With its marriage to the Taliban and its extramarital affair with the US, Pakistan is playing with fire

Published: May 23, 2016
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File photo of Mullah Mansoor. PHOTO: FILE

Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the leader of the Taliban group, was allegedly killed at around 3:45 pm on May 21st. He is said to have been killed in a US drone airstrike in Dalbandi, Balochistan. This is the most significant American incursion inside Pakistan ever since the Navy SEALs incident in 2011, in which the al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, was killed.

After realising the Afghan war was a complete failure, America changed its strategy and began pursuing the Taliban leadership, Mullah Mansoor, to come to the negotiation table. They did this by offering them lucrative offers including the release of Taliban prisoners and the opening of their Qatar office. With Mullah Mansoor having said to have close links with the Pakistani establishment, Pakistan was also brought into the equation to convince the Taliban to join the negotiation table.

Pakistan has, since long, enjoyed a close association and influence over the Taliban. With Pakistan aiding the US invasion of Afghanistan, however, this influence had weakened until recently when military operations started in Pakistan’s own tribal belt. During this time, it is said that Mullah Mansoor did show some positive inclinations towards peace talks, it was later revealed that his admissions were more under duress from the Pakistani establishment than own his willingness to participate in the peace process. And the commencement of the spring offensive, OpOmar, (which ended up killing hundreds of Afghans and US-coalition security forces) further grounded his reluctance.

Internationally, however, this was seen as a failure on Pakistan’s promise to bring the Taliban to the negotiations table. And Pakistan bore brunt of it; the US blocked military aid and Pakistan was asked to “put forward national funds” if it wanted the jeopardised F-16 deal to go through.

It eventually became obvious that drastic measures had to be taken so that negotiations could move forward, even if that meant killing the Taliban leader. According to the International New York Times, Peter Cook, the Pentagon Press Secretary, confirmed this when he said,

“Mullah Mansour was ‘actively involved’ in planning attacks in Kabul and across Afghanistan, and had 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.’”

Pakistan’s consent in killing the Taliban leader

With the peace process stalled, the frustration amongst the US Congressmen and the administration was palpable, especially when Pakistan was asked to target the Afghan Taliban leaders, especially Siraj Haqqani, from the strong Haqqani network. Were Pakistan to fail in bringing in the desired results, the F-16 deal and US military aid would all be at stake with more severity to follow. In such a case, Pakistan had two options, either to take out the Afghan Taliban itself or to assist the US in striking them out.

Some of the recent events and statements mentioned below confirm Pakistan’s consent to the US strike atop Pakistani soil.

The fifth Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) meeting of Afghanistan was held in Islamabad on May 18, 2016, without any agreement on a future strategy in bringing the in­­surgents to the negotiating table.

Amidst growing pressure, Pakistani officials suggested that any action taken against the Taliban on its soil must be unanimously agreed upon by the QCG members. This, however, was immediately vetoed by China, stating QCG was only about dialogue. The statement comes as an indication of the action against the Taliban, which was soon to follow.

Notably, Sartaj Aziz, on May 20th (a day prior to Mullah Mansoor’s killing) said that the Taliban was exhibiting no positive response to the call for peace talks. This served as a declaration that Pakistan had exhausted its efforts with no success and any option available will be used against them.

And finally, John Kerry’s statement nailed it.

He said the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan were notified about the air strike.

Moreover, reports suggest that Mullah Mansoor was under surveillance for some time (i.e. weeks, if not months). If this is true, then US drones must have been hovering in Balochistan’s air-space for some time; something that would never be possible without the consent of Pakistani security officials.

If not, then one would expect the Pakistani, political and military, leadership to condemn these attacks, form inquiry committees, ask for justifications etc, as was done after the air-strike that killed Osama Bin Ladin. And all that was done despite journalist Seymour Hersh’s claims that Pakistan was in on the covert operation in Abbottabad.

Pakistan would never dare to publicly accept such a deal with the US for fear of enraging the public. A western official in Kabul confirms this when he said,

“Pakistan has a history of offering up sacrifices to the Americans when the political heat gets intense.”

Colossal game

John Kerry in a statement said,

“Peace is what we want. Mansoor was a threat to that effort. He (Mansoor) was also directly opposed to the peace negotiation and to the reconciliation process.”

America, in this regard, was convinced that with Mullah Mansoor at the helm of affairs, their objective of engendering a power-sharing government will remain a farfetched dream. The plan of subtracting him could not have been without the US and Pakistan carefully calculating the risks of escalating the war and ensuring a concrete backup plan.

Ismail Qasemyar, a member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, a body tasked with negotiating with the Taliban, according to The Guardian, predicted that Mullah Mansoor’s death would lead to a short-term surge in violence. He said,

“However, if Pakistan uses its sway over the movement to influence the pick of the next leader, it could choose to drive it toward reconciliation.”

Both, the US and Pakistan, seem to be confident about the fact that the Taliban will retaliate after Mullah Mansoor’s death, leading to short term surge in violence. However, in the long run, they feel the peace process may move forward.

In my opinion, the next person in line to rule over the Taliban could be Sirajuddin Haqqani, who deputises Mullah Mansoor. He is known to have close ties with Pakistan and has been living under the protection of the Pakistani establishment. Mullah Baradar, along with other leadership candidates from the Quetta Shura, harbour close ties with Pakistan and may also help in bringing about a change by complying with the US objectives.

But one must not forget that Mullah Omar’s cadre was well accepted and venerated not just by the Taliban, but other Afghan insurgents as well. It is no secret that he refused to participate in the peace negotiation process. Hence it’s no rocket science that whoever will resume the leadership role, will not be able to disregard Mullah Omar’s doctrine.

Pakistan seems to be playing with fire at the moment.

It has been losing its influence in Afghanistan, a place which was once considered Pakistan’s fifth province. Furthermore, such attacks may increase animosity towards Pakistan and if that happens, it will transmute the dynamics of Pakistan’s limited role within the region.

As for Pakistani citizens, such secretive operations and back door agreements will lead to a growing mistrust between the leadership and the masses. This was also apparent in the conspicuous case of Osama bin Laden’s death. With the sphere of US drone strikes expanding from the northern belt all the way to Balochistan, serious questions regarding Pakistan’s sovereignty will arise.

With an exchange of heated political statements between Pakistan and US, many political Gurus believe that the US will end up abandoning Pakistan. But with the current events in mind, we can safely say that it is actually Pakistan, in its attempt to retain its ties with the US, breaking off ties with the Taliban. What remains to be seen is whether the Taliban leadership will try to escape the clutches of the Pakistani establishment or continue to trust them.

As for the US, things might be moving at a slow pace, they are still moving forward. But Pakistan will be paying the price of rescuing the US in the on-going Afghan war. In the larger context, Pakistan seems to be witnessing a diminishing role in this region. A gloomy future lies ahead for Pakistan, unless it completely shifts itself towards independent policies, disassociated from US objectives.

History has proven that the US doesn’t spare even their most loyal puppet regimes. Pakistani leaders must ponder upon what future they aspire to give its own citizens.

Faraz Muhammad Fateh

Faraz Muhammad Fateh

The author is an Electrical Engineer and is working in a private organisation in the energy sector. His interests include international relations and global politics. He tweets as @farazmfateh (twitter.com/farazmfateh). He blogs at intellectualrevivalblog.wordpress.com.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.