By Chayanika Saxena*
Taken down in a drone attack, the rehbar (leader) of Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour is reported to have been eliminated on the evening of May 21, 2016. Confirming his death, official sources placed in both the US Oval office and the National Directorate of Security of Afghanistan are maintaining that Mansour was killed in the Pakistani town of Dalbandin while he was journeying back to Pakistan from Iran, ostensibly on a Pakistani passport in which he was recognized as Muhammad Wali.
It is believed that the Amir of the Afghan Taliban was in talks with Iran; having been there for close to two months, purportedly with the intention of cooperating with the authorities in Tehran in what appears to be their common fight against the ISIS. As is evidentially known, the gruesomely militant outfit- Islamic State- has managed to make inroads into the eastern provinces of Afghanistan, especially in Nangarhar, challenging not only the authority of the Afghan government, but also that of the Afghan Taliban by claiming to be the ‘true’ representative of the ‘most fidel reflection of Islamic law and governance’ . In fact, if the establishment of the vilayet (district) Khorasan of the Islamic State is anything to go by, the Afghan Taliban, which has already been under stress owing to succession wars and a tightening Pakistani noose, has been staring at its potential displacement and a probable replacement on Afghanistan’s political scene.
Witnessing intense turf wars within, the Afghan Taliban, possibly with the intent of not aggravating its internal crisis, displayed no rush in vetting the reports about Mansour’s death that had begun doing rounds. Given both that similar reports about the death of the new rehbar had been proven to be unfounded in the past (the fight in Kuchlak, Pakistan), and that the Afghan Taliban has a proclivity to keep the dead alive for long and even resurrecting them to life, it was quite likely that reports on the death of Mansour too would have been dismissed. However, the Afghan Taliban has come around, surmising to the latest development and has, with ‘good authority’, verified that its leader is dead.
As the situation stands now, it is expected that the organizational structure of the Afghan Taliban could once again witness a battle for succession: between the two deputies that remain on the one hand, and on the other, between the other claimants of authorities who have already formed splinter factions of their own and those who are entrenched in the system. Following Akhtar Mansour in the ladder of hierarchy, the leader of the Haqqani network, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who also happens to be an avowed loyalist of the Pakistani GHQ and the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), could very well assume the leadership given that the former two entities continue to exert their influence on the Afghan Taliban.
Called an unpredictable place, the death of Mansour is expected to open a can of worms yet again for the peace process in Afghanistan and the dynamics that surround it. It is also critical to note that while the future is expected to muddle up further, the elimination of the leader of the Afghan Taliban comes in the background of many recent developments which have been chequered to say the least.
As recently as a week ago, the National Unity Government (NUG) of Afghanistan entered into a pact of reconciliation with the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar-led Hezb-i-Islami- a group that had once found itself on the side of the Afghan Taliban. Fractured from within, the militant wing of HeI that is led by the notorious warlord was already at odds with its political branch which already enjoys representation in the current Afghan government. Added to this, its dwindling importance on Afghanistan’s political scene and a less charitable stance assumed by the ruling dispensation of the military-intelligence alliance in Pakistan towards it created circumstances to broker a peace deal between it and the NUG. While the Afghan Taliban had long distanced itself from HeI, however, given that it had once been tied to its hip, it can be expected that the peace pact would have left a psychological dent on the former.
Where the weaning-off of its former ally could have been a possible source of discomfiture, the structural predicaments faced by the Afghan Taliban has dealt a severe blow on its organizational capacity. Despite the territorial and strategic successes it has managed to garner, the Afghan Taliban continues to be in a state of disarray especially as competing loci of authority have emerged claiming to be the ‘legitimate’ successor of the movement.
Having been known for its internal cohesion and unity of command, especially when compared to the many other outfits that had once proliferated in Afghanistan, and which were amorphous in their structure to say the least, the Afghan Taliban is no longer a house in order. Marred by struggles for succession, some of which have (permanently) splintered it into violently competing factions, the authority of the now-deceased leader, Mullah Mansour was not accepted without resistance. Where to begin with he had faced opposition from the brother and son of the first Amir-al-Momineen (leader of the faithful), Mullah Omar, the rapid succession of Mullah Akhtar Mansour was dubbed as conspiracy by senior leaders of the Quetta Shura as well those in the political office in Qatar.
Caught in the web of regional and extra-regional interests, Afghanistan, for the greatest part of its history, has found itself mangled in rivalries that have often spelled chaos for the country. The situation, as it stands today, is far from being any different especially as Pakistan continues to meddle in its affairs in direct and indirect ways. Not that it was not already known, but ever since it was officially admitted by the foreign office in Pakistan that the country maintains a (great) degree of sway over the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan has found itself under greater international pressure to deliver this group to the table of talks; something that it has not successfully managed to do yet. While, as per its own admission, Pakistan continues to call the shots within Taliban, but the increasing resistance to such control is ostensibly making Taliban look to other countries for support. And, it is here that Iran has begun playing a prominent role.
If reports are to be believed, the Afghan Taliban has been making attempts to move out of Quetta into the Afghan province of Helmand, although these efforts have been repelled by the Afghan National Security Forces. The tightening grip around the leadership of the Taliban, and which in some measure is being done to salvage Pakistan from the mounting international criticism and not only to maintain its hold over this group, is being resented. Looking for greater autonomy, especially in the light of the inter-factional wars that have emerged between the claimants of Taliban’s legacy on the one hand, and on the other, with the IS, the Afghan Taliban has turned to Iran for monetary and material support.
While the official stance of Iran has been one of denial, but it has been observed that for reasons including, (i) its intent to counter US’ plans in the region; (ii) to provide adequate challenge to the increasing IS presence, and (iii) the sheer political unpredictability in Afghanistan, has made it hedge its bet on Taliban that, much like many militant outfits, has been bought and sold over support.
It has also been speculated that Russia too is towing the line of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists and is contemplating (or maybe is already) supporting the Afghan Taliban in order to contain the rise and spread of the Islamic State to Central Asia, and through that to its restive federal subject of Chechnya. To this effect, both Iran and Russia that have been moving in the direction of growing cooperation which could potentially revive the same alliance that they had once been a part of together, albeit against the Taliban then. Given that they are united in more than one way- ideologically and strategically- and that they appear to have thrown their weight behind the Afghan Taliban, it is quite possible that the latter might have new succors soon.
Now coming to what the future holds: if there is anything predictable about Afghanistan, it is its unpredictability. Guided by the principle of divide and rule, while it might be possible that a weaker, splintered Taliban can become less of a truant, and thus easier to manage, but it is equally possible for a totally obverse situation to come about and which might be even more challenging.
The likely fission of the Afghan Taliban has the potential of churning results that will be deleterious to both the peace process in Afghanistan and to the larger regional stability. First, the emergence of (few or many) residual groups would imply that the actors in peace negotiations would increase in number, making it difficult to get them on the same page at the same time. Conflict resolution, at least theoretically, is believed to happen when a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ creates a situation ‘ripe’ enough to talk about peace. In a kind of asymmetric, unconventional form of warfare that continues to simmer in Afghanistan, it is quite likely that these splinter groups will exhibit different capacities of wherewithal and different, if not divergent interests, making it difficult to ensure that all these groups at once renounce violence and talk about resolving the conflicts.
The break-up of the Afghan Taliban would also imply that regional and extra-regional powers that are supporting it in any fashion would have no clear, cohered beneficiary. In the absence of a consolidated Taliban, there emerges both a dilemma of choice and a possibility that the splintered factions might end up joining the very same terror-outfits (IS and Al-Qaida) that countries like Iran and Russia seek to challenge.
The net result of Taliban’s splintering will be increased violence, especially that which targets civilians in Afghanistan. In a situation of immense of competition that would get created between the multiple claimants of authority, exerting influence using the power of barrel would appear to be the easiest and quickest way to gaining immediate recognition. Just as the Afghan Taliban through its infamous spring offensive attempts to draw attention of the government and the international forces to its vicious potency, its by-products that would emerge can be expected to resort to similar dramatic displays of violence.
The killing of the leader of the Afghan Taliban on the Pakistani soil is also set to upset the bilateral ties this country has maintained with the US. While the identity of the deceased is yet to be acknowledged as that of Mullah Akhtar Mansour by the Pakistani authorities, however it will be difficult for it to deny the same in light of both the evidence that has been procured from the site of the attack – Pakistani passport along with the admission that was recently made by the Pakistani foreign affairs advisor, Sartaj Aziz to having a certain degree of control on the activities of the Afghan Taliban.
Coming close on the heels of a deal on F-16s with the US that fell through, Pakistan has objected to the use of drones in its territory of Balochistan as a violation of its sovereignty even as the US maintains that it had kept the leadership of Afghanistan and Pakistan in the know. It is significant to underline that the absence of denial to the presence of the leader of the Afghan Taliban would have directly implicated Pakistan in harboring elements within its domains that have made it to the list of ‘specially designated terrorist’; a charge which is, with evidence, put on it, but a confession to which is expected to cost this country dearly.
The contagion which Taliban has been for the body politic of Afghanistan is bound to yield an adverse impact on the prospects of peace for the country, the whole region, and in fact, the entire world notwithstanding the recent setback. Whether in its continuing survival as a more-or-less consolidated group or its disintegration into smaller militant outfits, the very being of Afghan Taliban implies violence for Afghanistan, South Asia and the global order.
*Chayanika Saxena is a Research Associate at the Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. She can be reached at: [email protected]