‘A Clear Signal’
By Imtiaz Gul
Friday Times, May 27, 2016
“Our job is to help Afghanistan secure its own country, not to have our men and women in uniform engage in that fight for them,” told reporters in Vietnam on May 23. “On the other hand, where we have a high-profile leader who has been consistently part of operations and plans to potentially harm US personnel, and who has been resistant to the kinds of peace talks and reconciliation that ultimately could bring an end to decades of war in Afghanistan, then it is my responsibility as Commander-in-Chief not to stand by, but to make sure that we send a clear signal to the Taliban and others that we’re going to protect our people.”
It is quite obvious that by taking out an Al Qaeda-linked Taliban leader on Pakistani soil in mysterious circumstances, President Barack Obama delivered a stern warning to all those his administration considers inimical to the peace process in Afghanistan and the interest of the US. But the entire episode – confused responses in Islamabad and contradictory postulations out of Washington on how “an obstinate” Mullah Mansoor was killed – seem to have plunged the Pakistan-US relationship into another phase of acrimony.
Although David Hale, the US ambassador to Pakistan, seems to have rushed for a meeting with the boss of the General Headquarters (GHQ) Gen Raheel Sharif on May 25 to control further damage, one can fathom how much one meeting can mitigate the sense of humiliation and betrayal that Pakistan has endured through a controversial strike still shrouded in mystery. Will this “slap-first-apologize-later” conduct continue until the US and its allies believe Pakistan has bent fully in compliance?
Many in Pakistan are saying the circumstances surrounding the attack are mysterious. If a predator drone dumped two hellfire missiles on the target vehicle, it should theoretically have blown it into pieces and its cargo and passengers should have been charred beyond recognition, they say. His travel documents filled the cyberspace in no time. The attack happened when Pakistan and China were celebrating the 65th anniversary of their diplomatic relations, and a day before Iran, Afghanistan and India signed a landmark $500 million agreement for the development of the Chabahar port, apparently an Iranian-Indian endeavor to render Pakistan’s Gawadar port irrelevant. In the Monday press briefing, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said: “I don’t have any more clarity of where the actual strike took place. What I can say was in that border region. I just can’t say on which side of the border it was.”
As Pakistani civilian and military leadership gets into a huddle to take a deeper look into how, why and where exactly the incident happened, it has certainly brought more worries upon them. They insist that – very much in synch with their fears – the US has finally extended the war to Pakistan’s settled areas, or so it seems. And that brings us to the issue of mistrust.
“If Mansoor was traveling from Iran, we could have arrested him in a joint operation,” a military general told me. “Why spill blood and associate it with Pakistan, particularly when Richard Olson, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, spoke positively of the latest QCG meeting in Islamabad on May 18.”
The Pakistani leadership insists that the QCG process is the best hope for peace in Afghanistan. We have yet to figure out why this all happened, the general said, wondering whether the US and its allies would still prefer the military option following years of futile combat.
“This incident certainly is big blow to us all. Nobody committed to peace will benefit from this brazen attack and regardless of what happens in the days to come, and such US attitude confronts us with new worrying questions,” the general opined.
Afghan MP from Uruzgan Obaidullah Barakzai told, a member of the Parliament’s lower house Wolasi Jirga, told the largest Afghan television station Tolo, that Mulla Mansoor was killed probably “because of his increasing contacts with Iran and Russia.” Amrullah Saleh was quoted in news reports as saying that intelligence sharing between US and Iran led to Manoor’s killing.
Former ambassador to Afghanistan Rustam Shah Mohmand believes the QCG is now a dead process because it: failed to bring Taliban to the table, and now they lost a leader who enjoyed a nearly two-thirds majority in the supreme council. A mood of vengeance in Taliban ranks is likely to prevail for quite some time, and most of their leaders will probably ramp up violence as part of the Omari Operation – their new spring offensive.
Veteran US analyst Marvin Weinbaum also thinks the negotiations are doomed. The US “put the final nail in attempts to find a political way of out of the Afghan conflict” according to Weinbaum, the director of the Center for Pakistan Studies at the Middle East Institute. “None of the likely claimants to the Taliban’s helm is likely to join a peace process. The direct order by President Barack Obama that Mansour be killed makes it clear that the Afghan conflict will be settled on the battlefield, not at a conference table,” he said in an op-ed article.
Taliban, too, appear to be going back to the Mullah Omar style of leadership. The elevation of Mullah Haibatullah Akhnuzada, a typical low-level cleric, seems to be a re-enactment of the Mullah Omar era. The late founding emir’s son, Mullah Yaqoob, who is now a deputy to the new chief, will oversee military matters in 15 provinces, while Sirajuddin Haqqani will continue to occupy the same position.
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies