Spades or Clubs?

Spades or Clubs?
US drones have taken out Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the “amir” of the Afghan Taliban, near Nushki in Balochistan province. He was promoted and supported by the Pakistani military in a power struggle for succession after news broke out about the demise of Mullah Omar three years earlier. The Taliban have nominated an ex-chief justice of Afghanistan and Mullah Omar confidante, Haibatullah Akhunzada, as the nominal “amir” but Siraj Haqqani and Mullah Mohammed Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Omar, will be “naib (deputy) amirs” and dual power behind the throne. Several critical questions have arisen.

Why did the Americans eliminate Mullah Mansoor, and that too by crossing the “red lines” drawn by Pakistan for drone strikes in mainland Pakistan territory, when he was Pakistan’s preferred “asset” in the stalled peace negotiations in the quadrilateral dialogue? What are the implications of this for US-Pak relations?

Both the Afghan and American governments have been acutely frustrated by the inability of the Pakistanis to bring Mullah Mansoor to the negotiating table. In December 2014, General Raheel Sharif promised Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to help start the talks within months. But the premature announcement of the demise of Mullah Omar put a spanner in the works and Mullah Mansoor had to wage a bloody power struggle to become “amir”. He also had to contend with the hardliners in opposition and therefore become even more hardliner in the process. Consequently, in order to consolidate his internal credentials, he unleashed a devastating series of attacks on American and Afghan targets across Afghanistan. Bitterly disappointed, President Ghani attacked Pakistan for not doing more to bend the Taliban while the Obama administration expressed its displeasure by condoning the US Congress’ decision not to pay for 8 F-16s ordered by Pakistan. The Americans also reasoned that if they could eliminate Mullah Mansoor, they would send some powerful signals across the board.

First, the message is that any Taliban leader who wants to wage war and refuses to talk peace is a target of American drones which have had a resounding success rate. Second, the assassination of Mullah Mansoor is good for the motivation of the Afghan National Army that is demoralized by the severity of the Taliban attacks and weakened by desertions and defections. Third, the message is that all bets are off  the table if Pakistan isn’t able to deliver on its end of the bargain. Fourth, the message to domestic audiences drunk on Republican Donald Trump is that the Democrat Obama administration remains tough on terrorism and will project American power regardless of diplomatic sensitivities.

Pakistan’s position is increasingly problematic. On the one hand, Sartaj Aziz, the foreign minister, has admitted that the Taliban leadership is housed in Pakistan, indirectly confirming a degree of leverage over them. Mullah Mansoor’s Pakistani passport and comings and goings to and from Pakistani soil also testifies to the Pakistani “hand”. On the other hand, the national security establishment is unable to bring the Taliban leaders to the negotiating table, implying that perhaps it is unwilling to do so for bigger stakes in a greater game in Afghanistan. This serves to fuel distrust that the Pakistanis are playing a “double game” to continue to secure economic and military aid from the Americans by leveraging the Taliban against them instead of in their favour as was evidenced throughout the Musharraf years when the Americans pumped in nearly $20 billion into Pakistan “for supporting the war against terror”. Following the nomination of Siraj Haqqani as “naib amir”, there will now be greater pressure on Pakistan to deliver since the hub of the feared Haqqani network is in Pakistani territory in Shawal, North Waziristan. Indeed, since the time of Admiral Mike Mullen, the former CJCSC, the Pentagon has viewed the Haqqanis as a “veritable arm of the ISI”. Mullah Yaqoob, too, cannot be oblivious to Pakistani influence, it may be reasoned, because Mullah Omar was a Pakistani “guest” for many years before his death.

General Raheel Sharif has certainly eroded and disrupted the Pakistani Taliban. But he has failed to deliver on Afghanistan. Of course, the Afghan government, army and intelligences agencies have proved to be singularly inept and corrupt in degrading the Taliban and pressurizing them to come to the table. But as the more powerful state that has nurtured and protected the Taliban since the late 1990s, the world and its neighbours expect Pakistan to “do more”. Unfortunately, however, this hasn’t been possible because of the obsession of the Pakistani military with the increasing sphere of regional influence of “arch-enemy” India. These fears have been exacerbated by the India-Afghan-Iran project to link the Iranian port of Chahbahar with Afghanistan aimed at diminishing the prospects of Pak-China’s CPEC corridor into Afghanistan and central Asia.

American policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan is poised to take a harder posture in the future. If Pakistan doesn’t come up with a hand of spades instead of clubs, it will be isolated and weakened in the region.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.