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May 25, 2016

From unworkable reconciliation to deadly war


May 25, 2016

The death of Mullah Mansour once again exposes the limits of control and influence that nations have over situations that were first messed up in the name of global and national security.

In Washington there is some rejoicing over having ‘removed’ a main hurdle to the Afghan peace process, with the promise to also remove others who block the peace process that the Obama administration says their friends in Afghanistan are trying to promote. In Kabul there is appreciation for killing the man Afghanistan’s CEO Abdullah Abdullah said was responsible for killing hundreds of innocent Afghans. In Pakistan, meanwhile, crafted confusion – unsuccessfully seeking plausible deniability – continues.

It all began on Saturday night. Late night calls from American secretary of state and from the Kabul-based Nato head, Gen Nicholas, had informed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the army chief that an American Special Ops drone would target the Taliban’s Mullah Mansour. By early Saturday evening the news of Mullah Mansour’s death went viral. In Pakistan the officials initially opted for silence. There were apparently no consultations between the country’s chief executive and the military command on how to deal with the development in the sphere of public diplomacy.

For Islamabad the killing of Mullah Mansour – and on Pakistani territory – was a fait accompli. Pakistan had to speak of this to Pakistan and to the world. The prime minister flew off on a private visit to London; and his hyperactive media team seemed to be on mute. And the army chief, on Sunday morning, put his hyper-tweeting ISPR on silence. Pakistan’s media, meanwhile, filled digital space and the airwaves with reports, queries and commentaries.

Between a belated-statement and news leaks Pakistan’s official position was: Pakistan’s PM and army chief were informed of the drone strike but the country was still collecting details, Mullah Mansour’s death was unconfirmed, the drone attack violated Pakistan’s sovereignty, a “politically negotiated settlement” was the only viable option for peace in Afghanistan and Mullah Mansour had travelled from Iran to Pakistan and was probably attacked near the border.

Interestingly, Pakistan’s repeated protests over US drone attacks targeting the Afghan Taliban on Pakistani territory are now a routine affair. Despite it’s over decade long public protests, Pakistan carries on business as usual – or nearly so – with successive US administrations. Pakistan knows that hosting men who lead deadly military attacks inside Afghanistan will lead to global criticism, diplomatic pressures and targeted drone strikes on its territory.

For example in the case of Mullah Mansour, despite Pakistan’s public denial of significant Taliban presence on its territory, there is tacit admission of the state’s incapacity to deny its territory to those it claims are not present here. Yet that too is not true. The truth is that Pakistan’s contradictions are to some extent similar to the paradox that rules the outlook of many countries, including Afghanistan, that are currently engaged in the Afghanistan peace process. Kabul, Washington, Beijing and even Tehran want both engagement with and defeat of the Taliban.

However, on Mullah Mansour’s death, endless news reports confirmed that Mullah Mansour and his companion carried Pakistani passports and Pakistani ID cards which were used to travel to Dubai, that both had been killed by a US drone and their charred bodies brought in an official ambulance to Quetta. Moreover, that they were killed well inside Pakistani territory on the Noshki highway, that Afghan CEO Abdullah Abdullah welcomed the killing of Mullah Mansour, that the US was clear that Mullah Mansour had to be removed and that in the future too Washington would remove those creating hurdles in a political settlement.

All these high-profile developments compressed in a 48-hour time frame may appear sudden and even surprising – but are not. Given what happened over the last few weeks on the broad canvas of the Afghan peace process, these are inevitable developments. Of these, five are noteworthy. One, the security situation inside Afghanistan has dangerously deteriorated. The pressures are increasing on an Afghan government already facing mounting economic and political pressures. In the last five months 21 taliban attacks have killed hundreds of Afghans. While US-led Nato allies are training and equipping the Afghan National Army (ANA), the Taliban are scoring military victories and holding more territory than they have since 2000.

Two, there is complete deadlock between Pakistan and Afghanistan over the Afghan reconciliation process. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been publicly critical of Pakistan. Ghani believes that, despite his extraordinary efforts at peace-making with Pakistan including with its military high command, Pakistan failed in preventing the launch of the Taliban’s dreaded spring offensive. In a public meeting recently the Afghan ambassador acknowledged that the distrust between Kabul and Islamabad persists.

Three, the main power players in Kabul are all involved in directly engaging various elements within the Taliban ranks. According to Afghan sources, there is also an Afghan Jirga comprising representatives of important tribal figures that is now engaging the Taliban. This move aims to reduce Pakistan’s role in the reconciliation process.

Four, Washington’s pressure on Islamabad to take action against the Haqqani Network is now unprecedented. The defence aid to Pakistan has now again been made contingent on Pakistan taking effective action against Pakistan-based Afghan Taliban. Washington’s pressure led to an internal meeting two weeks ago among Pakistani civilian and military national security institutions, including the Foreign Office, the ISI and the GHQ, to discuss the matter. It was decided that Pakistan’s ‘sovereignty’ ruled out transparently convincing Washington that no Taliban sanctuaries existed on Pakistani territory.

Five, at the last Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) meeting Kabul and Washington demanded Pakistan do more to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table or take action against Taliban members based in Pakistan. In protest of what Kabul believed was Pakistan’s continued support to the Taliban the Afghan deputy minister did not attend the QCG meeting. The Afghan ambassador represented Afghanistan.

Kabul’s message was clear: Pakistan must use force against the Taliban who have stayed away from negotiations and have launched their spring offensive. Pakistan insisted that Kabul and Washington had not taken the political steps of meeting the Taliban demands including lifting travel bans, releasing Taliban prisoners etc which could help bring a negotiated settlement. While the QCG has not been disbanded, it’s participants know the peace process is going nowhere. And Pakistan is the whipping boy in this growing mess.

Clearly the reconciliation process, through the Islamabad/Rawalpindi route, has not worked. The Taliban are launching increased attacks. Washington and Kabul are seeking non-Pakistani routes to engage with the Afghan Taliban. After Mullah Mansour’s death the two capitals believe, maybe simplistically, that it will be easier to engage and even militarily defeat the leaderless, splintered and weakened Taliban.

While for Kabul and Washington the question is if Mullah Mansour’s death will actually jump-start the Afghan reconciliation process, Pakistan must protect itself from the debris of the continued Afghan war, and help in the peace process wisely and transparently.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @nasimzehra


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