US drone strike: Will it im­pede Afghan di­plo­macy?

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - — Cour­tesy: The Chris­tian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor Scott Peter­son

EVEN be­fore the Afghan Tal­iban leader, Mul­lah Akhtar Man­sour, was killed Satur­day in a US drone strike in Pak­istan, the ul­tra-con­ser­va­tive Is­lamist in­sur­gents and Afghanistan were em­broiled in a bit­ter new round of vi­o­lence that punc­tu­ated their fail­ure to rekin­dle a peace process. The Tal­iban were in the midst of one of the blood­i­est spring of­fen­sives in years, which they kicked off last month with a com­plex at­tack in Kabul that left 64 dead.

In sharp re­sponse, the Afghan govern­ment had ex­e­cuted six Tal­iban pris­on­ers, sig­nalling its rage that the in­sur­gents – and their Pak­istani back­ers, who were es­pe­cially close to Mr. Man­sour – had re­fused to come to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble de­spite over­tures for more than a year. With Kabul now brac­ing for a wave of ex­pected re­tal­ia­tory at­tacks, an­a­lysts con­cur that the drone strike in Pak­istan’s re­mote Balochis­tan Prov­ince had re­moved a man who had been an im­ped­i­ment to di­plo­macy. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama called Man­sour’s death “an im­por­tant mile­stone.” But an­a­lysts are un­cer­tain over whether killing Man­sour, whom Pak­istan had helped as­sume the Tal­iban lead­er­ship last year, will al­low the peace process to move for­ward, or drive the par­ties even far­ther apart. “There was quite a de­pen­dency syn­drome from both sides [Pak­istan and Man­sour] on each other,” says Ah­mad Rashid, a Pak­istani an­a­lyst and au­thor of sev­eral books on the Tal­iban and Cen­tral Asian mil­i­tant groups.

“Now is the time when ex­ces­sive, mas­sive di­plo­macy is needed from ev­ery­one, es­pe­cially the Amer­i­cans,” says Rashid. “The mood in Pak­istan among the es­tab­lish­ment may be very an­gry and re­venge­ful, and even among some of the Tal­iban an­gry and re­venge­ful. That can only be pla­cated if there is a diplo­matic of­fen­sive now for these talks.” That won’t be easy, since the Tal­iban have ex­panded their in­sur­gency in re­cent years against US-led NATO forces and the Afghan govern­ment, now led by Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani. The Tal­iban con­trol or have sub­stan­tial in­flu­ence over an es­ti­mated one-third of the coun­try – more than at any time since US forces ousted the Tal­iban govern­ment in 2001 – and there is lit­tle sign that Afghan Army and se­cu­rity forces are re­vers­ing that trend.

“The most im­por­tant con­se­quence of this strike is that we’re back to square one with the peace process,” says a West­ern of­fi­cial in Kabul, who asked not to be named. “Some will ar­gue that ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Tal­iban were such a dis­tant prospect that it won’t mat­ter, but the fact is that as­sas­si­nat­ing mil­i­tant lead­ers usu­ally makes their move­ments more rad­i­cal,” the of­fi­cial says. “That’s true around the world, but it’s also specif­i­cally been our ex­pe­ri­ence in Afghanistan.”

The only ex­cep­tion, says this of­fi­cial, was the killing in 2007 by Bri­tish and Amer­i­can spe­cial forces of Mul­lah Dadul­lah, the Tal­iban mil­i­tary chief and a “par­tic­u­larly blood­thirsty leader – but Mul­lah Man­sour was a very dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter, much more prag­matic.” Ac­cord­ing to Rashid, part of the prob­lem with Man­sour may have been his bid to con­sol­i­date power among can­tan­ker­ous Tal­iban fac­tions af­ter the an­nounced death last July of the reclu­sive Tal­iban leader Mul­lah Omar. Keep­ing those fac­tions to­gether has been a full-time job, con­sid­er­ing the lessons learned from the early 1990s, when Mu­jahideen fac­tions tore apart Afghanistan, lead­ing to the Tal­iban’s ini­tial rise.

“He was only in­ter­ested in se­cur­ing his po­si­tion,” says Rashid. “And to se­cure his po­si­tion he re­stricted, at­tacked, and ha­rassed the peace lobby in the Tal­iban, those who were in­ter­ested in mak­ing peace, in open­ing talks with the govern­ment. [He] had a lot to lose if there was go­ing to be a peace process.” One quid pro quo of a re­newed diplo­matic push, Rashid sug­gests, may be “pri­vate guar­an­tees” that dur­ing the post-Man­sour lead­er­ship change there be no more US at­tacks if the Tal­iban com­mit­ted to en­gag­ing with Kabul. But that would re­quire Pak­istani buyin. “I’m sure there are a lot of [Tal­iban] hard-lin­ers still there, who would want to take re­venge for Man­sour’s at­tack, would want to kill NATO Amer­i­can sol­diers, etc,” adds Rashid. “There­fore a great deal rests with Pak­istan and what Pak­istan does.”

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