The killing of the Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a United States of America drone attack on Friday night on the Afghan border with Pakistan’s Balochistan province will have far-reaching consequences.
First and foremost, the drone attacks were carried out with President Barack Obama’s approval. That signifies a major shift in the US policy.
It was a well-planned attack with clinical precision aimed at taking out Mansour who was travelling in a vehicle. According to the Afghan intelligence agency, Mansour had been in the crosshairs “for a while”.
In all likelihood, the Afghan intelligence provided the coordinates to the US agencies for the drone attack. We may call it a joint Afghan-US operation inside Pakistan.
Although the US intelligence would have had a fair idea about the sanctuaries of the Afghan Taliban inside Pakistan and the movements of Taliban leaders across the border with impunity, the long arm of the US military or the Central Intelligence Agency never reached out to destroy them.
The US reticence took into account Islamabad’s sensitivities, as the overall American strategy aimed at extracting the cooperation of the Pakistani military and intelligence.
Therefore, the big question is whether the established US policy is changing course. Put differently, is Washington turning the heat on the Pakistani military, finally?
Hitting where it hurts
Secondly, it is a well-known thing that Mansour was a progeny of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Following the disclosure last year in July about Mullah Omar’s death, ISI moved heaven and earth to impose Mansour’s leadership on the Taliban.
The ISI faced much opposition from within the Taliban movement, with many commanders resenting Mansour’s leadership, but ultimately ISI’s writ prevailed and the resistance was forcefully overcome.
The recent reports suggested that Mansour had managed to consolidate his leadership and the rebel elements were either pacified or silenced.
Therefore, the US decision to eliminate Mansour becomes a direct affront to the ISI and the Pakistani military leadership.
Islamabad has said it is seeking “clarifications” from Washington, but all indications are that the drone struck on Pakistani soil.
The US officials are cagey about exact details, but the Afghan intelligence agency has mentioned a remote Pakistani town in Balochistan province.
Suffice it so say, the US did not take Pakistan into confidence about launching the drone strikes on Pakistani territory.
This is perhaps the first time that the US is staging a drone attack on Pakistani territory outside the tribal areas.
The Pakistani military is once again faced with an embarrassing situation. The memory of the US strike on Abbottabad to kill Osama bin Laden in 2011 still rankles.
Interestingly, the US Secretary of State John Kerry telephoned Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to inform him about the drone attack. But there are no reports of any effort on the part of the American side to engage the Pakistani military leadership.
Meanwhile, the US-Pakistan relations have been on a downward slide lately on account of the hitch in the transfer of eight F-16 aircraft to Pakistan, as was agreed previously.
The Pakistani side publicly threatened the Obama administration that in lieu of the F-18, it would approach China for similar jet aircraft if the push comes to shove.
Significantly, Pakistani army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif paid an unscheduled visit to Beijing a week ago.
Clearly, the US has hit at the Pakistani military leadership and the ISI where it hurts just when Pakistan thought it was gaining the upper hand in the Afghanistan with the Taliban getting its act together after the trauma of Omar’s death.
Washington has created a leadership vacuum in the Taliban. Mansour’s death throws the Taliban once again – for the second time within an year – into great disarray.
Whereas Mansour was already being groomed by the ISI to step into Omar’s shoes, the situation today is rather different. There are no credible names to replace Mansour.
Another round of leadership struggle within the Taliban cannot be ruled out.
More importantly, ISI will have to decide where exactly the Haqqani group figures in the downstream developments.
It is only logical that Sirajuddin Haqqani who was officiating as Mansour’s deputy should now take over the Taliban leadership.
But then, Sirajuddin’s elevation as the Taliban supremo would create a piquant situation insofar as the US has branded him an international terrorist and put a bounty on his head.
What can be noted as a foregone conclusion at this point is that the Quadripartite Coordination Group (comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, US and China) has all but begun unravelling. Equally, the prospects for an Afghan peace process have become bleaker than ever.
What could be the US game plan?
Prima facie, the US has thrown down the gauntlet at the Pakistani military and is underscoring that it cannot any longer accept the Pakistani double speak – pretending to be a US ally but systematically undermining the American strategy to stabilise the Afghan situation.
The US has signalled that it sees through the Pakistani game of manipulating a pliant Taliban leadership endlessly to scuttle peace talks and to incrementally prepare the climate for an eventual Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
The US hit at the Taliban leadership immediately after helping the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to negotiate a peace deal with the Mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, which allows his group Hezb-e Islami to function as a legitimate political party. (A formal agreement is expected to be signed shortly.)
Hezb-e Islami has its power base among the Pashtun tribes. Although it is today a pale shadow of what it used to be in the eighties, the fact that Ghani has made peace with a predominantly Pashtun group – and that too, with American backing – is symbolic.
The deal with Hekmatyar challenges the Taliban’s claim to be the fountainhead of Pashtun interests.
Moreover, the peace deal becomes a sort of blueprint as to what Taliban can more or less expect in a future settlement with the Afghan government.
The terms of the deal with the Hezb-e Islami include the release of the group’s prisoners and general amnesty for their past activities in return for the group’s willingness to abide by the Afghan constitution and to abandon the path of violence and completely rupture their links with the al-Qaeda elements. Hekmatyar himself may assist Ghani as a “consultant”.
All in all, therefore, the picture that emerges is that the US is switching tack and adopting a policy to degrade the Taliban so as to ultimately negotiate with it from a position of strength.
The bottom line is that the US hopes to regain the politico-military advantage it had enjoyed until an year ago (before the drawdown of troops) as the principal arbiter of an Afghan political settlement.
It is unlikely that China was in the know of the American move to eliminate Mansour and throw the Taliban into disarray. Beijing’s reaction will be keenly watched.