Pakistan trims Taliban’s sails – and that’s good for peace

The overall drift of the dramatic developments on the AfPak theatre this past week has been in a positive direction. Simply put, the developments can be summed up as a carefully planned Pakistani project to bring the Taliban’s so-called Quetta Shura under its control once again so that the nascent peace talks with the Afghan government gained traction and a ceasefire in the fighting in a near future could be reached.

ISI

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, who replaced Mullah Omar as the new leader of the Taliban, can be seen as the candidate of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI] and, unsurprisingly, rebel factions within the Quetta Shura contested his nomination.

One way of looking at the reported ‘walkout’ by the rebel elements at the Shura meeting is that the Taliban is heading for a ‘split’. However, on closer look, the more appropriate description will be that there has been a ‘purge’ of the rebel elements who have been systematically snapping at the Taliban’s credibility by ridiculing the ‘Mullah Omar myth’ publicly through the past year and more and also undercutting the ISI’s efforts to herd the Shura towards engaging with the Afghan government in peace talks.

The ISI’s objectives can be summed up as follows: one, ISI has realized that the dissent within the Taliban posed a big hurdle in the efforts to kick start the peace talks and unless the rebels were marginalized and purged without further delay, there could be no way forward.

Put differently, the ‘Mullah Omar myth’ had outlived its utility and not only was it becoming difficult to sustain the myth, but it was lately proving counter-productive.

Two, the disunity within the Taliban would be a recipe for interference by various intelligence agencies at which point the ISI would begin to altogether lose its ‘strategic assets’.

Indeed, the reactions from Washington strongly hint at the US having been aware of the ‘Mullah Omar myth’ for some time already. How far back the US intelligence got wind of the myth we may never get to know, but the bottom line is that great uncertainties have arisen. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan decided to clean the Aegean stables.

A third factor is that for a variety of reasons, Pakistan’s interest has shifted from the projection of power into Afghanistan to create ‘strategic depth’. The priority today is to stabilize the AfPak region and improve Pakistan’s internal security situation.

Pakistan’s top priority today lies in the implementation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor [CPEC] for which a stable internal security situation has become a prerequisite. The Pakistani army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif said Friday at a ceremony in Rawalpindi on the Chinese Army’s 88thAnniversary, “I reiterate our firm resolve that any attempt to obstruct or impede this [CPEC] project will be thwarted at all costs.”

There is much media hype over an imminent ‘split’ in the Taliban. But ISI’s calculation would be that without foreign support, the extremists will be reduced to ‘residual terrorism’ that is inevitable in the endgame of most insurgencies. These rebel elements are already being branded as affiliates of the Islamic State. We may expect an all-out Pakistani offensive against the Taliban rebel factions.

It is against such a complex backdrop that the new Taliban line-up announced Friday becomes comprehensible. The heart of the matter is that the Taliban will be effectively having a triumvirate leading the Shura or the Leadership Council.

The ‘Declaration regarding the appointment of new Amir of the Islamic Emirate’ issued Friday by the Quetta Shura (‘The Leading Council of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’) rationalizes the new chief Mansoor’s credentials in terms of him being “the intimate and trusted associate” of Mullah Omar, “who was considered a reliable and suitable person for shouldering the heavy tasks” … and had been administering the Islamic Emirate since long”, and was duly judged “a suitable and talented personality for the leadership of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

Plainly put, Mansoor has no special qualifications except that he has previous experience in running the Shura, and, secondly, he enjoys the trust and confidence of the ISI, which of course, handpicked him for the job.

Interestingly, the Shura’s Declaration proclaiming the selection of the new Amir also announced the appointment “after due consultation” of two deputies to Mansoor – the former judiciary chief of the Islamic Emirate and religious scholar, Moulavi Haibatullah Akhunzada, and, secondly, “the son of the renowned Jihadi and scholarly figure Mouvalvi Jalaluddin Haqqani…, a well-known Jihadi commander Mullah Sirajuddin Haqqani”.

This is the first time that the Taliban Shura has named two deputies to the Amir. Clearly, this became necessary insofar as while Mansoor maybe an experienced power broker, he has limitations, which Akhunzada and Haqqani fill in.

Evidently, Mansoor lacks the halo of a religious figure (which Mullah Omar had acquired), and he lacks the experience of a military commander. The Quran gives the all-important divine sanctity for the Amir, whereas, it is through the barrel of the gun that power flows in the Hindu Kush. Mullah Omar became a powerful symbol because he wielded both the Quran and the sword.

No doubt, the ISI is the ultimate winner here, as it has independent lines to all three protagonists in the triumvirate on a ‘need-to-know’ basis. Of course, in any settlement in Afghanistan, Pakistan will count on the Haqqani network to establish itself as the dominant presence in the eastern regions bordering its lawless tribal areas.

Equally, the elevation of Sirajuddin Haqqani to the top leadership shuts the door firmly on the rebel Taliban factions linking up with the Haqqani network. (Sirajuddin is the surviving scion of the Haqqani clan – Badruddin was killed in a US drone attack in 2012; Nasiruddin, the network’s top fund raiser, organizer and the liaison man with the ISI, who was impossible to replace, was assassinated near Islamabad by unknown hit men in December 2013.)

However, the big question remains: Is the consolidation of the ISI’s grip on the Taliban’s Quetta Shura a good thing to happen? The conventional wisdom will be to view the development through the prism of the ISI’s decades-long interference in Afghanistan. But a leap of faith has probably becomes necessary here. Consider the following.

What the ISI is doing is to isolate the ‘bad Taliban’. It has achieved the purge of the former Guantanamo inmate Abdul Qayum Zakir and his playmate Yaqoob (Mullah Omar’s son) whom the Pakistani military suspects as the cats-paw of foreign intelligence.

In short, through the purge of the ‘bad Taliban’, the ISI hopes to minimize the scope for foreign powers to meddle with the Quetta Shura, while also accelerating the peace process.

What needs to be factored in here is that the specter of a Taliban takeover no longer haunts Afghanistan. Henceforth, the Taliban’s best hope lies finding a way to join mainstream Afghan politics in a broad-based power structure. Pakistan’s objective devolves upon enabling the Taliban to realize that hope.

But the real danger lies somewhere else. A period of confusion lies ahead as the radical factions will feel prompted to establish their credibility by severely challenging the security situation. In turn, the Afghan leadership of President Ashraf Ghani will be hard-pressed to remain engaged in talks with the Taliban Shura while the government forces take casualties on the battlefield.

Second, there are strong vested interests within Afghanistan, which militate against any genuine power-sharing with the Taliban – such as Mohammed Mohaqiq’s Shi’ite militia, for instance. They are sure to fish in the troubled waters, arguing that now that the Taliban narrative has floundered, what is the need to accommodate the Taliban?

Third, it is well-known that there is a gravy train running through Afghanistan and the cessation of the conflict does not suit many warlords profiteering from drug trafficking and so on.

Finally, unless there is a regional consensus, there will be foreign powers who will continue to view the Pakistan-led peace process in zero sum terms.

All in all, therefore, the ISI has taken a gambit by dumping the Mullah Omar myth, trimming the Taliban’s sails and settling for a leaner Quetta Shura as its ‘strategic asset’.

The Shura will need time to find a new equilibrium. The consolidation of Mullah Omar’s leadership in the mid-nineties was achieved through the Taliban’s victorious march from Kandahar to Herat and Jalalabad to Kabul in a string of spectacular military victories.

That option to create the mystique of invincibility has vanished forever and Mansoor needs to come up with something better to keep the Taliban flock together. His only viable option is to offer peace and reconciliation.

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