For the past decade the apprehensions of Taliban officials, who were considered to be no longer reliable adherents to the Pakistani establishment’s dictates, have been serving multiple purposes. First, they were face-saving token gestures of Pakistan’s cooperation in the International Security Assistance Force-led counter-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan. Second, the arrests have been Pakistan’s most effective tool for keeping the “strategic asset” of the Taliban under Islamabad’s thumb and preventing them from joining an all-out political settlement, particularly after the announcement of the reconciliation process by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in 2010. Third, and most importantly, these arrests of wayward Taliban officials prevent any settlement with the Afghan government or Western officials without Pakistan’s blessing.
Despite these threats, several key Taliban officials continued to pursue political reconciliation with West and Afghan government and paid the price. However, now, anticipating the increased international pressure for a political settlement to the Afghan imbroglio in the aftermath of the ISAF drawdown, Pakistan has decided that the Taliban project is no longer to be fully entrusted to those who seek an intra-Afghan dialogue or are more susceptive to Rawalpindi diktat. Add to this Iran and Russia’s outreach to the Taliban, which has also been a point of concern for Pakistan. Taking the above into consideration Pakistan’s most effective tactic of singling out Taliban leaders and taking them out as witnessed over the last decade, is no longer a viable option. A rigorous shift in Taliban traditional leadership was needed to keep them in check.
Therefore, Pakistan stepped up its efforts to gain full control over the Taliban. This process has moved through a number of steps: announcing a change in the Taliban leadership; promoting ISI’s “veritable arm,” the Haqqani Network; bringing the Qatar Political Office under control or making it dysfunctional; and taking over the command and control on the battlefield to bring Taliban operators under the direct command of Haqqani network — and thus ISI.
The leadership change started with the farcical Murree peace talks, which were meant to set the scene for the events to follow. Soon after the talks began, news broke about the death of Mullah Mohammad Omar in 2013. Now Pakistan could finally push its man, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, to the front and made Siraj Haqqani, the leader of Haqqani Network, one of his deputies.
It did not take long before a rupture within the Taliban hit the news. Rival factions under the leadership of Mullah Rasool challenged Mansour’s selection. In doing so they did not shy away from making their disdain public. Knowing the growing discontent within Taliban, Pakistan left no stone unturned to consolidate Mansour’s power.
Pakistan’s ISI handpicked Mansour as the Taliban’s next leader, but it has never been about him. In a gradual process, the center stage was to be taken by the Haqqani Network and its leader, Khalifa Siraj Haqqani. Since Mansour’s selection was not unanimous and was dogged by controversy, he would have to heavily rely on ISI and the Haqqani Network to consolidate his power. It also meant that the pro-Mansour camp in Quetta Shura, which had always kept a certain independence in its operations, had to outsource operational and decision-making capacity to the Haqqani Network’s Miranshah Shura. This in turn provided the Haqqanis the opportunity to consolidate their power in areas other than their traditional strongholds, which were mainly in eastern Afghanistan. It is here that pro-Mansour camp shot itself in the foot and the Haqqanis emerged as king-makers.
After installing Mansour as the new chief and Haqqani as the deputy, the Pakistani establishment started to reassert its will on the Qatar Political Office. Through the years Pakistan has remained deeply skeptical of the Taliban operation in Qatar and certain individuals within the office, in particular Tayyeb Agha. Since 2011, the Qatar Political Office has participated in a number of conferences in Japan, the Maldives, Norway, and the Pugwash-organized meeting in Qatar. Moreover, Taliban officials designated to the Qatar Political Office have met a number of Afghan and Western envoys and officials as confidence-building measures in pursuit of an intra-Afghan dialogue. The key to intra-Afghan dialogue and a resolution of the Afghan imbroglio has been the West’s resolve, commitment and endorsement.
In spring 2015 a certain momentum in intra-Afghan dialogue was emerging, only to be disrupted by the sudden announcement of secret talks between “Taliban emissaries” and Afghan authorities in the Chinese city of Urumqi, arranged by Pakistan. The set-up of the Urumqi talks and the controversial selection of Mansour as the new Taliban Chief stole the momentum of intra-Afghan dialogue. It is obvious that intra-Afghan dialogue leaves Pakistan out of the equation it seeks for Afghanistan’s future and is thus a non-starter for Islamabad. The reshuffling of the Taliban leadership gave Pakistan the cards to marginalize Taliban’s Qatar Political Office and undo its previous efforts.
As Sartaj Aziz, the foreign affairs adviser to Pakistan’s prime minister, recently revealed, it is no secret that the Taliban have been enjoying safe havens as well as logistical, financial, and military and operational support courtesy of Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus. But ever since the change in the leadership, the access to all these comforts, finances, and weapons were limited to those Taliban who were considered reliable — and were prepared to leave their children and families back in Pakistan as a token of commitment to the Taliban, but even more so to Pakistan. In this regard history has proven that Haqqani and his ilk fits the bill better than anyone else.
Senior Taliban officials have raised serious concerns and claim to be no longer in control of the decision-making apparatus within the organization. Their role is limited to making announcements and taking responsibility in the aftermath of attacks or other militant related activities. Since Mansour’s takeover, several key members have been sidelined, including Mansour’s first deputy, Shaikh Haibatullah. Others are replaced with new faces loyal to the Haqqani Network, and some are imprisoned and killed.
The Rationale for Sidelining the Taliban’s Traditional Leadership
Pakistan’s quest to replace the Taliban’s traditional leadership is driven by multiple factors. First, with the recent splintering within the Taliban and the continuous reconciliatory tone of the Afghan government and West toward those who shun violence, the Taliban under their traditional leadership are no longer a trusted entity for Pakistan. That means, from Islamabad’s perspective, the Taliban project should be outsourced to a more loyal leadership. The best candidate for the new leadership is the ISI’s “veritable arm,” the Haqqani Network, which by now has made a name for itself. This is not surprising. During the 1990s when several Mujahideen factions did not adhere to the ISI dictate, the Taliban, by then a new brand, were unleashed. Currently, the Haqqani Network is doing the same to the Taliban and is ready for its takeover. The only option left for Quetta Shura and the Mansour camp is to become subordinate to the Haqqani Network’s Miranshah Shura, or else get dissolved.
Second, aside from being closely affiliated with ISI, the Haqqani Network has been ideologically more open to alliances with regional terror outfits with a transnational agenda. Thus ISI’s aspirations of providing sanctuaries and mixing up the Taliban ranks with fighters from regional terror outfits with transnational jihadi ambitions should face no resistance. These outfits include Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Tehrike Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and al-Qaeda, all of whom have a history of cooperation with the Pakistani establishment. The hybrid composition of the Taliban, LeT, IMU, and regional militant outfits was evident during the fall of Kunduz. The Taliban’s traditional leadership opposed any such mix-up. In this regard, the renewed protocol in al-Qaeda and other militant outfits is to support Haqqani’s bid for Taliban leadership in return for support and sanctuary in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Third, compared to the Taliban’s traditional leadership which strongly objected to and avoided playing the ethnic card and promoting in-fighting, the Taliban under the Haqqani leadership would not shy away from resorting to it as long as it serves the purpose.
Pakistan remains committed to anything but a sovereign and peaceful Afghanistan. Pakistan will continue using proxies as a pillar of its foreign policy. It will keep up the efforts by using a rebranded Haqqani Network, now in charge of Taliban, to discredit the legitimate Afghan government and prevent it from becoming the sole representative of the Afghan people. Contrary to the common belief, Pakistan’s aim has never been just extracting concessions from the Afghan government but having a permanent role in Afghanistan’s future.
No matter how many times Pakistan reassures Afghanistan, the United States, or China or promises non-interference, it will never hold to its end of the deal. Pakistan would not and cannot allow its “strategic assets” to commit to deals that are not in the best interest of its hegemonic designs in the region.
Khyber Sarban is a policy commentator in Afghanistan and has worked as an adviser in Afghanistan’s Independent Directorate of Local Governance. He tweets @khybersarban.