On June 12, the US Defence Secretary James Mattis said that Washington was adopting a new strategy – a ‘regional strategy’ according to him – to resolve the lingering Afghan conflict.
This new regional strategy for the Afghan conflict will be based on the “geographic reality of where this enemy [Taliban/Haqqanis] is fighting from. As you know, it’s not just from Afghanistan”, said Mattis.
Almost at the same time (the night of June 12 in Pakistan), a US unmanned aerial vehicle fired a number of missiles at a house in the Hangu district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, killing Abu Bakar Haqqani – reportedly the organisational head of Haqqani Network in the region – along with six Afghans aides.
The US drones targeted the Haqqani Network hideouts inside Pakistan weeks after the truck bombing in Kabul’s high security zone. The attack that killed more than 150 people and injured hundreds of others has been termed the deadliest since the US invasion.
Though the Haqqani Network denied involvement in the attack, Afghan intelligence accused it of planning and executing the Kabul bombing from its sanctuaries in Pakistan. In such circumstances, the Hangu attack will not be taken as an ordinary target. The Haqqani Network is part of the Taliban militia. Its leader Sirajuddin Haqqani is one of the two deputy emirs of the militia’s supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada. The network is also believed to be closely linked with Al-Qaeda.
The killing of a senior leader of the terror group is sure to belie Islamabad’s earlier claims of the network not existing on its soil. When Kabul accused Pakistan of providing sanctuary to the group, Islamabad rejected these allegations as false and advised the Afghan leadership to focus on tackling them within their own territory.
“[The Haqqani Network] is on the run… moved into Afghanistan and need to be taken care of there”, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US Aizaz Chaudhry told the media while rejecting Kabul’s allegations of Pakistani territory being used for terrorist attacks. However, the killing of a Haqqani Network leader in a drone attack in Hangu could dent the credibility of our claims of cleansing our territory of militants.
The timing of the strike is also very crucial. The US drones struck the network hideouts the same day the Pentagon was sharing with a congressional committee the salient features of the much awaited Afghan strategy of President Donald Trump.
This attack doesn’t seem mere coincidence. Instead, it seems more a deliberate act aimed at passing on a strong message to the one-time-non-Nato ally that President Trump means business.
This is not the first time US unmanned aerial vehicles have searched for Haqqani Network commanders in Hangu. In 2013, US drones unleashed a number of missiles targeting a religious seminary in the Tal area of the district where a meeting of the network senior leadership was allegedly called by Sirajuddin Haqqani. A number of senior commanders were reportedly killed in the attack.
In April this year, in a similar missile strike in North Waziristan’s Data Khel area nine militants were killed. Besides the death of Al-Qaeda commander Abdur Rahim, reports suggested a number of Haqqani Network commanders were also killed.
Important leaders of the network targeted in Pakistan include Badruddin Haqqani (the brother and deputy of Sirajuddin Haqqani); Jan Ban Zadran (the network’s third in command); Mullah Sangeen Zadran (a senior military commander and shadow governor of the eastern province of Paktika); and the group head of suicide bombers’ squad, Abdullah Haqqani. Despite the fact that the Kabul regime is faced with a number of challenges, including bad governance marred by rampant corruption, for the US the major challenge is the deteriorating security situation.
American commanders have admitted publicly that their fight against the Taliban is not on a winning course. And to help the Afghan forces reverse the militia’s victories and break the current stalemate, the US will increase the troop level – probably by 4000 plus – in Afghanistan. Beside a surge in troop level, Pentagon has also decided not to look at the Afghan conflict in isolation but to take into account the regional situation for a lasting solution.
For Pakistan, the emerging situation across its western borders demands a serious rethink as well as fresh policy formulations for Afghanistan. Pakistan must get out of its traditional slumber now. The current policy of denials will find no takers in the world as far as Afghanistan is concerned. American officials have already given enough hints to Islamabad that Trump’s new Afghan policy will not just be confined to the borders of Afghanistan. What does it means when James Mattis say that the US is sensitive to the “geographic reality of where this enemy is fighting from…it’s not just from Afghanistan.”
These statements by US officials are distinctly signalling the fact that the Trump administration is convinced that the Taliban and the Haqqani Network have sanctuaries inside Fata. The message then for Pakistan is quite loud and clear. The game may now be extended further east of the Durand Line to the alleged sanctuaries of these militia commanders. This is what the Afghan leadership has been demanding for years.
During a recent visit to Afghanistan and subsequent interactions with senior government leaders including Dr Abdullah, former president Hamid Karzai and other security officials, I came to the conclusion that the Afghan leadership – across the board – is fully convinced that the Taliban and the Haqqanis are operating from Pakistani soil.
This means that the Afghan leadership has effectively persuaded the new US administration that any political or negotiated settlement of the Afghan conflict is not a viable option and that their enemies be chased beyond the Durand Line as well.
Experts believe that the US and Nato are no more interested in asking Pakistan to bring the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table for peace talks with Kabul. Under the new strategy, they are going to join Kabul in making demands from Pakistan to deal with the militia on its own soil. In this situation, the options available to Pakistan seem very limited at the moment.
The writer works with AVT channels and publications.