By Aasim Zafar Khan
27 May 2016
The stalled Afghan peace process has been brought to a grinding halt with a drone strike. Following a lacklustre meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination Committee (QCG) – which followed an outburst by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who said in so many words that he was wrong to trust Pakistan to deliver the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table – the United States has taken out the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. The fact that he was inside Pakistani territory comes as no surprise, but the jury is still out on what the ramifications of his death will be, to both the peace process and relations between Kabul and Islamabad.
“The peace process is now at a standstill,” says Thomas Ruttig, director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, based in Kabul. “The Taliban will be in no hurry to return to the negotiating table.”
Days after the strike, on May 25, the Taliban announced their new leader: Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada. Sirajuddin Haqqani (the former number two) and Mullah Yaqoob (the son of the founding emir Mullah Omar) have been named his deputies. Haibatullah is not known for his bravery on the battlefield, and instead is respected as a religious cleric, or Alim, having been a leading member of the Taliban judiciary.
The decision comes much sooner than expected. Experts believed the Taliban would take their time to ensure whoever they chose would be accepted by the entire movement. “The choice of an Alim is clever, as it gives Haibatullah religious authority which the commanders will have to accept,” says Ruttig. The Taliban seem to be trying to stay away from the succession problems the movement saw in the aftermath of Mullah Omar’s death. However, his close relationship with Mullah Mansoor is also well known.
“The status quo has been maintained,” says Rahimullah Yousufzai, a long-time expert on Afghanistan and one of the first journalists to report on the Taliban movement. “He will follow the same policies as his predecessor.” What that means is the continuation of the offensive against the Ghani government and coalition forces, and no inclinations towards talks.
But concerns about the succession project still remain. After the death of the first emir, a violent struggle had ensued between Mullah Mansoor and Mullah Yaqoob. “Mullah Yaqoob is immensely popular, and maybe this is how he is being prepared to take over the Taliban throne,” says Yousufzai.
There is also the matter of Mullah Rasool, one of the key supporters of Mullah Yaqoob. Currently holed up in a Pakistani jail, Rasool and his followers were not part of the consultation process to choose the new chief. Instead, only the Taliban supreme council – the Rahbari Shura, or the Quetta Shura – decided on the new chief. “Mullah Rasool and his followers will not accept Haibatullah and will continue to promote young Mullah Yaqoob,” warns Yousufzai.
The concerns are heightened when seen in the context of recent reports suggesting the Afghan government had been giving financial and military support to a breakaway faction of the Taliban in an effort to move some of its leaders towards peace talks. At the same time, a senior Taliban commander named Mullah Zakir Qayyum released a letter earlier in April, proposing a ‘new strategy’ that included negotiations not only with the United States but also the government in Kabul. Mullah Qayyum had initially refused to pledge allegiance to the erstwhile leader of the movement, and had only done so very recently. Which way he turns now will be important.
Such rifts within the movement and efforts by the Kabul government to create divisions within the ranks of the Taliban were also present during the time of Mullah Omar. But while the founding emir of the movement succeeded in keeping the cadres together, will Mullah Haibatullah deliver the unity the group needs? According to a news report, Haibatullah is “an old man, much older than Mullah Omar”. How long he stays in power, and how much influence he has, is anybody’s guess.
Regardless, Pakistan finds itself in an unenviable place. The allegations of the Afghan Taliban leadership being inside Pakistani territory have turned out to be true. The QCG is all but dead. And while Islamabad was unable to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, it has become even harder now, with their leader having been killed.
“I don’t see a major shift in policy happening,” says Yousufzai.
Pakistan’s current Afghan policy is linked to numerous other matters, including but not limited to relations with the United States, with Afghanistan, India and its increasing influence there, and now Iran as well. Instead, in an effort to remain relevant, Pakistan may look to exert more pressure and influence on the Taliban. But as has often been witnessed in such matters, the Taliban will eventually do what is in their best interests and not follow dictation beyond a certain point. How does Pakistan remain relevant then?
“The fact remains that Mansoor was close to Pakistan, and this created a lot of resentment within the Taliban about how the movement was being influenced,” says journalist and author Ahmed Rashid. “What Pakistan needs to do is use its leverages within the group to push it towards talks.”
Any more meddling will create further resentment, not only amongst the Taliban but the Afghan population at large – something Pakistan does not need.