The death of the Taliban leader Mullah Mansour as a result of the US orchestrated drone strike in the Noshki area of Balochistan on May 21, reflects a major shift in the US policy towards tackling the Afghan Taliban and their perception on the role played by Pakistan in fulfilling their commitment for peace and stability in the region.
Pakistan received this act by the U.S as its infringement of sovereignty, while the US highlighted the urgency on tackling the Afghan Taliban due to the incessant deteriorating security situation. According to the US and Afghan leadership, the group’s leader Mullah Mansour had become a major hurdle to the peace negotiations with the Afghan government.
With the recent setback in Af-Pak relations post the deadly attack in Kabul on 19th April, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had openly expressed his disappointment in Pakistan’s failure to take necessary action against the Haqqani group and its inability in bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table for the peace process. The QCG talks held on 18th May, exposed the differences between the group (Afghanistan, Pakistan, U.S and China) regarding the peace process. While, the United States and Afghanistan demand for a more decisive action against groups such as Haqqani network, Pakistan and China are of the opinion that only a peaceful dialogue shall lead to a stable Afghanistan. Both the US and Afghanistan agree that factions within the group that are not agreeable to negotiations should be dealt militarily.
The possibility of peace talks leading to any positive outcome will be far from reality particularly with the Afghan Taliban’s new chief Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada determined to continue fighting in the region and his refusal to take part in the peace talk initiatives. Thus, this development renders the efforts by the QCG as a total failure. Earlier, Akhundzada was the deputy of Mullah Mansour and is known to share the same ideology as the slain chief. His two new deputies- Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of the head of the Haqqani network and Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob, son of Mullah Omar are equally keen on maintaining an aggressive policy on the battlefront. In fact, the growing relationship with the Al-Qaeda could strengthen the Talibani and act as an added threat to stability in the country.
The US has pointed out that American forces shall target all possible threats emanating from Pakistani soilii, thus, this drone attack is likely to have an adverse impact on US-Pakistan relations particularly on the Afghan issue. It sends across a clear message to Pakistan, that it can no longer allow safe havens to Taliban on Pakistani soil. This move could aggravate the US-Pakistan ties particularly after United States’ refusal towards funding of the F-16 fighter jets. Clearly, the so-called Pakistani influence on Taliban has been declining over the years, thus, controlling them and bringing them to any form of negotiation with the Afghan government shall not be a smooth and immediate probability.
Challenge for the NUG
The Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) has a challenging path cut out for itself, the domestic situation is far from normalcy. In the backdrop of the NATO foreign ministerial meeting in Brussels, the US Secretary of State John Kerry had affirmed that around 9,800 American troops will remain in Afghanistan through most of 2016. The number may go down to 5,500 troops before President Obama leaves office in 2017iii, but that decision is still under review. The United States has committed itself to work along with its NATO partners and international community on assisting the training of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) to ensure overall security in the region. President Obama has approved a larger role for the US military to support the Afghan troops to fight the Taliban-led insurgency by assisting them on the battlefield.iv However, the Afghan leadership faces numerous challenges that they might not be fit to cope at such an early stage. The Afghan Taliban has been expanding their territorial ambitions within the region through offensive attacks targeted against both the Afghan government and foreign troops. Thus, they are gaining strength and are well aware of their stronghold in the region. The recent move on 21st May by the United States may have greatly reduced the possibility of the Taliban to negotiate the peace terms with the NUG.
To add to that, the Afghan forces involved in a security operation are suffering heavy casualties to suppress the insurgency activities within the region and lack the capacity both in terms of men and material to eliminate or restrict the Taliban for the overall transformation of the region. President Ghani recognizes the possibility of fresh challenges with the slow decline in the US military presence and needs to tighten its security infrastructure. The Afghan government lacks an all-encompassing strategy for waging war or building peace. Apart from this, there is a deep trust deficit between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of nurturing the Haqqani network as well as certain factions of the Taliban on Pakistani soil, particularly with regard to maintaining greater influence in Afghanistan and to ward off any Indian designs in the region. The present disturbance at the Afghan-Pakistan border has worsened the severed ties between the two neighbours. Thus, a resolution on the border front is necessary for the two countries in order to have cordial relations and focus on pressing issues of the region that demand our immediate attention. Keeping in mind the neighbourhood policy, Pakistan is strategically relevant for Afghanistan and it is important to increase international pressure on Pakistan to target the terrorist groups operating on its soil. Therefore, Afghanistan’s security problem is strategically connected to stability within Pakistan and its intent to ensure safety within the region.
Despite the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned initiative, the Afghan peace talks and the security situation have been largely in the hands of the foreign actors. Thus, Afghan leadership needs to build a strong political as well as a security plan along with international support in order to tackle Taliban and for the overall development of the region. Meanwhile, for the United States, it is obvious that there is a certain level of frustration with the duration of war and functionality. However, given the deteriorating security situation in the region, the lack of capability of the Afghan forces and the weakening government, the United States should consider to maintain a greater number of their troop presence in Afghanistan for an extended period. This shall assist the Afghan government in gathering necessary political strength and expertise to manage the security situation of their region.
*Sabah Ishtiaq is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.