The Taliban are on the move. Operation Omari – named after former leader Mullah Muhammad Omar – has dashed all hopes of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table before their spring offensive. The Taliban have a good presence in 15 of the 32 provinces and have been advancing in Kunduz and Ghazni, while gaining more than 90 percent of the ground in the poppy-rich Helmand province.
The spring offensive is a test case for the new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansur, who faced tough opposition when taking over. Mullah Omar’s brother Mullah Manan and son Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob – strong contenders to the top managerial slot – were both silenced by their induction into the Rahbari Shura. Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, one of the stronger opponents of the new Taliban chief, was killed last November in Zabul in southern Afghanistan during skirmishes between his followers and the fighters loyal to Mullah Akhtar Mansur. Mansoor Dadullah, the younger brother of Mullah Dadullah had rejected Mullah Akhtar Mansur as the new leader.
Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, who had established his authority in parts of district Khak-e-Afghan, even stated that Mullah Omar had not died a natural death but had been killed. Mullah Muhammad Rasool, was a top dissident of the Afghan Taliban who opted to lead the splinter group last November and was arrested by Pakistani law-enforcement authorities when he crossed the border. Mullah Rasool had managed to escape the fierce fighting in Zabul province, along with Mullah Manan Niazi, in November of last year. Mullah Rasool was part of the delegation that arrived in Pakistan for peace talks in July of last year.
In March, another key Taliban leader, Mullah Qayum Zakir, announced his allegiance to Mullah Akhtar Mansur. “Mullah Akhtar Mansur is our leader and I pledge allegiance to him in the framework of Sharia. I will obey him as per my ability and obey him in the framework of Sharia,” a statement emailed by Taliban spokesman Zabeehullah Mujahid to media outlets quoted Qayum Zakir as saying. Qayum Zakir was one of the three deputies of Mullah Omar. The young Zakir is considered a hard liner.
The Taliban’s former governor of Qandahar Mullah Muhammad Hassan Rahmani, interior minister Mullah Abdul Razzaq and deputy foreign minister Mullah Abdul Jalil (during the Taliban’s rule) also strongly opposed the new leadership. Although they questioned the legitimacy of Mullah Akhtar Mansur, the former civil aviation minister during the Taliban’s rule, these three veteran leaders did not take part in any infighting between the rival Taliban groups.
Because of their efforts to bring the estranged leaders back into their camp, the Taliban succeeded in bringing Mullah Muhammad Hassan Rahmani back into their circle. Mullah Jalil and Mullah Abdul Razzaq had to follow suit. These unprecedented achievements of the new leadership allowed Mullah Akhtar Mansur to establish his authority as the undisputed leader of the Afghan Taliban.
After having sorted out internal differences within the ranks, the Taliban are now prepared to launch fresh spring offensives. The first demonstration of these fresh assaults was the devastating attack on the National Directorate of Security (NDS) in central Afghanistan. The deadly attack on April 19, with a truck loaded with explosives, left 28 people dead and 327 more injured. The explosion – in a crowded urban area – was immediately claimed by the Taliban, who said that they would conduct large-scale attacks on enemy positions across the country.
The Afghan chief executive, who visited the site, said that it showed the depth of the barbarity of Afghanistan’s enemies. But most shocking were his words about postponing his upcoming trip to Pakistan, because of “initial evidence of today’s suicide attack”. This blame game will hardly serve the cause.
The trust deficit between the two countries has long been a hurdle in tackling this long-standing issue. Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal said at a conference in Islamabad, held by the Jinnah Institute, that this blame game and trust deficit has been widening the gap between the two countries and hampering the coordinated efforts to come up with a concrete solution to the Afghan debacle.
However, this trust deficit does not only exist between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but amongst all the regional actors that matter. Pakistan’s relations with its eastern neighbour have never been friendly. The US, which has been leading the decade-long war on terror in the Af-Pak region, has never been able to establish cordial relations with Afghanistan. The US has levelled allegations of massive corruption even on its handpicked leaders in the past. In turn, successive Afghan governments have been accusing the US of interfering with their internal affairs.
The same trust deficit exists within Afghan state and society. Even the Afghan unity government has never been on the same page. To tackle the issue amicably, all the regional actors need to develop a well-defined, well-designed and well-thought-out programme and agenda. There need to be coordinated efforts by all regional actors to resume peace talks and bring the Taliban to the negotiating table from the battlefield.
The concluding phase of Operation Zarb-e-Azb has been yielding terrific results. If things go wrong this time too, the entire region will have to bear the brunt of the consequences.
The writer heads an independent research organisation in Islamabad.