With the elimination of Afghan Taliban leader Mulla Mansour the already uncertain prospects for peace in war-torn Afghanistan have become murkier. Pakistani officials believe that the Quadrilateral Coordination Group is on life support and it appears that the four members, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the US and China, are at odds with each other. Even more alarmingly, since Mansour’s surprising assassination in a drone strike last Saturday, there is a growing fear in government circles that the killing is a prelude to a bigger game – bringing the war into Pakistan.
Even before the elimination of Mansour, the differences inside the QCQ were well known. Afghanistan wants the Afghan Taliban leadership in Pakistan to be decimated and the dead handed over to Kabul. Pakistan’s preference is for the Taliban leadership to be drawn into talks through incentives and firmly believes that a negotiated settlement is the only way forward.
The US stands for both ways – using military force to eliminate those opposed to dialogue and talking to those who are willing to negotiate. China is understood to maintain that violence by all sides must be avoided and that the Taliban should be nudged to embrace and become a part of the political process in Afghanistan.
A fundamental problem is the stubborn trust deficit between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistani officials argue that a 15-year-long war involving 150,000 foreign soldiers and air power from 37 countries could not deliver peace. Now, with a meagre 10,000 foreign soldiers, the bulk of whom are involved in training missions, left behind in Afghanistan, how can the country be stabilised? Senior Pakistan officials also admit they have no hopes that Afghanistan can be peaceful because of its internal political bickering and lack of government writ. Meanwhile, Kabul relentlessly accuses Islamabad of playing a double game by continuing to allegedly harbour the Haqqani network on Pakistani soil with an eye on influence in Afghanistan to ward off perceived Indian designs in the country. But while Afghanistan does not have the capacity to force its point of view, the US has – and it demonstrated that it on May 21.
So, is the Mansour assassination the start of a new phase, a sustained campaign to target the Taliban inside Pakistan as opposed to a one-off episode? On the Noshki strike, Pakistan was not consulted and only informed.
The COAS was informed three hours after the attack and the prime minister a further four and a half hours later. The emerging consensus is that Kabul wants to shift the focus of battle into Pakistan with the help of the US and that Islamabad must resist the scheme.
Of the 61 banned outfits inside Pakistan that are fighting the state to some extent or the other, there is one commonality: virtually all those groups were born either directly or indirectly as a result of the Afghan jihad in the 1980s. The common thread of ideology between the anti-Pakistan militant groups can bind them together very quickly and if that happens Pakistan could become a battleground like Syria, Libya or Iraq.
Foreign Adviser Sartaj Aziz in his press conference Thursday hinted at concern about that possibility when he said that the US strategy gained short term dividends in Iraq, but proved disastrous in the long term. In Iraq, the US allegedly took advantage of Shia-Sunni rift and enlarged it to weaken both sides. But the strategy spiraled into a full-fledged sectarian war that has plunged Iraq into enormous violence even today.
If Pakistan is to avoid misadventures of US-Afghan combined to prevent internal instability, what strategy should it follow? One option being considered is to the increase pressure on Afghanistan to take back the roughly three million Afghan refugees still residing in Pakistan. The arrest of six alleged Afghan agents working for NDS suggest Pakistan is already making urgent efforts to clamp down on possible foreign-sponsored turbulence inside Pakistan.
But ad hoc and short-term measures aside the only viable option for Pakistan is to nudge the Taliban to reconcile with the Afghan government to prevent a spillover into Pakistan of the fight that has destroyed Afghanistan. Over the years Afghans have made Pakistan their second home; even the new NDS chief is graduate in Engineering from Punjab University. So, the accusations of Pakistan sheltering the Taliban are not as straightforward as they are made to appear. Indeed, in the manner in which Mansour was killed – taken out while travelling in a regular taxi by himself over a long distance – and in the reaction of the Pakistani officials, it appears that Pakistan was caught napping and that the much-discussed control of the Taliban does not exist. That makes it doubly harder to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.