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Counterproductive drone strike?

 MPost |  2016-05-24 21:57:56.0  |  New Delhi

US President Barack Obama confirmed on Monday that the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, had been killed in a drone strike over the weekend. Reports indicate that Obama had authorised the drone strike that killed Mansour in the southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan. Calling the death “an important milestone”, Obama said Mansour had rejected peace talks and had “continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and Coalition forces”. But the attack has also destroyed the possibility of any talks between the Taliban and the US-backed Kabul regime. Meanwhile, the Pakistani leadership is none too pleased. 

On Sunday, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif accused the US of violating its sovereignty with the drone strike. Islamabad is reportedly annoyed with the US government’s decision not to inform Sharif beforehand. Reports from Washington have also confirmed that the Pakistani establishment was notified only after the strike. Experts contend that Mansour’s killing could have far-reaching consequences. For starters, Mansour’s death could trigger a succession battle within the Afghan Taliban and deepen the internal fractures that emerged after the death of its founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was confirmed last year. But more than an internal power struggle within the Taliban, the recent drone attack is reminiscent of the US strike on Abbottabad to kill Osama bin Laden in 2011. Despite the long arm of the US military and the Central Intelligence Agency, Washington has often shown restraint in targeting Taliban leaders across the border in Pakistan. To the uninitiated, the American strategy for stability in Afghanistan hinges on Pakistan’s cooperation.

But the script has gone terribly wrong. According to Praveen Swami, a veteran Indian journalist on strategic affairs, Islamabad is in no position to play the role of facilitator. Bitter fighting has ensued in key provinces of Afghanistan, and the Afghan army is not equipped to defeat the Taliban. In a recent column, Swami wrote: “Instead of compelling the Taliban leadership to talk, it’s (Pakistan) allowed their largest offensive in years to surge forward. In effect, it’s stringing Afghanistan along, until the Taliban bring the government to its knees.  Islamabad’s compulsions are simple. Pakistan can’t risk the Afghan Taliban joining hands with the Pakistani Taliban networks and the Islamic State led by Khan Saeed, who want to overthrow the government. That could end in a war larger than the Pakistan army is prepared to fight. It is simply in no position, therefore, to restrain the Taliban.” But all that may have changed, according to MK Bhadrakumar, a former diplomat with the Indian Foreign Service. 

“Prima facie, the US has thrown down the gauntlet at the Pakistani military and is underscoring that it cannot any longer accept the Pakistani double speak – pretending to be a US ally but systematically undermining the American strategy to stabilise the Afghan situation,” he wrote in a recent column. “The US has signalled that it sees through the Pakistani game of manipulating a pliant Taliban leadership endlessly to scuttle peace talks and to incrementally prepare the climate for an eventual Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.”

For India, the US drone strike against Mansour has significant ramifications. On Monday, a historic trilateral agreement between India, Iran, and Afghanistan to develop the Chabahar—a strategic port in the Gulf of Oman on Iran’s southern coast with Afghanistan—was signed. As discussed in this very column yesterday, the development of the Chabahar port will offer India alternative access to landlocked Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. Both Iran and India share the goal of a stable government in Kabul free of the Taliban’s influence. Globally, New Delhi and Tehran are on the same page in their opposition towards Sunni extremist groups like al-Qaeda. Following Mullah Omar’s death last year, it was the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence, which propped up Mansour for the top job in the Afghan Taliban. 

Despite initial resistance from within the Taliban movement, the ISI stamped its authority. Recent reports indicate that Mansour had successfully consolidated his authority and reined in the rebel elements. In the middle of its spring offensive against the US-backed Kabul regime, the Afghan Taliban will have to once again appoint a new head, creating a leadership vacuum. “Clearly, the US has hit at the Pakistani military leadership and the ISI where it hurts just when Pakistan thought it was gaining the upper hand in the Afghanistan with the Taliban getting its act together after the trauma of Omar’s death,” MK Bhadrakumar added. Unilateral action on Washington’s part also indicates worsening US-Pakistan ties. The nosedive in US-Pakistan relations became apparent after the House of Representatives blocked $450 million aid to Pakistan for failing to take action against the Haqqani terrorist network—a guerilla insurgent group within the larger Taliban movement. In fact, Sirajuddin Haqqani, one of two leaders of the Haqqani network, could be next in line to replace Mullah Akhtar Mansour. 

“Haqqani, who has a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, is widely seen by US and Afghan officials as the most dangerous warlord in the Taliban insurgency, responsible for the most bloody attacks, including one last month in Kabul in which 64 people were killed,” according to recent Reuters report. In addition to a temporary delay in the release of aid, there have been obstacles to Pakistan’s purchase of American F-16 fighter jets. Islamabad has publicly threatened Washington that it would approach China for fighter jets if matters came to a head. In light of these circumstances, Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif paid an unscheduled visit to Beijing last week.

Reminiscent of its kill and capture mission in 2011, the Pakistani military establishment is once again faced with an embarrassing situation of not being kept in the loop by their American counterparts. There was no attempt at any sort of military engagement from Washington for obvious reasons. US Secretary of State John Kerry called Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to inform him of the drone strike only after the event.  Of course, this theory hasn’t stopped other experts from speculating that elements in the Pakistani establishment and the Taliban possibly played a part in providing ground intelligence to the Americans. A drone attack is usually conducted in close coordination with assets on the ground, who brief the drone operators on the location and description of the target. Nonetheless, as Sharif has rightly pointed out, it is a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. Similar to the fallout from the Osama incident, both the Pakistani military and civilian establishment will be hard pressed by their general public to explain how such a drone strike was allowed in the first place. What’s worse, one cannot see the possibility of further talks between the Taliban and Kabul. Expect more bloodshed in Afghanistan in the days to come.

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