The death of Mullah Akhtar Mansour remained a mystery for quite a few days and was finally resolved by the Taliban’s confirmation and ultimate succession of its new chief.
Mansour’s death on Pakistani soil, however, left dozens of unanswered questions for the country’s political and military establishment which has been fighting a decade-long war against terror and defending its volatile frontiers.
In addition, the death of an Afghan national bearing a Pakistani identity card while travelling from Iran has raised an even larger number of questions for the investigators. Another question that has been asked is: how could a man of this sort of background travel abroad so frequently using international airports and national flag carriers?
Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a US drone strike on May 21, hours after the top militant commander entered into Pakistan after crossing the Iranian border via Taftan. There could be a variety of conspiracy theories attached to the killing of the Afghan Taliban chief on Pakistani territory at a time when the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) was making all-out efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and arrest the momentum of its spring offensive inside Afghanistan.
The Americans seem to have a different understanding of this. They believe that Mullah Mansour was irreconcilable and deserved to be killed. In a statement issued by the White House, US President Barack Obama termed Mansour’s death as an important milestone in America’s longstanding efforts to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. The statement reads: “With the death of Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, we have removed the leader of an organisation that has continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and coalition forces, to wage war against the Afghan people, and align itself with extremist groups like Al-Qaeda”.
Those keeping an eye on the events taking shape in the region understand that it is not the words of the amir (chief) of the Taliban that matter but the Rahbari Shura (leadership council) really decides on whether to come to the (negotiating) table or go to the battlefield.
The untimely death of Mullah Mansour, many believe, has come as a great setback to the on-going reconciliation process in Afghanistan. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan endorsed this argument by rejecting the notion that Mullah Akhtar Mansour was a major hurdle in the peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and Kabul. He said that the Murree dialogue could not have taken place if Mansour had acted as a spoiler.
Having said that, the US has multiplied its difficulties by eliminating a reconcilable chief and bringing a hardliner to the front who is determined to fight till the last.
The audiotape by the incumbent Taliban chief is self-explanatory. Maulana Haibatullah Akhunzada, immediately after assuming the office of the Afghan Taliban chief, said, “I swear on Allah that those who call themselves Afghans, call themselves Muslims, call themselves Mujahid (holy warriors) or call themselves Afghan refugees, they will continue the fight”.
Maulana Haibatullah Akhunzada, said to be in his late fifties – and with little ground experience on the battlefield – is better known as a hardliner within the Taliban ranks and files. Well-versed in Islamic jurisprudence, the maulana was chosen as the judicial chief during the Taliban era (1996-2001). He has been in charge of issuing Taliban fatwas (verdicts) as well.
Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob were appointed as deputies to Akhunzada, according to the communiqué released after the meeting of the Rahbari Shura following Mansour’s death.
Sirajuddin Haqqani heads the lethal Haqqani Network that operates from Paktia, Paktika and Khost provinces of eastern Afghanistan. Mullah Yaqoob is the eldest son of the Taliban’s former head Mullah Muhammad Omar.
With Maulana Haibatullah, a non-combatant and his deputy Yaqoob, a fresh madressah graduate and relatively less experienced on the war front, the Taliban will leave much to the experienced Sirajuddin Haqqani on the battlefield.
Sirajuddin carries a head bounty of $10 million and has, in the past, launched deadly attacks on the US-led Nato forces. To many, the Americans with their 15 long years of presence on the ground in Afghanistan still seem confused on drawing a clear line to follow in the longstanding Afghan debacle and a graceful exit from the troubled region. What the Americans have done is simply to kill one brother while inviting the other to make peace with.
This is not the first time the US has undermine the peace process. We saw how the peace process came to a halt when news of Mullah Omar’s death was made public days before the scheduled meeting of the parties to the dispute on July 31 in Muree last year. In November 2013, a US drone strike targeted former TTP chief Hakeemullah Mehsud to undermine efforts by the Pakistan government to engage the militants in peace talks. Similar attempts were made in the Bajaur agency back in October 2006 where a madressah was attacked by a US drone strike killing at least 80 students including the administrator of the madressah hours before an agreement was to be inked between the government-backed tribal elders and Maulana Faqir Muhammad led local militants to stem cross-border attacks in Afghanistan.
To that end, many in Pakistan believe that hitting Mansour on Pakistani soil also aimed at maligning Pakistan’s image in the international community. Mullah Mansour had crossed the border into Pakistan from Iran but was hit only when he entered Pakistani territory. The passport lying near his dead body confirmed he had a valid Iranian visa. The Americans chose to hit him on our soil. This is a clear message to Pakistan: cooperate with us or get ready to be humiliated.
Amid these developments the US government has demanded we ‘do more’ – also repeated by State Department Spokesman Mark Toner at a news briefing in Washington.
To take on militants in Fata, Pakistan launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb in June 2014. The operation, which is in its conclusive phase, is yielding better results. We have, however, lost more than 70,000 people during the decade-long war on terror. Our material damages have been over $100 billion.
During this period the country saw the second largest mass exodus in its political history. What more can we do to satisfy the Americans?
The writer heads an independent research organisation in Islamabad. Email: khan45gmail.com