Friday, May 27, 2016

Taliban’s New Boss ISI’s Old Friend

By M.K. Bhadrakumar
May 27, 2016
Pakistan has long experience in manipulating American behaviour, and Mansour’s death is a small price to pay to strengthen US President Barack Obama’s hands to find a way to transfer the F-16s to Pakistan
The Taliban acted swiftly to elect a successor to Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was killed in a US drone attack on Sunday. The Taliban Shura reportedly met somewhere in Pakistan on Wednesday to consider a panel of names and the choice ultimately fell on Haibatullah Akhundzada, who used to be Mansour’s deputy. Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani Network, and Mullah Mohammed Yaqoob, son of late Mullah Omar, will now assist Akhundzada as his deputies.
Akhundzada is an interesting choice. He hails from Kandahar and belongs to the powerful Durrani tribe. An old-timer whose Jihadi pedigree can be traced to the 1980s, when he was part of the Mujahideen faction led by Yunis Khalis (originally of the Hezb-e-Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar). It is useful to know Jalaluddin Haqqani was once a commander in the Khalis group.
Akhundzada later joined the Taliban as one of its founders. He ran madrasas in Pakistan to train Talibs. As a judge in the 1990s Taliban government applying Sharia law, he was identified in UN documents as a “hardliner”.
Of course, Akhundzada and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence go back a long way. Yet he doesn’t figure in the US watch list of terrorists and as of now there is no ban on the international community dealing with him.
A triumvirate will now lead the Taliban — Akhundzada’s, who is not a military mind but belongs to the old guard and is known to generations of talibs; Yaqoob, who brings in the revered legacy of Mullah Omar; and Sirajuddin, leading the dreaded Haqqani Network, the so-called “steel frame” of the Taliban.
The new Taliban line-up should be more agreeable to Pakistan than the leadership of Mansour, a worldly man given to the good things of life and liable to wayward behaviour. These are early days, but Akhundzada’s choice is unlikely to evoke any strong resentment among Taliban factions, and Yaqoob’s elevation should help matters considerably.
The Pakistan Army broke its deafening silence on the killing of Mansour after US ambassador David Hale met Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif in Rawalpindi on Wednesday. The ISPR press release didn’t mention Mansour, but said “the situation arising after the US drone strike” was discussed and Gen. Sharif expressed “serious concern” that “such acts of sovereignty violations are detrimental to (Pak-US) relations and will be counter-productive for the ongoing peace process (in Afghanistan)”.
Significantly, Gen. Sharif didn’t slam the door shut on the Quadrilateral Consultative Group (Afghanistan, Pakistan, US and China).
Several questions arise. First, how far Pakistan was privy to US drone strike plans is unclear — or, to put it differently, was the US military operation conducted with Pakistani inputs. There is a whole history of the US conducting drone attacks on Pakistani soil and Islamabad making perfunctory protests, while the trajectory of the US-Pakistani relationship is unaffected. Is the situation any different today? The ISPR press release didn’t give the sense that feelings are running high at Rawalpindi’s GHQ or that Gen. Sharif read the riot act to Mr Hale.
What needs to be factored in is that Mansour’s killing comes at a juncture when the US-Pakistan relationship has been on a downward slide due to differences over the funding of eight F-16 jets to be transferred to Pakistan. Arguably, the fluidity in the Afghan situation after Mansour’s killing only reinforces the White House plea that Congress should not restrict the manoeuvring space needed for the administration to negotiate with Pakistan, a key interlocutor for the stabilisation of the Afghan situation.
Pakistan has long experience in manipulating American behaviour, and Mansour’s death is a small price to pay to strengthen US President Barack Obama’s hands to find a way to transfer the F-16s to Pakistan. After all, the US-Pakistan relationship has a strange alchemy, with the tail often wagging the dog. Veteran Afghan hands in the US strategic community almost uniformly estimate that the US drone killing of Mansour doesn’t quite add up.
Barnett Rubin, aide to late Richard Holbrooke and a “veteran” of the Afghan jihad said Mansour’s death was unlikely to have serious consequences and he would be easily replaced. Things have already moved in that direction. Most US experts agree with Mr Rubin’s view that “no one should have the illusion that this will lead to any significant change in the war that will enable us to take our (American) troops home faster”. All analysts, in fact, anticipate a surge in the fighting.
Therefore, Mr Obama’s characterisation of the Mansour killing as “an important milestone” seems a deliberate overstatement. So also US defence secretary Ashton Carter’s optimism that the Taliban should realise “they cannot win, that Afghan security forces aided by us are going to be stronger than them and are going to be able to defend the state of Afghanistan and the government there, and therefore the alternative to coming across and making peace with the government is their certain defeat on the battlefield”.
The Taliban have been on a winning streak and it’s not surprising they are totally disinterested in peace talks — at least for now. The UN special envoy on Afghanistan recently told the Security Council that if the government led by President Ashraf Ghani survived 2016, it will be an “achievement”. The Pakistani military and ISI also sense that time is working in favour of the Taliban. In another five months, the Obama presidency enters the “lame duck” phase. Therefore, the next 12 to 18 months, the time the next US President will need to put his team together and focus on policy), becomes crucial to reset the balance of forces. Pakistan’s inclination will be to create new ground realities in the one-year period ahead that will allow the Taliban to negotiate from a position of strength.
M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former ambassador
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