Monday, May 23, 2016

Mullah Mansour exits Rashed Rahman Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour's killing in a drone strike in Dalbandin district near the Iran border has once again altered all the permutations and combinations attending the Afghan war. The likely effects of this development cut across all the assumptions and prognoses regarding this long running conflict. For one, as happened when Mulla Omar's death was belatedly announced a year ago, there is likely to be a fresh struggle between rival Taliban factions to have their own candidate succeed Mullah Mansour. It may be recalled that in the wake of the announcement of Mulla Omar's death, despite Mullah Mansour being named his successor, rival factions, including the son and family of Mulla Omar, refused to accept Mullah Mansour as the new leader. It took Mullah Mansour time and effort to reconcile these rival factions through appointment of their candidates to senior leadership positions, including Sirajuddin Haqqani of the dreaded Haqqani network. Another round of similar factional struggle now cannot be ruled out. Whoever succeeds Mullah Mansour, his death will have further hardened the Taliban's stance. As it is, the peace process was floundering. Ironically, although Mullah Mansour was considered by both the US and Kabul as opposing participation in the peace talks, his death has all but put paid to any chance of a peaceful political resolution of the Afghanistan conundrum. Another fallout of Mullah Mansour's being taken out by a drone is increasing strains in the Pakistan-US relationship. Contradictory media reports speculated whether Pakistan was informed of the drone strike in advance. Going by past standard operating procedures in drone strikes, that seems unlikely, particularly in the case of such a high profile target. Pakistan has vociferously denounced the drone strike as a violation of its sovereignty. But such protestations mean little as even in the past they have had little effect on Washington. The only difference is that after the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the US, and despite the reports of the drone programme being allowed to operate from a base in Balochistan, such strikes remained confined to the tribal areas where there was a concentration of the Taliban. This strike in Balochistan means that Washington means business when it says it will continue to target Taliban leaders wherever they are found. It also means that it now concurs with Kabul's view that Pakistan is not doing enough to nudge the Taliban towards the negotiating table, despite protestations to the contrary. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has already given up on his initial outreach to Pakistan to partner Kabul and Washington in bringing the Taliban into the peace process. Now Washington seems convinced that Mullah Mansour's intractability vis-a-vis the peace talks and his reliance on aggressively pursuing tactical advantage on the battlefield has Pakistan's implicit support. The 'difficult' ally (Pakistan) is therefore going to have life made even more difficult for it in the days ahead. As it is, the chickens of Pakistan's duality of policy vis-a-vis the US/NATO campaign to defeat the Taliban are coming home to roost. The Obama administration has been trying to persuade a hostile Republican-dominated US Congress not to adopt strictures and conditionalities on support to Pakistan. Difficult as the relationship between Washington and Islamabad has proved, the administration still calculates the cost-benefit of maintaining the relationship militates against non-cooperation. This view is not shared by the Republicans, wide sections of the American media, and public. In a presidential election year, the Republicans may have latched onto the administration's Pakistan policy as one more stick to beat it with. Of course the real sufferer is Pakistan. Historically dependent on the US and the west for aid, including military help, Islamabad now faces a US Senate unwilling to subsidise the sale of F-16s to Pakistan and a US House of Representatives insisting on conditionalities before aid, even Coalition Support Fund reimbursements, are released. These conditionalities centre on Pakistan taking action against the Haqqani network, the US Secretary of Defence certifying that Pakistan is not using US aid or equipment to suppress religious and ethnic minorities, and the release of Dr Shakil Afridi, who is viewed as a hero for his role in helping the US track down and eliminate Osama bin Laden. All three conditionalities are difficult to fulfil for Pakistan. Taking on the Haqqani network means taking on the Afghan Taliban in the midst of the struggle against the homegrown Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). While the Pakistani military and security forces already have their hands full with that task despite the successes chalked up by Operation Zarb-e-Azb in FATA and the Rangers' operation in Karachi, any action taken against any Afghan Taliban faction would further consolidate the nexus between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. With the TTP having found safe havens in Afghanistan with the Haqqani network and millions of Afghan refugees (and Taliban amongst them) still on Pakistani soil, the Pakistani military and security forces cannot open up an internal front against the Afghan Taliban without enormous trouble and conflict following in its wake. Of course were such a foolhardy step to be taken, the Afghan Taliban would feel freed of any constraint in helping the TTP fight against Pakistan. Such an internal-external two-front situation would be a security disaster. Pakistan is increasingly seen in Washington and Kabul as waging or supporting a proxy war through the Afghan Taliban while paying lip service to reconciliation and peace. Pakistan's oft repeated denials cut no ice. Islamabad's failure to persuade, and subsequently turn the screws (short of military action) on the Afghan Taliban has now landed it in the doghouse. Now it is caught in the classical dilemma of damned if you do and damned if you don't. These are the fruits of an inept foreign policy being run by two 'Advisors' at loggerheads with each other, no permanent foreign minister (the prime minister holds this portfolio close to his chest without being able to do justice to this crucial area in terms of following trends and developments and undertaking proactive planning), and a consequent sense of drift just when the regional and international dynamic is undergoing dramatic changes. Pakistan's adventures with proxy wars (east and west) have now begun to extract a heavy price. The US, the administration's 'balancing' act notwithstanding, seems bent upon punishing Pakistan for its duality in the Afghanistan theatre over the last 15 years. It is also largely ignoring Pakistan's pleas to take into consideration its defence and security needs vis-a-vis India's overwhelming conventional military strength, pursuit of more powerful nuclear weapons and their delivery platforms, and perceived hegemonic regional designs. In other words, the US strategic calculation to have India on board as a counterweight to the growing might of China has left Pakistan out in the cold. As to the Afghanistan conundrum, peace seems dead in the water. Pakistan must now brace for the fallout. This may well include a resurgence of terrorism by the TTP, perhaps aided and abetted by the angry Afghan Taliban. The lesson, once again, is that a people that oppresses other people can never truly be free itself. Our sorry tale of long standing interventions in Afghanistan and their probable cost now only underlines that lesson emphatically.

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