The Taliban’s new leadership faces the challenge of sustaining and financing the movement while maintaining the requisite links to the Pak ISI ….writes Manzoor Ahmed
The turmoil in Afghanistan has got impetus since Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada has been appointed as the Taliban group’s supreme leader. Afghans, generally believe Taliban under Akhundzada would intensify militancy as the new leader during his service as deputy to his predecessor Mullah Akhtar Mansour had never advocated for peace talks with government.
Akhunzada was appointed Taliban supreme leader on May 25, four days after former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a US drone strike in Balochistan province of Pakistan on May 21.
The wait seems to be finally over for US policy towards the Taliban in Afghanistan as the US decided to take out Mullah Akthar in a drone strike in Balochistan. Several implications arise from the latest drone killing of the Taliban leader.
First of the block is whether the US has changed its tack on the Taliban and decided to go in for the kill? If this is indeed the case, it would give the National Unity Government (NUG) under President Ashraf Ghani much needed respite from the Taliban. These are still early days and it seems that President Obama has decided on some sort of strategy shift, the contours of which are still evolving. On the other hand, if the one of drone strike was aimed at getting rid of Mullah Akhtar, then the mission has succeeded, with no guarantee that this will bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
For Pakistan, the killing of Mullah Akhtar may not have come as a complete surprise because they knew that even though Akhtar was their own man, he was also trying to break free. As recent US diplomatic cables reveal, the Taliban had been since 2010 trying to break free from the financial hold of the Pakistan ISI. And since the opium crop in Afghanistan in 2016 was a good one, the Taliban also picked up substantial profits. One report indicates that Pakistan may have spilled the beans on Akhtar to get a temporary respite from the present poor state of ties with Washington.
However, the killing is likely to leave a rough patch in US-Pak relations particularly on Afghanistan. In recent times, bilateral ties have anyway been on a downward spiral, thanks to efforts by Congress to block US funding of 8 F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan, as well as, conditioning US CSF payments to Pakistan to verifiable action by Islamabad against the Haqqani Network. While it is true that Pakistan has tried to ‘control’ the negotiating process between the Taliban and Afghan government, Islamabad finds that it is difficult to make the horse drink the water, even though one may have succeeded in getting the horse to the water.
The hub of the problem is that most Afghan Taliban leaders today are not of the Mujahideen generation and are basically creations of Pakistan’s ISI, the new Taliban leader Akhundzada being no exception! This increases the pressure on Pakistan to deliver on its promise of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. This state of play was also true when the Taliban was being controlled by Mullah Akhtar, the frequent flyer to Dubai. Akhtar who had extensive business entities in Dubai was able to travel freely on a Pakistani passport. That by itself indicates the intensity of his contacts with the deep state in Pakistan.
The timing of the drone strike on Mullah Akhtar is also significant. It took place a day before PM Modi’s visit to Iran. Interestingly, President Ghani also chose to visit Tehran at the same time, indicating that the drone strike may provide regional players like Iran and India an opportunity to focus on Afghanistan. More importantly, the Akhtar killing raises questions about the role of countries like Iran which appear to be using the Taliban as a tool to counter the presence of Daesh in Afghanistan. This is a dangerous trend which needs to be checked.
As one looks ahead, one can visualise a weakened Taliban (which in the aftermath of Mullah Omar’s death was anyways fragmented) with the twin challenges of leadership and control taking precedence over everything else. That is also going to be the main sticking point for Pakistan. Much as they would like to shift the Quetta Shura (Rahbari Shura) from Quetta to Helmand, Pakistan is unable to make the Taliban gain and control sufficient territory in Afghanistan’s southern provinces to give effect to this wish.
The Taliban’s new leadership faces the challenge of sustaining and financing the movement while maintaining the requisite links to the Pak ISI. It also has the task of uniting the various factions including the Rasool faction, which is said to be close to Iran, under Habaitullah Akhundzada. In the present situation, it cannot afford to stop operation Omari, the latest offensive launched recently to honour Mullah Omar.
Therefore in the short-term, the Taliban will work towards giving a greater military challenge to the NUG, while at the same time finding a suitable way of getting into the QCG process, which Pakistan has been desperate to sell to the world. The latter option, of course, is not a necessary corollary to the change in leadership, but will depend on the level of pressure that the US can exert on the Taliban, post-Akhtar.
There are several possibilities as one looks ahead. Some are already predicting more violence in Afghanistan. The US is visualising an intensified Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan. And despite the change in leadership, there is no evidence to suggest that the Taliban will splinter and break up, even though the Afghan NDS is trying its best. At the end of the day, efforts at reconciliation will only work if there is a regional concert involving India, Iran and Russia. To top that, Washington must tell Islamabad in no uncertain terms that it has to sever its links to the Taliban or else face the consequences. This will have to go beyond mere drone strikes. As the US is in election mode, there will a period of uncertainty, but that should not be the reason for US prevarication on Pakistan. The time to drive home the point has come and it must be done now.