The May 21 drone strike in Pakistan’s Balochistan province that killed the Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour has apparently ended hopes for the Afghan reconciliation, besides setting the stage for fresh regional rivalries.
An eight-minute Pashto language audio statement attributed to the Taliban’s new chief, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, says: “By God [anyone] who calls himself an Afghan, a Muslim, a mujahid [holy warrior] and a muhajir [literally refugee, but used here to mean one who leaves his land for the sake of Allah] will never bow before the infidels.”
The audio statement, which was rejected as fake by a Taliban spokesman shortly after its circulation, says the Taliban will continue their “holy war” and will not accept the peace process.
Mansour adopted a similar stance soon after taking reins of the Taliban in the summer of 2015, after the revelation about the 2013 death of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the founder and spiritual leader of the Taliban.
The 55-year-old Mullah Akhundzada, who served as a judge in the Taliban military branch and later as chief justice of the Taliban Islamic Emirates, rose to prominence in the Taliban hierarchy only recently, when he was picked as deputy for Mansour in summer 2015.
A cleric who used to run a religious seminary called Khairul Madaris in the Kuchlak district of Balochistan province, the de-facto headquarters of the Afghan Taliban, Akhundzada is not considered as charismatic as Omar or as smart as Mansour. However, he is seen as more uncompromising and complicated — and more hardline, even by the Taliban’s standards.
That makes his selection a hard choice for those hoping to see the resumption of the stalled peace and reconciliation process between the Taliban and the Afghan government under the platform of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the United States.
Since December of 2015, the four countries have held several meetings to pave the way for launching direct peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Akhundzada’s personal views aside, the launch of peace negotiations, at least in the near future, also seems improbable given that the trust level between the warring sides is now at its lowest ebb. The erstwhile polite and cautious use of words has suddenly turned into threats and warnings from the Afghan government, the United States, and the Taliban. It will take months, if not years, to achieve the level of trust that existed before May 21.
From the Taliban point of view, the new chief and his two deputies – Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of the head of the Haqqani Network Jalaluddin Haqqani, and Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob, son of Taliban founder Mullah Muhammad Omar – have to prove their mettle by adopting an aggressive policy on the battlefront to both earn the confidence of their loyalists and impress their opponents.
None of the three can afford the peace talk option while the organization they lead is suffering from two of the worst setbacks in recent memory, less than a year apart (the 2015 announcement of the death of Mullah Omar and Mansour’s death in May). To provide a morale boost for their fighters and field commanders, the strategy is likely to be the same aggressive tactics adopted by Mansour, who seized Kunduz in September 2015 and went all-out against the rebel faction of Mullah Rasool as well as against the Afghanistan-Pakistan chapter of the Islamic State (IS).
Meanwhile, three of four members of the QCG – Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States — do not seem to be on the same page vis-à-vis the Taliban, making peace talks even more unlikely. Pakistan protested the drone strike that hit Mansour and called it violation of its sovereignty. The U.S. ambassador in Islamabad, David Hale, was summoned to the Foreign Office to register a formal protest on May 23. On May 25, Pakistan’s army chief expressed “serious concerns” over the May 21 drone strike in a meeting with U.S. ambassador David Hale at the military’s General Headquarters.
The U.S. Secretary of State of John Kerry, on the other hand, said in a statement the day after the May 21 drone strike that “this action sends a clear message to the world that we will continue to work with our Afghan partners.” Kerry’s message is very clear — and apparently directed at Pakistan, where the Taliban are said to have been enjoying sanctuaries for the past 15 years with support from elements in Pakistan’s powerful security establishment.
The attack and strong message from the United States also encouraged the Afghan government to set aside their soft wordings and issue a strong warning to the Taliban “to end violence and resume peaceful life; else they will face the fate of their leadership.”
Earlier, in an apparent reference to Pakistan, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was quoted as saying that “some countries only exported terrorism, but our trilateral exports is self-belief, cooperation, and exhausting opportunities this region provides us to give our nation welfare and stability.” At the time, Ghani was in Tehran alongside Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani signing a trilateral deal for the infrastructure development of Iran’s Chahbahar Port — a deal that will notably bypass Pakistan entirely.
Pakistan always views Indian involvement in its neighborhood, particularly in Afghanistan, with suspicion. The development of Iran’s Chahbahar Port is also seen as a counter-weight to the construction and development of Pakistan’s China-sponsored Arabian seaport of Gwadar in Balochistan province.
Apart from tension in Pakistan-Afghanistan and United States-Pakistan relations, the killing of Taliban chief also affected Iran-Pakistan ties, which have never been without suspicions.
A passport in the name of Wali Muhammad, believed to be used by Mansour for his travels, allegedly found near the scene of the drone strike and which miraculously remained undamaged, bears a valid Iranian visa which shows that Mansour entered Iran on March 28 and exited on May 21.
The “passport was bearing a valid Iranian visa,” Pakistan’s Foreign Office said in a statement. Iran, on the other hand, denied Mansour’s presence in the country. “The competent authorities of the Islamic Republic deny that this person on this date crossed Iran’s border and into Pakistan,” said Iran’s Foreign Ministry’s spokesman.
Mansour’s visits to Iran and his possible relations with the clerical’s establishment, though maybe a smart move on his part, was equally perturbing for his Pakistani backers. It is believed that the slain Taliban chief had used his Iranian connections to ward off pressure from Pakistan regarding peace talks with the Afghan government in the past.
Although the exact nature of Mansour’s contacts with Iranian establishment is not known, given the nature of Pakistan-Iran diplomatic relations, his frequent visits to that country must have been a source of concern for his Pakistani handlers.
Mansour’s killing not only diminished the tiny ray of hope for the peace talks in Afghanistan, but also deepened suspicions among neighbors in the region, who already suffer from distrust rooted in history, geography, and beliefs.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFERL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul.