The fact that Mullah Omar died on Pakistani soil, Osama bin Laden was SEALED and Mullah Mansour droned inside Pakistani territory through unilateral military operations cannot be simply brushed away as coincidence. It highlights the deep rot that signifies Pakistan’s policies towards Afghanistan and the Taliban.
The last six months encompassing five rounds of the QCG process have further fractured Pakistan’s credibility to deliver on its commitments. The elimination of Mullah Mansour, therefore, carries dangerous portents both in terms of contributing to Pakistan’s worsening relations with the US as also its gradual alienation and ultimate irrelevance in the context of efforts to forge peace in Afghanistan.
The Interior Minister’s protracted and painful harangue created more questions than it could answer. It sounded more like an unconvincing plethora of deceitful alibi for the presence of Mullah Mansour in Pakistan. He said so in spite of Advisor on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz’s earlier statement at the Council on Foreign Relations that Pakistan housed the Taliban families as a means of exercising ‘influence’ on them.
Bringing up the question of infringement of Pakistan’s sovereignty is hardly the right remedy for correcting a malaise that is both deep-rooted and wide-spread. It is vital to break through the shell of inflexibility that rules Pakistan’s Afghan policy as also dispassionately analyzing the factors that have incrementally contributed to depleting faith in its ability to deliver on the avowed commitments. Let’s also not forget that Pakistan itself is the worst-affected as a consequence of the ongoing strife in Afghanistan.
The drone strike in Balochistan, a first of its kind, is reflective of the US intentions to bring about a qualitative shift in its approach to deal with the Taliban. “The strike is a bold move by the US that represents a long overdue shift in strategy toward the Taliban”, opines Lisa Curtis. Apparently, this new policy is no longer going to be solely confined to Pakistan-dependant efforts in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Henceforth, it may be a combination of the carrot and stick with the latter becoming an increasingly more potent weapon with the passage of time, particularly if the carrot does not appear to be working.
At a more fundamental level, the shift hurts Pakistan’s perceived interests across its western border as also limiting the space for it to continue its paradoxical approach in tackling the demon of terror. “With the strike on Mullah Mansour, the US has eliminated the leader of a militant organization that Pakistani military and intelligence officials regard not as a threat, but as a strategic asset. The decision to take out Mullah Mansour on Pakistani soil illustrates that US patience is wearing thin – whether over Pakistan’s refusal to target the militants, or Pakistani inability or unwillingness to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table”, wrote Michael Kugelman in the WSJ.
Whether Pakistan would now be able to sustain its hitherto selective policy in dealing with ‘friendly’ and ‘unfriendly’ terror and simultaneously retain its pivotal position as part of the quadrilateral process is an imponderable, at least for the time being.
Nevertheless, a few things are going to weigh heavily on Pakistan’s future policy formulation. In the wake of the prospect of the use of fire power by the US as a component of its future policy paradigm, Pakistan’s options for remodeling its strategy stand enormously depleted. President Obama did not mince words in stating that the American forces would continue to go after threats on Pakistani soil. Striking in Balochistan, the perceived hub of the Afghan Taliban, could be a precursor of more of this to follow.
Consequently, will Pakistan opt to continue reiterating further its ill-conceived proclamations of following a non-discriminatory approach in dealing with the scourge of terror, or will the strike force it to bring about a much-required shift in its Afghan and terror policies? In the event of the former remaining the fulcrum of its policy, how is Pakistan likely to fare and will it be able to keep itself away from further harm’s way?
Pakistan misread the situation and the burgeoning frustration with a lack of development on the front of its ability, willingness, or a combination of both, to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. This being the fundamental pillar on which the quadrilateral process was based, it was inevitable that pressure on Pakistan would increase coupled with the demand that the Mansour camp be declared “non-reconcilable” and appropriate steps initiated as were envisaged in the QCG roadmap against those factions that would not agree to talk. Pakistan, understandably, was unwilling to do that, thus further contributing to raising the level of frustration. The fifth round of the QCG process became a catalyst in convincing the US that a strike against the top Taliban leader may already be overdue.
As Pakistan continued struggling sheepishly to identify the dead in the drone strike, the Taliban moved quickly to appoint Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhunzada, the ex-Chief Justice during the Taliban’s rule and a known hawk, as the head of the movement with Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoub, as his deputies. He immediately announced the scuttling of the peace talks. This represents renewed determination on the part of the Taliban not to be unduly affected by the drone strike.
What of the peace process now? Ever since its inception, it was heading nowhere in any case. Obviously, the appointment of the new ruler would be followed by a period of relative uncertainty, but, as the recent attack in Kabul illustrates, it is quite likely that they would move quickly in rallying behind the new hierarchy and launch further deadly assaults to unsettle the Afghan government.
On the face of it, the Taliban’s joining the peace talks any time soon would be perceived as a sign of weakness which may jeopardize the new leader’s prospects of forging unity within their ranks. So, a likely scenario would be a period of increased intransigence and fratricide that would help Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhunzada and his associates to establish their credentials and gain further foothold which could provide the Taliban with a base for weighing in other options later. But, with the induction of a cleric and a known hawk as the new leader, the drone strike may actually end up further prolonging the war and decimating the prospect of a negotiated political settlement. It is also likely that the ongoing strife may become more intense, deadly and divisive in the immediate future.
The drone strike may not herald the advent of immediate peace talks, but it is a reminder to all stakeholders of other options being available for kick-starting the process. The ultimate goal of peace may actually have become even more elusive with the induction of new rules of the game. Pakistan, however, is likely to continue reeling under the growing burden of its miscalculations.