behind the targeting of the Taliban leader: that henceforth, no prior warning would be given before executing strikes, on Pakistani territory, on individuals and groups considered dangerous to American national interests.

Pakistan has informally allowed American drones to operate in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan but not in the rest of the country. The targeting of Mansour was the second most important counterterrorism decision taken by President Barack Obama after he ordered American special forces to hunt down Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad.

American officials said that Obama had ordered the strike against Mansour after it became apparent that the Taliban leader would not be attending peace talks aimed at ending the bloody conflict in Afghanistan any time soon. Obama described the elimination of Mansour as “an important milestone”. He told the media during a visit to Vietnam that the U.S. had “removed the leader of an organisation that has continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and coalition forces”.

The U.S. will start putting more pressure on Pakistan to take military action against the Afghan Taliban, in the ongoing efforts to force the group to acquiesce to peace talks. A senior American military official told the media that Pakistani officials had given “limited help” in tracking down Mansour.

Mansour was apparently eager to first consolidate his own position within his organisation before thinking of starting serious peace talks. It was no secret that many sections within the Taliban viewed him with suspicion. His elevation to the top position was facilitated to a great extent by the Pakistani security establishment. The same establishment had let him run the Taliban in the name of the supreme leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, for more than two years. Omar’s death in 2013 was only revealed last year.

With some Taliban groups rebelling against his leadership and a few joining the local franchise of the Islamic State (I.S.), Mansour was eager to prove himself as an effective military leader. After he took over, the Taliban staged high-profile terror attacks in Kabul, targeting security services. In August last year, the Taliban briefly captured the city of Kunduz. It has captured large swathes of territory in the last several months. The spring military offensive of the Taliban this year has been particularly effective. Mansour had boasted that the return of the Taliban to Kabul was only a matter of time.

Mansour was Afghanistan’s Aviation Minister when the Taliban was in power. Although he was not known for his battlefield exploits in the past, he emerged as a close confidant of Omar after the American invasion of Afghanistan. His rise to the top was opposed by many Taliban leaders, including Mullah Muhammad Yaqub, a son of Omar. Mansour later made peace with him by giving him a key leadership post. The leader of the Haqqani faction of the Taliban, Sirajuddin Haqqani, was Mansour’s designated second-in-command. It is reported that Mansour narrowly escaped an assassination attempt staged by rivals within the organisation last December. Since then he reportedly adopted a very low profile, rarely appearing in public.

However, the details on the passport he was allegedly carrying show that Mansour was a frequent traveller whose favourite destination was Dubai. He reportedly had business interests in the United Arab Emirates.

In recent years, the Taliban has made a killing from the narcotics trade. As the areas under its influence grew exponentially, so did the production and export of heroin. The profits have helped fuel the war and enrich the private coffers of Taliban leaders and warlords on both sides of the Afghan political divide. According to reports, poppy cultivation has gone up in nominally government-controlled areas too. This year’s harvest, according to reports, is going to be more bountiful. The Afghan government has ordered the cancellation of its annual eradication campaign against poppy cultivation.

Afghan president hails U.S. move

Afghanistan’s President, Ashraf Ghani, and his Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah, welcomed the demise of Mansour, saying that he was an obstacle to peace within the militant group. Mansour “engaged in deception, concealment of facts, drug smuggling and terrorism while intimidating, maiming and killing innocent Afghans”, Ghani said.

Ghani had invested a lot of time and energy in getting the peace process going. His first visit after taking over from Hamid Karzai was to the headquarters of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi for talks with the Pakistan Army chief on ways to speed up the peace process in Afghanistan.

In retrospect, the Pakistani military establishment was either incapable or uninterested in forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table. The Haqqani faction of the Afghan Taliban is still perceived to be close to the Pakistani establishment. An important priority of the Pakistani government is to ensure that the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban do not join hands.

Pakistan unhappy

Senior Pakistani officials, including Sartaj Aziz, the Prime Minister’s adviser on foreign affairs, said that the death of the Taliban leader was a setback to efforts at reviving peace talks. Aziz said that Mansour’s death had “added to the complexity of the Afghan conflict” and that the action had “seriously undermined the peace process”. At the same time, he reiterated Pakistan’s continuing commitment to a politically negotiated settlement in Afghanistan under the auspices of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), which also includes the U.S., China and Afghanistan.

Aziz said that the U.S. position on the proposed talks was inconsistent. “On the one hand, you want to start talks with them, while on the other hand you are killing them, which is not a consistent attitude,” he said.

Afghan Taliban chooses non-controversial leader

The Afghan Taliban, belying predictions that there would be a protracted succession struggle after the assassination of its leader, quickly announced the appointment of Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada as its new leader. He was the head of the judicial system that the Taliban had established in Afghanistan and was one of Mansour’s two deputies. Known as the “Stone Age Mullah”, he had issued many statements justifying the war against the Afghan government and the foreign troops backing it in Afghanistan.

In an audio message circulated after his appointment as the Taliban chief, Akhundzada said that the fighting would continue and rejected the idea of holding peace talks. “Taliban will never bow down their heads and will not agree to peace talks,” he said. “People thought that we will lay down our arms after Mullah Mansour’s death, but we will fight till the end.”

Akhundzada, who is in his fifties, hails from the Noorzai tribe. He was born in Kandahar province but spent much of his formative years in refugee camps and seminaries in Pakistan. He will be more of a spiritual leader of the Taliban than a “mujahideen” fighter. One of the reasons the Taliban chose him as its new leader is his non-controversial persona. The riven Taliban hopes to reunite under his leadership. An important faction from the Noorzai tribe had refused to accept Mansour’s leadership. Many Taliban leaders opposed to Mansour, like Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, were arrested in Pakistan.

As far as talks are concerned, the Taliban has been quite consistent in its stand that dialogue with the government in Kabul can only take place after all the foreign troops leave Afghanistan. (Some 13,000 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation troops still remain in the country.) As such a scenario is unlikely to unfold very soon, the Taliban will continue with its military offensive, regardless of the recent leadership changes.

Since 2001, the U.S. has failed to stop Pakistan and the Taliban from having a close relationship. The Taliban government in Kabul in the mid 1990s was set up with the help of Pakistani security agencies and U.S. connivance. The Pakistani establishment continues to believe that its continued sway over the Pashtun heartland in Afghanistan is key to its strategic military needs. It will be keen to ensure that Afghanistan remains its backyard.

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