By Divya Kumar Soti
Mullah Omar has died again, though this time he has died conclusively. In the high-voltage drama surrounding the declaration about his death “in Karachi in 2013” certain things are particularly notable. The announcement of Mullah Omar’s death came out after US-China-Pakistan-sponsored Murree peace talks attended by key Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network delegates. Though the Murree talks were described by the sponsors as a sort of breakthrough it was unclear from day one as to what actually came out of that meeting, except an intent expressed by all sides to meet again soon. The Taliban faction running the Qatar political office had stayed away from the Murree talks.
Clearly, the sense Pakistan and other players, including the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) cronies in Afghan Taliban must have gathered from Murree experience was that Pakistan’s new policy goals in Afghanistan can not be realized without bringing the organization into discipline by sidelining Taliban factional leaders not ready to be tamed by ISI.
Serious rumors of Mullah Omar’s death had emerged multiple times in last few years, but neither the Afghan government nor the US tried to confirm them. However, this time when news of his death first originated through a splinter Taliban faction Fidai Mahaj, which was once cleared by erstwhile Tehrik-e-Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud from his domain on insistence of Afghan Taliban leadership, Kabul as well as Washington almost immediately confirmed it, while Pakistan conspicuously refrained from denying it despite the fact that sub-title of the story was that he died in a Karachi hospital back in 2013.
Mullah Akhtar Mansur, who has been installed by ISI in place of Omar, is breathing fire and has talked of pursuing the goal of establishing an Islamic system through “sword and talks” in compliance with Islamic law and war codes. He has described the Murree talks as “enemy propaganda”. It is another thing that his close aide was present at the Murree meeting. All this is to be seen in light of the fact that Qatar faction led by Tyyeb Agha is so far refusing to acknowledge Mansur’s authority, and rumors are afloat that ISI has neutralized Mullah Omar’s son and has placed his family in protective custody.
Strategic stake instead of strategic depth
Since last winters, Pakistan has ostensibly portrayed to international community that it is ready to give up pursuance of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan if the Afghan Taliban is accommodated in the power structure in Kabul and Pakistan is accepted as ultimate arbitrator as well as custodian of peace in Afghanistan. If things move on further this will also involve de facto limitations on Kabul’s jurisdiction in South and East Afghanistan, ensuring that a favorable streamlined flux is maintained on both sides of the Durand Line. It is difficult to say whether this ostensible positioning involves a genuine policy shift. However, this current Pakistani policy alteration is driven by following factors:
From interactions with Pentagon planners, particularly after Ash Carter took over a US Defense Secretary, Pakistani military leaders came to the conclusion that Americans are determined to not allow Afghanistan going to Taliban wolves in the manner wanted by Pakistan, and hence the Strategic Stake goal may remain unachievable;
China too does not want a Talibani takeover of Afghanistan due to simmering insurgency in Xinjiang and its Silk Road initiative. But it does favor a government in Kabul which may be controlled through strings in Rawalpindi.
In the long term, this strategic stake may culminate in internal sabotage of the fragile power structure in Kabul. But that is a distant possibility for now. In short to medium term, this strategic stake carrot will be dangled to Kabul in the backdrop of intensifying Talibani terror campaign.
But delivering Afghan Taliban to the peace table is not an easy task due to extreme indoctrination levels of cadre. It is not easy for Mullah Mansur to sell peace to ultra-radical Taliban cadre at a time when his authority is being challenged from within. Mullah Omar when alive had taken an extremist position on negotiations with “unIslamic” democratic government. Taliban cadre know Mullah Omar as a leader who chose the path of misery and struggle but did not yield to American pressure to hand over Osama bin Laden. An aura of mystic divinity was built around Mullah Omar’s persona, who though operating like a phantom was a reason of motivation for Taliban cadre. Selling the strategic stake was not easy as long as Mullah Omar was “alive”. Thus, he has been declared dead to make way for Rawalpindi’s new policy forays.
After being saddled in Mullah Omar’s place, Mulla Mansur has seemingly ordered an intensified terror campaign in Kabul to portray himself as an equally strong leader and to deflect the cadre’s attention from the internal disquiet. After his taking over, Taliban have carried out dastardly attacks in Kabul, including the massacre at the Police Academy and bombing at Kabul Airport.
After declaration of Mullah Omar’s demise, for now the Murree process is in doldrums. However, this latest peace process was a well-thought out initiative with backing from US and China and attempts to revive it may be made after sometime if Mullah Mansur succeeds in establishing a firm grip on Afghan Taliban. Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Sartaz Aziz has already articulated the future intentions of Pakistan in clear terms: “I think the first round was very productive and I hope the second round will take place before long, once the leadership issue is decided. It is not yet clear whom they represent and whether there will be unanimity on the new leadership or not.”
However, the latest terror campaign in Kabul has bewildered the Ghani administration – which is also aimed at dissuading the Afghan government from establishing any liaison with the Qatar faction – and has forced it to turn the heat on Pakistan pressing for urgent action. President Ashraf Ghani recently told media persons in Kabul that “the decisions which Pakistani government would make in next few weeks would be significant to affect bilateral relations for the next decades.” He further added that “the security of our people and national interests of Afghanistan lay the basis of our relationship with Pakistan. We can no longer tolerate to see our people bleeding in war exported and imposed on us from outside.”
In the present scenario, the dissident Qatar faction assumes importance and it is to be seen whether Mullah Mansur will be able to mend fences with it. Gulf powers, unhappy with Pakistan over the Yemen conflict, may decide to throw their weight behind Qatar faction and Kabul may also prop it to deal with Pakistani blackmail. Another twist to the saga is the advent of brand ‘Islamic State’ which is seen by jihadists to be successfully sustaining the “Caliphate”.
Over the last many months, some Taliban commanders have sworn allegiance to IS chief Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and Taliban has written a letter to the Islamic State to refrain from expanding into its domain. Al Qaeda’s leadership based in Pakistan, which used to support Mullah Omar, is absent from the scene and fast losing sheen. The Afghan situation is all poised for turning more complex and tortuous.
*Divya Kumar Soti is an independent national security and strategic affairs analyst based in India. He can be contacted at [email protected]