Three slain commanders

August 21, 2016

Killing of three Pakistani militant leaders in US drone strikes in Afghanistan is a huge loss for the militants

Three slain commanders

The reported assassination of three important Pakistani militant commanders, Khalifa Umar Mansoor, Mangal Bagh and Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai associated with three different but also aligned groups in recent US drone strikes in Afghanistan was a huge loss for the militants.

There was a sense of relief in Pakistan even if the government didn’t display the feeling publicly as the three men had sponsored and claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks in Pakistan. They had been posing threat to Pakistan when they were in control of territory in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) prior to the Zarb-e-Azb military operation in North Waziristan and the subsequent Khyber-1 and Khyber-2 actions in Khyber Agency in 2014. They continued to threaten and harm Pakistan when they fled across the border to Afghanistan and set up sanctuaries in Nangarhar province bordering Khyber Agency.

The lethal missile strikes made by the CIA-operated drones enabled Washington to oblige Islamabad, which had been complaining that the US wasn’t targetting Pakistani militants based in Afghanistan.

The precise strikes also impressed many Pakistanis about the effectiveness of the American drones. There seems to be a belated realisation that the drone despite sometimes causing ‘collateral damage’ could be the weapon of choice in the remote and harsh mountainous terrain such as the foothills of the Spinghar Mountains in Nangarhar province where the three slain commanders had set up their bases.

The Pakistanis are giving credit for killing the three commanders to the US and not to Afghanistan because many believe the Afghan government through its intelligence agency, National Directorate of Services (NDS), had developed contacts with the Pakistani Taliban and other militants.

The Afghan government has been claiming that it had deployed ground forces in the area to coordinate with the US-led coalition troops and had also provided intelligence gathered by the NDS to the Americans to pinpoint the location of the Pakistani militants. The authorities in Pakistan, however, aren’t convinced because they don’t expect the Afghan government to assist Islamabad in countering the threat posed to it in view of the unfriendly relations between the two countries.

Khalifa Umar Mansoor, whose real name was Aurangzeb and was also known as Umar Naray, or Umar the Slim, was the first among the three to be killed. The US claimed he was assassinated in a drone strike on July 10 in Acheen district in Nangarhar. The US and Nato military commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, personally conveyed the news to Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif. The Afghan government too conveyed the news to the Pakistani authorities, who had been eagerly waiting for such a piece of information.

There seems to be a belated realisation that the drone despite sometimes causing ‘collateral damage’ could be the weapon of choice in the remote and harsh mountainous terrain such as the foothills of the Spinghar Mountains in Nangarhar province where the three slain commanders had set up their bases.

Khalifa Umar Mansoor had personally claimed responsibility for the Army Public School Peshawar massacre in which 147 persons, including 122 schoolchildren, were killed on December 16, 2014. The long-bearded militant commander had posted his picture standing with the attackers before they left on the suicide mission. He later claimed responsibility for the attack on the Bacha Khan University in Charsadda and the Pakistan Air Force base Badaber near Peshawar.

Hailing from Adezai village in Peshawar district located near the semi-tribal area of Darra Adamkhel, Aurangzeb had been an active member of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)’s Tariq Afridi (Geedar) faction and fought against the Pakistani security forces and also rival militant groups before being forced to flee to Afghanistan. For a while he was nominally aligned to the mainstream TTP headed by Maulana Fazlullah, who had fled his native Swat in the summer of 2009 following the Pakistan military’s action against the militants. However, Aurangzeb began operating independently later and started calling himself Khalifa Umar Mansoor in a bid to claim an exalted status for himself. His brutality even prompted the Fazlullah group to disown some of the attacks carried out by his faction.

Khalifah Omar Mansoor with the killers at APS

In due course of time, reports started coming out of eastern Afghanistan that Aurangzeb aka Khalifa Umar Mansoor had made an alliance with the militant group Islamic State, or Daesh, and other likeminded militant factions. It is possible the US started seriously pursuing him and his men when his faction became an ally of the Islamic State. The US and other world powers are in no mood to allow the Islamic State and its allies to gain a foothold anywhere in the world because it is proving an obstinately resilient force in Iraq and Syria.

In fact, this was the first time the US had killed a Pakistani Taliban commander in Afghanistan and was seen as a strategic shift in Washington’s policy. The US had earlier assassinated the Afghan Taliban head Mulla Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor in its first drone strike in Pakistan’s Balochistan province and this too was seen as a change in its policy regarding different kinds of militants operating in the two countries.

It soon became clear that Khalifa Umar Mansoor is dead even though it wasn’t formally acknowledged when his faction indirectly conceded the loss by appointing Mufti Ghufranullah, a Pakistani militant commander from Bajaur Agency, as his successor.

The next to die in a US drone strike again in the Acheen district in Nangarhar was stated to be Mangal Bagh, head of the proscribed Pakistani militant group, Lashkar-i-Islam. Though his group denied the claim, there was growing evidence that he has been killed. Pakistan had placed Rs20 million as head-money on Mangal Bagh. He had occupied parts of Bara and Tirah in the Khyber tribal region before escaping the military operation and shifting to Nangarhar in late 2014. Prior to this, he had reportedly once received treatment in a hospital in Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar, for his injuries sustained in fighting in Khyber Agency’s Tirah valley.

Early in life, Mangal Bagh had been the driver of a passenger bus plying between his native Bara and Peshawar. However, he told this writer in an interview several years ago in Bara that he was a transporter and owned passenger buses.

His group too was reported to have made an alliance with the Islamic State, and the two groups were operating in the same area in Acheen district. Though his Lashkar-i-Islam group is still in existence, it is much weaker now and its fighters appear to be demoralised. It is a big climb-down from its peak days when Lashkar-i-Islam controlled large parts of Bara and Tirah and ran a parallel administration complete with its court, private jail and tax collection system. It also ran a kidnapping cartel and summoned anyone it deemed guilty to appear in Mangal Bagh’s court.

Finally on August 12 the US announced that Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai, the emir of the Islamic State for its Khorasan province comprising of Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, was killed in a drone attack in Acheen district along with some of his aides. Though this wasn’t the first time his death was claimed as the Afghan intelligence agency, NDS, had made such a claim on July 12, 2015 also, the US claim was considered credible. The Islamic State has yet to admit his death, but this is understandable as it may do so once a new leader for its Khorasan chapter is chosen. This could take time because the IS Khorasan has lost several top commanders such as Abdur Rauf Khadim, Shahidullah Shahid, Gul Zaman, Saad Emirati in the last two years and it would have difficulty in selecting a new emir from among the remaining lot of barely known members of the terrorist group.

Three slain commanders