From a geopolitical perspective, the Americans have been virtually thrown out of Central Asia, creating a power vacuum which regional powers are jostling to fill. …writes Atul Aneja
Feverish moves are being played out on the AfPak chessboard, which became visible on July 31 when a Hellfire missile fired from a drone ripped apart Ayman Al Zawahiri, the terror kingpin of the dreaded Al Qaeda.
The Sunday morning attack took place when Zawahiri was standing on the balcony of a safehouse, arranged for him by the Haqqani network, led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the interior minister of the current Taliban government, which planted itself in Kabul on August 15 last year. The anchorage of the Taliban has deeply affronted the Americans, who had to unceremoniously exit Kabul under fire.
From a geopolitical perspective, the Americans have been virtually thrown out of Central Asia, creating a power vacuum which regional powers are jostling to fill. Washington is now attempting to claw back a foothold in AfPak, presumably with the active support of Pakistan, their old partners in crime.
Apart from Zawahiri’s killing, two other major seemingly unconnected back-to-back events have taken place. But when examined closely they may have threaded together a dramatic change-the coming together of the Pakistan military and the American security establishment once again. It is likely that both have discovered that they need to work together against a common adversary – the increasingly hostile Taliban in all its avatars including the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or the Pakistan Taliban. Here, a little bit of a back story is important to connect the dots.
After the Americans left Kabul last year, the former chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and a pro-Imran Khan acolyte, Lt.General Faiz Hameed, was entrusted in conducting a dialogue with an increasingly rebellious TTP, which wanted to cross the colonial era Durand line and unite all Pashtuns on either side of the fence.
Gen. Hameed, who was removed by Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa from his post in the ISI and shifted to Peshawar as the commander of XI Corps led a hybrid team which included tribal elders to dialogue with TTP.
Sirajuddin Haqqani from the Afghan Taliban anchored the talks. The dialogue was apparently making serious progress. It had boiled down to the TTP’s demand that the loosely governed Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where its cadres once roamed freely, should be returned to its original administrative status. In other words, the group was demanding that the mutation of the FATA into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province – a conversion that the Imran Khan government had marshalled in 2018 –needed to be scrapped.
But before this could happen , the entire dialogue process seems to have been irreversibly overturned. From Peshawar, Gen. Hameed, potentially seen as a rival to Gen. Bajwa has been shifted to Bahawalpur as the corps commander, according to a Pakistani military notification issued on Monday. In all probabilities, he will now relinquish his previous duties of engaging in a dialogue with the TTP.
The move of plucking out Gen. Hameed from the dialogue process now seems connected to another mega-development in the AfPak theatre.
On Sunday, four top honchos of the TTP, who were travelling together in a vehicle, were killed in a IED (Improvised Explosive Device) blast. The attack took place in the Birmal area of Afghanistan’s Paktika province.
Those killed were Maulvi Abdul Wali aka Maulvi Omar Khalid Khorasani, Mufti Hasan, Hafiz Dawlat Khan and the son-in-law of Abdul Wali.
The BBC Urdu service is reporting that Khorasani, a big gun, was one of the founding members of TTP. It is here that the American connection comes in strongly.
The US in fact had placed a dead or alive reward, of $ 3 million on Khorasani’s head. And the Americans meant business. In 2015, the US targeted him at a place called Perchau – a border area between Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province and Pakistan. Khorasani escaped but was seriously injured in the attack.
Other TTP bigwigs were not so lucky. Former TTP chiefs, Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud were killed in drone strikes. Other high-ups who were droned down include Qari Hussain Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah Khorasani.
While there is a general perception that Khorasani was killed in an IED blast on Sunday evening, a spokesperson of the TTP has raised the possibility that the four could have died in a drone strike. “They were travelling in a vehicle in Paktika province where they died in a mysterious blast. We have received the bodies and are investigating whether they were killed in a drone strike or in an IED explosion,” The News quoted a senior member of the Pakistani Taliban as saying.
It appears from the present state of investigation that Khorasani’s killing was a sequel to the droning down of Zawahiri. Zawahiri’s death served a body blow to the Taliban, as it is a credible pointer that the group was sheltering the arch-terrorist, despite claiming the Taliban 2.0 had washed its hands of terror. The process of Taliban’s international recognition and unfreezing of billions of dollars of funds that the Taliban badly needs has been effectively stalled by the Americans after Zawahiri’s killing. This is a significant counter blow to the Taliban which had been largely responsible for Washington’s humiliating exit almost a year ago.
There is considerable speculation that after the exit of pro-China Imran Khan and the marginalisation of his supporters such as Lt. Gen. Hameed in the military, the Pakistani top brass and the Americans have revived their active collaboration against global terrorists who could pose a common threat. This is reminiscent of the heydays of the Global War on Terror when the Pak military handed over to the Americans such Al Qaeda luminaries as Khalid Al Sheikh and Abu Zubaydah, who ended up in the dungeons of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
It has been extensively noted in the media that a day before the attack , Gen. Bajwa held a widely reported telephonic conversation with the Commander of the US Central Command, where the Army Chief conveyed to the Americans that “Pakistan values its relations with the US and earnestly looks forward to enhance mutually beneficial multidomain relations”.
It would not be surprising that if in return for collaborating with the Americans, the Pakistanis manage to get a much-needed loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to bailout an anaemic economy going through a meltdown, and later escape from the clutches of Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Afterall Gen. Bajwa has gone the extra mile to personally calling US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to speed up disbursal of $1.2 billion loan from the IMF just after the harpoon missile shredded Zawahiri.
Regarding talks with the TTP, it is quite likely that after Khorasan’s killing and Gen. Hameed’s exit, the dialogue will be stalled, and Pakistan, with active support from the US will go for muscular strikes against the group.
The TTP also appeared disinclined to continue talks. “We started investigations to ascertain who could have been involved in their killings. After the investigations are complete, we will issue a detailed statement on whether or not to continue the peace talks with Pakistan,” a TTP representative told The News.
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