Killing of Taliban leader Akhter Mansour was a gross error of judgement on America’s part. He had managed the Taliban very well as proxy of Mullah Omar for nearly two years after Omar’s death, and had succeeded in making them part of negotiations, till abortive second round of Murree peace process. Outbreak of Mullah Omar’s death triggered a war of attrition amongst various factions of Taliban; Mullah Akhtar Mansour emerged most powerful as all prominent figures of Taliban leadership aligned behind him, including the Haqqanis and immediate family members of Mullah Omar. Pakistan’s assessment has it that Mansour was not opposed to peace talks. His boys from Doha had all along been visiting relevant capitals for spade work in run-up to re-railing of negotiations.
Akhtar Mansour had emerged as a credible dialogue partner who could enter into an agreement and had the power as well as clout to implement it as well. By all means, negotiations were expected to be tough and Mansour was expected to continue with tactical attacks to augment his bargaining position. His successor(s) would follow the suit unless enabling CBMs are floated by America-Afghan duo that a typical Taliban supremo could sell amongst the middle and lower echelons of Taliban leadership as well as to an overwhelming number of Taliban foot soldiers.
Whenever prospects of peace talks become visible, some incident happens to sabotage the process. The Murree dialogue was ruined by the sudden disclosure of the death of Mullah Omar and now when there were some hopes of resumption of the dialogue process, the drone attack was carried out to kill the top leader of Afghan Taliban. Undoubtedly, the killing of Mansour has complicated the Afghan peace process and put Pakistan into a more difficult situation as it was working actively and vigorously under the umbrella of Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) to bring the Taliban on negotiations table.
Speaking at University of Warsaw, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has expressed concerns that Afghanistan’s security is still a challenge for NATO because fighting and violence continues, he added that it is better if Afghans themselves should be able to take responsibility for security of their own country instead of NATO. Only a few weeks back, US President Obama had predicted that the entire region would continue to face instability for decades to come and he also preferred to include Pakistan in the list of the countries that may remain instable.
Important players in Afghanistan are in a state of self-denial. They admit that Afghanistan would continue to face turbulence but fail to contribute sincerely to efforts to restore peace in that country. With this poor standing Afghan-US combine is embarked upon a foolhardy trajectory to impose their will on Afghan Taliban. There is more focus on use of force to crush the will of the Afghan people than to facilitate them in the task of national reconciliation.
At this point and time killing of Mansour raises a pointed questions about American intent as to on which side of peace process America is? Does it want peace in Afghanistan or wants to keep the pot boiling to add back more troops to Afghan theatre? Was the option of killing Mansour discussed in the QCG meeting held immediately before the drone attack? Or Is the QCG a dummy body to gain time and America is working on bilateral channel with Afghan government to impose its own version of peace settlement by co-opting dormant militant Afghan entities? At this point and time one could have only partial answers to these tricky questions; and the content could vary hugely from respondent to respondent.
US official assessments had it that Mansour was a major impediment to peace talks, and had hoped his death would eliminate an obstacle to peace negotiations. The opposite has happened. Obama has conceded that there were no hopes for revival of peace talks in the near future.
Swift selection of a hard-line cleric as the new Taliban chief has surprised Americans as they must be expecting another round of bloody battles for succession and then bagging the support of breakaway factions. Peaceful transition of leadership indicates that organization has come of age. In all probability, key Taliban leaders would now go underground for security reasons and wait for the new administration in Washington. Tactical commanders are likely to continue their attacks in urban centres so that the entity stays relevant to the conflict resolution. At least for now, Obama is destined to leave the decision on how to end America’s longest war to his successor.
The US has urged the new Afghan Taliban leadership to engage with Kabul. “I think our olive branch would be simply that we have long said that we support an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process and reconciliation process, and we would welcome any efforts by the new Taliban leadership to engage,” State Department Spokesperson Mark Toner’s said in a press briefing. Asked whether the olive branch meant that the new leader may be spared a similar fate should he opt for negotiations, Toner was evasive.
While mainstream Afghan Taliban have rejected immediate direct talks with the Afghan government, the breakaway Taliban faction led by Mullah Muhammad Rasool has expressed the willingness to hold talks with the Afghan government. This as well as the recently concluded peace agreement between Hezb-e-Islami group and Afghan government are interesting developments. Rasool’s faction is willing to hold peace talks with the Afghan government but will demand the imposition of Islamic law and the departure of all foreign forces, a senior leader of the group declared. Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, deputy to Rasool told a group of around 200 followers that his faction had no faith in the government. The Taliban’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, has branded Rasool’s faction “a government army in the shape of the Taliban.” He claimed that Rasool was supported by Kabul and Washington. The main Taliban faction has been expressing similar demands, with the proviso that it will only enter peace talks after they have been met.
Pakistan and Afghanistan discussed on May 30 the fate of a fledging reconciliation process in the aftermath of Mansour’s death. Issue was taken up in a meeting between Afghan Ambassador in Islamabad Dr Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal and Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz. Aziz told the Afghan envoy that Pakistan still believed negotiations was the only viable option to bring lasting peace to Afghanistan. Aziz informed Zakhilwal that Pakistan was (still) ready to facilitate talks but for that both Kabul and other stakeholders, including the United States, had to give firm assurances that they would not take any unilateral action against the Taliban leadership.
For any peace deal to have acceptance amongst Taliban cadres, it ought to radiate credible impression that it has been clenched by Taliban leadership from a position of strength. Even though back home Americans could keep projecting a victory. And the sitting Afghan government has to be humble and at the giving end.
If Obama-Ghani axis are willing for this, a political settlement in Afghanistan could come by in weeks. And if peace process is a cover for sustaining chaos in Afghanistan then good luck to America and its proxy rulers of Afghanistan. However, if so, then it may be time for Pakistan to make a bold course correction—starting with repatriation of Afghan refugees and stringent border management. Let Afghan government resolve its problems within its own territory either alone or with American over-lordship as long as it prevents spill over of its follies into Pakistani territory. Pakistan should work out a short time strategy to extricate itself from the Afghan mess. Even minus Afghan conflict, Pakistan has it platter full of other priority issues.
[The Nation, June 06, 2016]
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.