~ By Alok Bansal
The killing of Mullah Mansour, the leader of Taliban on 22nd May, near AmadWal inside Pakistan’s Balochistan province has had a significant impact on the security situation of the region. It has also worsened the already tenuous relations between Pakistan and the US. This, the first drone attack inside Balochistan, saw Pakistan vociferously protesting against infringement of its sovereignty, as this has expanded the area of ‘unilateral’ US operations within Pakistan. However, as in the case of Osama Bin Laden earlier, Pakistan has yet to come out with any rational explanation for the presence of such elements within its territory. More significantly, this operation has severely strained Afghanistan-Pakistan relations.
The presence of Mullah Mansour inside Pakistan has given credence to what Afghan authorities had always believed that Mansour was in close league with Pakistani authorities. The fact that he had a valid Pakistani passport with visas from Iran indicates that somebody from within the establishment was supporting him. It has also been established that he had travelled to Iran and was coming back. The fact that the leader of one of the most dreaded militant organisation and Amir-ul-Mumineen for jihad being waged by Al Qaeda, was travelling without any protection shows that he never visualised any threat within Pakistan. He took a taxi from the Iran border and travelled over 450 Km in Balochistan where there are numerous security check points on roads to prevent movement of Baloch nationalists, thereby indicating that he feared no threat from security forces.
This affirmation of close links with the establishment in Pakistan coming immediately after heightened Taliban offensive under Mansour, which included attack on Kunduz and other towns, where numerous lives have been lost to Taliban, naturally annoyed Afghanistan. They felt that Pakistan’s government was playing a double role by supporting Taliban, while overtly being a part of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) on Afghan peace and reconciliation process, made up of representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States.
Unlike the previous occasion, when Mullah Omar had died, the Taliban did not waste time and contrary to expectations, named Haibatullah Akhundzadaas the new leader. It was widely believed that either Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of Haqqani Network, who has been close to the Pakistani establishment or Mullah Yakoub, the son of the Taliban founder Mullah Omar, would be appointed as the leader, as they were the deputies to Mansour. Both have been retained as deputies to Akhundzada, as they wield considerable influence within the Taliban. Unlike the previous occasion even Al Qaeda came out quickly in support of Akhundzada. To cement his position and ostensibly to avenge Mansour’s killing, the Taliban carried out some bold attacks in Afghanistan. Merely hours after the new leader was announced, a suicide attack in Kabul on a bus carrying employees of the judiciary department claimed 11 lives and injured 10 others. As many of them were carried by Haqqani network, fingers were pointed towards Pakistan.
The new leader has vowed to continue the fight and accordingly, the Taliban have refused to participate in any talks. However, the Afghans have been pressing Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, as they had promised to do so earlier. The fact that Pakistan has not done so, has aggravated the rift between the two countries and Afghans have started accusing Pakistan of meddling in their affairs by pointing towards Mansour’s presence on Pak territory. More significantly, just before Mansour’s killing, the Afghan government had warned it would take action against Taliban for not coming to the table and had urged the QCG to show their military role.
Pakistan, unfortunately, did not come out with any rationale for the presence of the Taliban chief on its territory; rather, it tried to deflect attention by talking about repatriating 2.5 million Afghan refugees, which it claims have been living in Pakistan for decades. It stated that the unbridled movement of Afghans into Pakistan had led to instability and needed to be controlled.To further aggravate the situation, it started implementing a new border mechanism from 01 June, whereby it proclaimed that no Afghan would be permitted to cross the border without a valid passport and Visa, thereby creating serious hurdles for families living across the border. It also started fencing its border and building a gate at Torkham in Khyber Agency, the busiest border crossing, which was objected to by Afghanistan stating that Pakistan could not build a gate anywhere on the border, without its consent. Pakistan however, continued to build the gate stating that it was technically 37 metres inside its border and that it was essential for its counterterrorism strategy to check infiltration of militants and terrorists. The tensions resulted in firing between the forces of two countries, led to the killing of an Afghan soldier and two soldiers of Pakistan Army including a Major, besides causing injuries to many. The funerals of soldiers who died in combat were attended by thousands of mourners in both the countries, clearly indicating the hostile sentiments against each other.
The Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesperson claimed that the security forces had acted to safeguard its territorial integrity and “armed forces are always ready to defend their country and people and to react against any kind of threats”. Simultaneously, a senior Pakistani military official stated that the gate at Torkham would “now be built and at any cost” and the army would retaliate with full force, if anyone tried to create any hindrance. This belligerent stance led to continuation of firing between the two sides for few more days till ceasefire was eventually declared, but tension continued to prevail and troops remain deployed on both sides of the border. All activities at Torkham were suspended and thousands of vehicles and persons were stranded on both sides. Both sides have summoned each other’s envoy and have lodged protests, but neither is willing to dilute its stance. To diffuse the issue, Sartaj Aziz, the advisor on foreign affairs to the Prime Minister of Pakistan rang up Afghan National Security Adviser (NSA) Hanif Atmar and invited him and the Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani for talks to resolve the prevailing logjam. In a direct snub to Pakistan, Afghanistan refused to send either its NSA or the foreign minister, but sent a delegation led by its deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai.
The talks failed to reach any conclusion, as Pakistan informed the Afghan delegation that Pakistan planned to build four gates at different places along the border, as it considers them to be crucial to the security of both the countries. The Afghan side claimed that the talks were held in an “amicable and friendly atmosphere” but they had raised the issue of “various violations” by Pakistan, which included setting up of posts in Afghan territory and “unprovoked artillery shelling of Afghan villages.” The presidents of the two countries are expected to meet during Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting.
These developments however, indicate a serious falling out between the two governments, where Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of supporting Taliban and Pakistan accusing Afghanistan of sheltering anti-Pakistan militants. It clearly indicates that having successfully inducted Haqqani network into the top echelons of Taliban, Pakistan clearly sees it as its proxy, which should be allowed to control the levers of power in Kabul. President Ghani, on the other hand after, after placating Pakistan for long, has eventually realised that Islamabad and more significantly, Rawalpindi, are unwilling to stop their support to Taliban. Consequently, Ghani has been scathing in his comments on Pakistan and is making all out diplomatic efforts to isolate Pakistan. His trip to Chabahar was probably a step in that direction. Even the US, after the killing of Mansour had warned Pakistan against terrorist activities in Afghanistan. Pakistan on the other hand, having secured Chinese support, seems to be in no mood to tow the US line. Afghanistan-Pakistan relations therefore are headed for a prolonged period of turbulence.
The author is Director India Foundation and Adjunct Professor of NDIM.
(This article appeared in India Foundation Journal, May-June 2016 issue.)