Pakistan should have seen it coming

Before the killing of the Taliban emir, there were signs that the US and Afghanistan were losing patience

Pakistan should have seen it coming
President Barack Obama was undoubtedly trying to be diplomatic when he said that death of Taliban chief Mullah Mansoor Akhtar in a drone attack carried a message for the insurgent group. The US, through this strike, has instead conveyed a terse signal to Pakistani authorities that were reluctant to take action against the Afghan militants on the country’s soil.

In the same statement in which he confirmed Mullah Mansoor’s death, Obama made it clear that Pakistan would have to “deny safe havens” to terrorists, who threaten others. But he couched this message in diplomatese, saying the US would “work on shared objectives with Pakistan” for neutralizing this threat.

The killing of Taliban chief should not be seen in isolation. There was a gradual build up to it. But surprisingly, Pakistani strategists failed to notice it coming. There were Congressional moves to impose restrictions on military aid and Coalition Support Fund reimbursements to Pakistan, over Islamabad’s failure to adequately act against the Haqqani Network. Pressure from Kabul to take action against the Taliban who had refused to join the peace process had also been ramped up. Moreover, ahead of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) meeting on May 18, there were unmistakable indications that the US and Afghan ‘patience’ was running thin. But Pakistanis thought it was business as usual. They continued harping on the tune that there was a need for a consensus in the QCG for action against the Taliban, which they were sure would not happen courtesy China.

In fact, the QCG meeting gave Pakistanis a false sense of success as well, with the joint statement noting that “peace negotiations remain the only option for a political settlement” – a message the foreign office tried to enthusiastically promote in the media. No surprise then, that Pakistan cried foul over Mansoor being killed days after the agreement.
"There was confusion all around. Red-faced officials were seen cringing"

But in all likelihood, Pakistanis missed the insertion made in the QCG statement on US and Afghan insistence, that “those who perpetrate such acts of terrorism (the April 19 Kabul attack) should be ready to face consequences of their actions”. They might have taken it as just another threat from the US and its ‘impotent’ Afghan ally.

Now that the Mansoor denouement has occurred, Pakistan is left with a clear choice of revisiting its strategy for Afghan peace. The path that Pakistan choses would become clear over the next few days, as the National Security Committee of the Cabinet meets. For the moment, there is confusion all around and the red-faced officials are found cringing.

It even took the army four days to break its silence on the matter. “Such acts of sovereignty violations are detrimental to relations between both countries and are counter-productive for ongoing peace process for regional stability,” army chief Gen Raheel Sharif was quoted by the ISPR as having told US Ambassador David Hale.

The US envoy had previously been ‘summoned’ to FO to receive a protest on the drone strike.

An insider says the military top brass was outraged over the attack. “People are annoyed. Almost everyone! It would affect our trust level with the US,” a senior officer said.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar, who on Tuesday addressed a lengthy press conference on the incident, did not explain to his countrymen why Pakistan failed to learn lessons from Abbottabad. He tried to defend Mansoor as someone not opposed to peace talks. His defense was particularly important and something to note because the US case for eliminating him was based on the contention that he was an obstacle to peace and was engaged in plotting attacks against coalition targets.

Chaudhry Nisar mentioned Mansoor’s role in the Murree Process last year, which expired after the disclosure of Mullah Omar’s death. But the interior minister conveniently forgot that the QCG failed to start peace talks twice this year because the insurgents were refusing to talk.

Surprisingly, he shied away from confirming Mansoor’s death even though the Taliban themselves went ahead a day later to do that.

Some analysts in Pakistan believe that the US killed Mansoor because it does not want peace. The US position has been that Taliban were not responding to calls for peace and hence there was no use of holding back against them. The American thinking, therefore, is that by killing their chief, the insurgency could be thrown into disarray and its morale could be lowered, in addition to affecting the group’s capacity to plan and execute attacks.

This assumption flows from the observation that Mansour was still struggling to consolidate his grip over the group although 10 months had passed since his ascendency, although he had been the de-facto chief of the group for over two years, when Mullah Omar’s death remained a secret.

But it would not be farfetched to suggest that the entire planning could backfire and it could instead intensify the insurgency. At least the ease and comfort with which Taliban were able to elect Haibatullah as the new leader suggests that the hopes of triggering an in-fighting in the group have failed to materialize.

Sami Yousafzai, a journalist who has covered Taliban, considers Haibatullah’s ascension a setback for peace efforts. “Taliban seem to be going back to the stone age,” he said in a tweet. The appointment of Haibatullah, a village cleric, as the new emir is a slap on the face of reconciliation, according to him.

A bomb explosion blast targeting a Kabul court and judicial officials on the day the new Taliban chief was named may be an indication of the things to come. The Taliban claimed the attack and said it was revenge for the execution of six Taliban prisoners earlier this month.

The Taliban may have undergone the transition smoothly, but some questions would keep haunting Pakistan. More than why Mansoor was living in Pakistan, authorities would probably have to tell how he managed to get Pakistani ID and travel documents.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar seemed to be blaming corruption in NADRA for that, but he himself hinted that there could be more to it than someone trying to earn few quick bucks. The hunt started by interior ministry to find the culprits may be just another attempt to find a cover-up.

Nisar revealed that NADRA did not comply when he asked it to write to the Passport Directorate for cancellation of Wali Muhammad’s passport as part of the drive against suspected CNICs. But instead of wasting time on the dead, the interior minister should find out who is influential enough to force NADRA to disregard his directives.

The writer is a freelance journalist based

in Islamabad


Twitter: @bokhari_mr