Mul­lah Akhtar death likely to en­rage Pak­istan

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - Jon Boone

ON Wed­nes­day, Sar­taj Aziz, Pak­istan’s de facto for­eign min­is­ter, told a gath­er­ing of top diplo­mats from Afghanistan, the US and China that the 2015 leak of news that for­mer Tal­iban leader Mul­lah Omar had been dead for more than two years “not only scut­tled the Afghan peace process, it also let to the splin­ter­ing of the Tal­iban”. Days later a US drone fired a mis­sile at Omar’s suc­ces­sor, Mul­lah Akhtar Man­soor, as he trav­elled in the south­ern Pak­istan prov­ince of Balochis­tan.

The at­tack, which the Tal­iban have con­firmed killed Man­soor, marks an ex­tra­or­di­nary es­ca­la­tion of a drone cam­paign that ap­peared to be wind­ing down and has in the past been a run­ning sore in US-Pak­istani re­la­tions. The govern­ment in Is­lam­abad did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to the news whilst Pak­istan’s me­dia, which of­ten fol­lows di­rec­tions from the coun­try’s se­cu­rity es­tab­lish- ment, did not rush to con­demn the strike as a breach of the coun­try’s sovereignty.

Many of the coun­try’s se­cu­rity of­fi­cials are likely to be fu­ri­ous given how heav­ily Pak­istan in­vested in help­ing Man­soor se­cure the lead­er­ship of the Tal­iban af­ter a power strug­gle broke out fol­low­ing the an­nounce­ment of Omar’s death. Is­lam­abad has long ar­gued the only way to end the war in Afghanistan is to try to coax a united Tal­iban to the ta­ble for peace talks. It has dis­missed calls to take mil­i­tary ac­tion against an in­sur­gent group whose sup­port net­works op­er­ate freely in Pak­istan, say­ing at­tempts to start ne­go­ti­a­tions must be ex­hausted first.

But amid deadly Tal­iban at­tacks, in­clud­ing an April sui­cide bomb­ing in Kabul that killed 64 peo­ple, the Afghan govern­ment has run out of pa­tience with Is­lam­abad and has de­manded firm ac­tion against Tal­iban net­works based on Pak­istani soil. The killing of Man­soor sug­gests the US agrees with the de­mands of the Afghan pres­i­dent, Ashraf Ghani, that “ir­rec­on­cil­able” in­sur­gents based in Pak­istan should be tar­geted. In a highly un­usual pub­lic state­ment about a drone strike, a Pen­tagon of­fi­cial de­scribed Man­soor as “an ob­sta­cle to peace and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­tween the govern­ment of Afghanistan and the Tal­iban, pro­hibit­ing Tal­iban lead­ers from par­tic­i­pat­ing in peace talks with the Afghan govern­ment”. But is far from clear whether Man­soor’s death will smooth the way to an end to the con­flict. He has no ob­vi­ous suc­ces­sor, though one of his two ap­pointed deputies may as­sume power in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math. Nei­ther is known as a pro­po­nent of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

One, Haibat­ul­lah Akhundzada, a renowned cleric from the Tal­iban heart­land of Kan­da­har, is a rel­a­tively un­known fig­ure out­side the move­ment. Ac­cord­ing to the UN, Haibat­ul­lah is the Tal­iban’s for­mer Chief Jus­tice. Though he was seem­ingly close to the move­ment’s founder, Mul­lah Omar, it is un­clear how much in­flu­ence he holds over Tal­iban foot sol­diers. The other deputy, Si­ra­jud­din Haqqani, is the leader of the Haqqani net­work, which has risen to promi­nence in the Tal­iban in re­cent years and taken on a more cen­tral role in the in­sur­gency. While the Haqqa­nis do not have clout over fight­ers in the south, Man­soor’s death could fur­ther strengthen the group’s po­si­tion within the in­sur­gency, mak­ing rec­on­cil­i­a­tion even more unattain­able.

The killing of Man­soor rep­re­sents a re­mark­able ex­pan­sion of the drone pro­gramme be­cause it hap­pened well out­side the tribal agen­cies of North and South Waziris­tan where nearly all known strikes have taken place, usu­ally fo­cus­ing on al-Qaida and al­lied groups. US of­fi­cials said the at­tack took place near Ah­mad Wal, sug­gest­ing it was the first ever known strike in the vast south­ern prov­ince of Balochis­tan, where the in­sur­gency’s “Quetta Shura” lead­er­ship coun­cil is thought to be based, and one of very few to tar­get a se­nior mem­ber of the Afghan Tal­iban. The drones were de­scribed as hav­ing been pi­loted by US Spe­cial Forces – sug­gest­ing it was not a CIA oper­a­tion, as is usu­ally the case with at­tacks in­side Pak­istan. — Courtesy: The Guardian

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