June 26, 2016

Afghanistan: Beginning of a New Bloody Chapter

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE assassination of the Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour by an armed drone dispatched on the express orders of the American president, seems to have quashed all hopes of Afghan peace talks reviving in the near future. Mansour was killed along with the driver of the taxi car they were traveling on a highway in a remote part of Pakistan's Balochistan province. Though the car along with its occupants was charred beyond recognition, the passport which Mansour was carrying was found intact and displayed to international media. The Pakistani passport, which Mansour was using was in the name of Wali Muhammad. The story put out by Washington is that the Taliban leader's movements were tracked when he undertook a clandestine visit to Iran to visit his family. As soon as he crossed the border back into Pakistan, his vehicle was targeted by drones sent from Afghanistan. It was the first American drone strike in Balochistan province, the de facto headquarters of the Afghan Taliban leadership. It took the Pakistani government completely off-guard. The Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif as well as the powerful military chief, Gen. Rahil Sharif, said that the American military action inside Pakistani territory, violated Pakistan's sovereignty. It took almost a week for the Pakistani government to acknowledge that a US drone strike had in fact killed the Taliban leader. REAL MESSAGE The Obama administration made no efforts to hide the real message to the Pakistani authorities behind the targeting of the Taliban leader. It was that henceforth, no prior warning will be given before strikes on individuals and groups considered dangerous to American national interests, are executed on Pakistani territory. Pakistan has informally allowed American drones to operate in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan but not in the rest of the country. The targeting of Mansour was the second most important counter terrorism decision taken by President Obama after he ordered American special forces to hunt down Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad. American officials say that President Barack Obama had ordered the strike against Mullah Mansour after it became apparent that the Taliban leader would not be attending peace talks aimed at ending the bloody conflict in Afghanistan any time soon. President Obama described the elimination of Mullah Mansour as “an important milestone”. He told the media during a visit to Vietnam that the United States had “removed the leader of an organisation that has continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and coalition forces”. Washington will start putting more pressure on Pakistan to take military action against the Afghan Taliban, in the ongoing efforts to force the group to acquiesce to peace talks. A senior American military official told the media that Pakistani officials had given “limited help” in the tracking down of Mullah Mansour. Mullah Mansour was apparently more eager to first consolidate his own position within his organisation before thinking of starting serious peace talks. It was no secret that many sections within the Taliban viewed him with suspicion. His elevation to the top position was facilitated to a great extent by the Pakistani security establishment. The same establishment had let him run the Taliban in the name of the supreme leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar for more than two years. Mullah Omar's death in 2013 was only revealed last year. With some Taliban groups rebelling against his leadership and a few jointing the local franchise of the Islamic State, Mansour was eager to prove himself as an effective military leader. After he took over, the Taliban has staged high profile terror attacks in the capital Kabul, targeting the security services. In August last year, the Taliban briefly captured the city of Kunduz. The Taliban has captured large swathes of territory in the last several months. The spring military offensive of the Taliban this year has been particularly effective. Mansour had openly boasted that the return of the Taliban to Kabul was only a matter of time. Mansour was Afghanistan's aviation minister during the years Taliban was in power. Though he was not known for his battlefield exploits in the past, he emerged as a close confidant of Mullah Omar after the American invasion of Afghanistan. His rise to the top was opposed by by many Taliban leaders, including Mullah Muhammad Yaqub, a son of Mullah Omar. Mansour later made peace with him by giving him a key leadership post. The leader of the Haqqani faction of the Taliban, Sirajuddin Haqqani, was Mansour's designated second in command. It is reported that Mullah Mansour narrowly escaped an assassination attempt staged by rivals within the organisation last December. Since then he is said to have adopted a very low profile, rarely appearing in public. However, the details shown on the passport he was alleged to have been carrying shows that Mullah Mansour was a frequent traveler whose favorite destination was Dubai. He is reputed to have business interests in the UAE. In recent years, the Taliban has made a killing from the narcotics trade. As the areas under their influence has grown exponentially so has the production and illegal exports of heroin. The profits have helped fuel the war and enrich the private coffers of Taliban leaders as well as warlords on both sides of the Afghan political divide. According to reports, poppy cultivation has gone up in nominally Afghan government controlled areas also. This year's harvest, according to reports, is going to be more bountiful. The Afghan government has ordered the cancellation of its annual eradication campaign against poppy cultivation. Afghanistan's president Ashraf Ghani and his chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, welcomed the demise of Mullah Mansour, saying that he was an obstacle to peace within the militant group. Mansour “engaged in deception, concealment of facts, drug smuggling and terrorism while intimidating, maiming and killing innocent Afghans”, President Ghani said. The Afghan president had invested a lot of time and energy into getting the peace process going. His first visit after taking over from President Hamid Karzai was to the headquarters of the Pakistani army in Rawalpindi to talk with the Pakistani army chief on ways to speed up the peace process in Afghanistan. In retrospect, the Pakistani military establishment was either incapable or uninterested in forcing the Taliban towards the negotiating table. The Haqqani faction of the Afghan Taliban is still perceived to be close to the Pakistani establishment. An important priority of the Pakistan state is to ensure that the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban don't join hands. EFFECT ON PEACE TALKS Senior Pakistani officials including Sartaj Aziz, the adviser to the prime minister on foreign affairs, said that the death of the Taliban leader was a setback to efforts at starting peace talks. Aziz said that Mansour's death has “added to the complexity of the Afghan conflict”. The action, he said, has “seriously undermined the peace process”. At the same time he reiterated Pakistan's continuing commitment to a politically negotiated settlement in Afghanistan through the auspices of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) comprising of three other countries -- the US, China and Afghanistan. Aziz said that the US position on talks was inconsistent. “On one side you want to start talks with them while on the other hand you are killing them which is not a consistent attitude”, he said. The Afghan Taliban, belying predictions that there would be a protracted succession struggle after the assassination of its leader, quickly announced the appointment of Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, as the new leader. He was a former head of the judicial system the Taliban had established in Afghanistan and was one of the two deputies of the late Mullah Mansour. Known as the “stone age Mullah” he had issued many statements justifying the war against the Afghan government and the foreign troops backing it in Afghanistan. In an audio message circulated after his appointment as the new Taliban chief, Akhundzada said that the fighting will continue and rejected the idea of holding peace talks. “Taliban will never bow down their heads and will not agree to peace talks”, he stated. “People thought that we will lay down our arms after Mullah Mansour's death, but we will fight till the end”, he went on to add. The new Taliban leader who is in his fifties hails from the Noorzai tribe. He was born in Kandahar province but spent a lot of his formative years in refugee camps and seminaries in Pakistan. Akhundzada will be more of a spiritual leader of the Taliban as he is not known to have been a “mujahideen” fighter. One of the reasons the Taliban chose him as their new leader is because of his non-controversial persona. The split riven Taliban hopes to reunite under his leadership. An important faction from the Noorzai tribe had refused to accept the leadership of the late Mullah Mansour. Many of the Taliban leaders opposed to Mansour like Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar were arrested in Pakistan. As far as talks are concerned, the Taliban has been quite consistent in its stand that dialogue with the government in Kabul can only take place after all the foreign troops leave Afghanistan. 13,000 NATO troops still remain in the country. As such a scenario is not likely to unfold very soon, the Taliban will continue with its military offensive, regardless of the recent leadership changes. The US has failed since 2001 to stop Pakistan and the Taliban from having a close relationship. The Taliban government in Kabul in the mid nineties was set up with the active help of the Pakistani security agencies and the connivance of Washington. The Pakistani establishment continues to believe that its continued sway on the Pashtun heartland in Afghanistan, is key for the strategic depth the military needs. Islamabad will be keen to ensure that Afghanistan remains its backyard.