By Lt Gen P. C. Katoch (Retd.)*
There was much speculation post the killing of Mullah Akhtar Mansour, Afghan Taliban chief not only about the possible leadership struggle within Afghan Taliban, but also that Pakistan may turn a new leaf and cooperate to usher stability in Afghanistan. Senator John McCain, Chairman of US Senate Armed Services Committee while speaking about the killing of Mansour said, “I hope this strike against the Taliban’s top leader will lead the administration to reconsider its policy of prohibiting US forces from targeting the Taliban”. He added that “it (Taliban) is the one force most able and willing to turn Afghanistan into a terrorist safe haven once again”. Senator Corker chipped in by saying, “If Pakistan would play a more constructive role, we could destabilize the Taliban far more rapidly.” That is a very big “if” and as deceptive as the size of the two Taliban banded together by Pakistan’s ISI.
Mansour was reportedly killed in a US drone strike in Baluchistan province of Pakistan. The installation of Mansour to head Afghan Taliban last year was carefully orchestrated by Pakistan keeping the death of former Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Omar in a Karachi hospital under wraps for more than two years. This was a strategic masterstroke by Pakistan as Mansour was the religious teacher of Haqqanis based in Pakistan for over three decades. Haqqanis have been consistently used by Pakistan as their covert arm to destabilize Afghanistan and target Indian establishment and interests in Afghanistan. But that was not all. Concurrent to Mansour becoming Afghan Taliban chief, the Haqqani Network chief, Sirajuddin Haqqani was placed as the deputy leader of Afghan Taliban last year itself. The US media got wise to this important development only recently as a New York Times report of May 8, 2016 indicates.
Mullah Mansour and some other Taliban cadres riding a vehicle near the town of Ahmad Wal in the Balochistan province were targeted by multiple UAVs operated by US Special Operations Forces. US Secretary of State on a visit to Myanmar told reporters, “Mansour posed an imminent threat to US personnel, Afghan civilians and Afghan security forces.” Pentagon confirmed the operation to kill Mansour was authorized by President Obama, reminiscent of the raid by US Navy Seals in Abbotabad to kill Osama bin Laden.
General Joseph Votel of US Central Command went on record to say, “Mansour played a key leadership role in not only orchestrating the Taliban but orchestrating a variety of other organizations to include the Haqqani Network and al Qaeda who were perpetrating operations against not only US. forces but coalition forces and Afghan forces for a long period of time”. Mansour’s movements were apparently being monitored for some time. The US reportedly informed both Afghanistan and Pakistan after the strike. Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs promptly termed the strike a violation of Pakistani sovereignty, as if sovereignty is anymore an issue with the Pakistani military having traded the country’s sovereignty to China; a brigade plus of PLA is already deployed in POK-Pakistan and another three PLA divisions following.
Pakistan’s ISI used Mullah Mansour and Sirajuddin Haqqani to rally the Afghan Taliban and the Tehrik-e-Taliban (Pakistan) (TPP) under the same platform to Pakistan’s advantage. Capture of large parts of Kunduz City in north Afghanistan last September-October was under the aegis of Mansour, even as presence of ISI operative(s) were reported in the hospital at Kunduz that had to be bombed to knock out the Taliban HQ. The assessment of Director US Intelligence Agency this February acknowledged that both the Afghan Taliban and TTP had largely coalesced under Mullah Mansour. Mansour and Sirajuddin also helped Pakistan establish an ISI-headed conglomerate of Afghan Taliban and TTP mixed with cadres of Pakistani Mujahid battalions – being termed as ISIS or the Khorasan chapter in Afghanistan, with large presence in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. Though Director US National Intelligence termed the ISIS in Afghanistan “disgruntled elements of Afghan Taliban and TTP”, the Afghans are very clear that this so called ISIS is actually an ISI outfit, facilitated by Pakistani regulars injected into Afghanistan along with millions of Pakistani refugees.
What quantum of Pakistani regulars are covertly deployed inside Afghanistan is difficult to assess but they certainly are fighting in support of Taliban as pointed out by Afghan intelligence on multiple occasions. That Pakistani support to Taliban will certainly increase considering Pakistan’s continuing hunger for added strategic depth in Afghanistan is obvious. It is for this very reason that Pakistan has trained some 20 Mujahid battalions to operate as and in support of the Taliban. The fact that Pakistani General Nida Mohammad Nadim, head of Taliban’s military branch for provinces of Faryab, Badghis, Sar-e-Pul and Ghor was killed in northern Afghanistan last month indicates that the situation may be heading to the levels during the US invasion of Afghanistan when a weak Division worth of Pakistani regulars and some 9000 Pakistan Taliban were fighting inside Afghanistan alongside and in support of Afghan Taliban.
The US had been pressurizing Pakistan to target the Haqqani network past few years but Pakistan has been doing the opposite. Mansour and Sirajuddin Haqqani were deliberately placed to head the Afghan Taliban. How many more members of Quetta Shura are occupying key positions in the Taliban remains unknown, but the Afghan Taliban and TTP are definitely together with the Haqqanis in calling the shots. That is the very reason why Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda chief publicly declared full support to Afghan Taliban in early 2015. Mansour incidentally had been repatriated to Afghanistan in September 2006 following a detention in Pakistan and later became Taliban’s self-styled ‘governor’ of Kandahar in 2007.
Despite all this and his record of terrorism and narcotics trafficking, his installation as the Chief of Afghan Taliban replacing Mullah Omar by Pakistan’s ISI speaks volumes of Pakistani intentions. Post the news of Mansour’s killing, Afghan CEO Abdullah Abdullah said that if Mansour’s death is confirmed, major changes within the ranks of the Taliban could be expected as a number of Taliban leaders could join the peace process. But all this speculation has ended with the Afghan Taliban not only confirming the death of Mullah Mansour, but also announcing Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada as the successor of Mullah Mansour as the new Afghan Taliban Chief.
Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada is a religious teacher and was one of the deputies of Mullah Omar. Interestingly, the Afghan Taliban announcement read, “Haibatullah Akhundzada has been appointed as the new leader of the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) after a unanimous agreement in the shura, and that all the members of the shura pledged allegiance to him”, adding that Sirajuddin Haqqaani and Mullah Yakoub (son of Mullah Omar) have been appointed his deputies. On balance, it may be surmised: question of Afghan Taliban joining the reconciliation process remain zero; Sirajuddin Haqqani continues as the deputy leader in Afghan Taliban – rallying the Afghan Taliban and TTP together; Op ‘Omari’, Taliban’s spring offensive named after late Mullah Omar will intensify; Haqqani Network will continue calling the shots as directed by Pakistan’s ISI from the background, and; change of heart by Pakistan vis-à-vis Afghanistan will remain utopian.
What the US would do well to examine is: Pakistan’s jugular is held by China and China wants all US-NATO soldiers to quit Afghanistan; should Taliban influence expand, possibility of declaration of Islamic Emirate (Taliban) of areas under their influence (and its effect East of the Durand Line) – unofficial bifurcation of Afghanistan prophesied by Robert Blackwell some years back, and; cumulative effect of instability in Pakistan with Pakistani army stretched to protect the CPEC in addition to three PLA Divisions. Pakistan will otherwise continue to strive to enlarge her cherished strategic depth in Afghanistan. So, as far as Pakistan is concerned, it will be business as usual, perhaps with more vigour.
*Lt. Gen. P.C. Katoch (Retd.) is veteran, Indian Army. He can be reached at: [email protected]