The past fortnight has been traumatic for Pakistan’s ruling elite. They could only look on as American drones crossed the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and eliminated Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour. Mansour had been anointed by the ISI as the leader of the Afghan Taliban barely a year earlier, in Kuchalak, on the outskirts Quetta in Baluchistan. It was near the site of his appointment that he was killed.

The strike occurred a virtual stone’s throw from the Pakistani army’s Command Staff College, its XII Corps Headquarters, its military recruitment centre and the regional office of the ISI. It signalled that Taliban leaders based in Quetta for over 15 years under ISI protection, could no longer take their safety and security for granted in Baluchistan’s capital.

Sharp reprimand

To add to their woes, the ISI and Pakistan’s army chief, Gen Raheel Shareef, were made to look silly. Sharif personally summoned the American ambassador to warn the US of dire consequences for its action, described by him and other Pakistani notables as a “violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty”.

The Americans responded by averring: “We will carry out strikes to remove terrorists, who are actively pursuing, planning and directing attacks against US forces. The strike sends a clear message that those who target Americans and Afghan people are not to be given a safe haven. If you are going lead attacks against our forces and Afghanistan’s forces, then you are going to be targeted and you are not going to have safe havens.” It remains to be seen if the Americans carry out these threats. They will, doubtless, be tested.

From Pakistan’s point of view, it’s been a diplomatic nightmare. Just preceding the drone strike in Baluchistan, the US Congress made it clear that new F-16s will not be provided free of cost, as in the past. Moreover, Pakistan had to watch Prime Minister Narendra Modi not only being feted and received by Iran’s Supreme Leader Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei, but also at a trilateral Iran-Afghanistan-India summit.

An agreement was reached at the summit meeting to develop the Chabahar Port and an India-Iran-Afghanistan transport corridor, bypassing Pakistan. Moreover, India and Iran agreed to transform their trade relationship into a comprehensive economic partnership and to consult closely in combating the threats of terrorism, radicalism, drugs trafficking and cyber crime.

New Taliban leader

The past week also saw the anointment of Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada as the Taliban’s new leader. He is to be assisted by two deputies — Sirajuddin Haqqani, one of America’s most wanted terrorists, and Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoob. It is now clear that Pakistan would like to see the continuance of a Taliban leadership drawn from the Kandahar-based Ghilzai Pashtuns, bypassing the traditional leadership of Durrani Pashtuns such as President Hamid Karzai. Like Mullah Omar and Mullah Mansour, Mullah Akhunzada is a Kandahar-based Ghilzai Pashtun. Afghan rulers since Ahmed Shah Abdali in the 18th century have traditionally been drawn from the Durrani tribe. The Pakistanis enacted a stunt to give Mullah Omar’s appointment a veneer of legitimacy and respectability by getting him to appear for the first time in public in 1996 at the main shrine in Kandahar, covered in a cloak, believed to have been worn by the Prophet Mohammed. Ahmed Shah Abdali had brought the cloak to Kandahar from Bukhara. One wonders what stunts the ISI will resort to now in order to similarly give Mullah Akhunzada a veneer of respectability and legitimacy.

The entire so-called ‘peace process’ for reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government now lies in shambles. This was an initiative doomed to fail as the Taliban have no belief in democracy and were determined to use force to acquire power.

The Americans were led up the garden path by both Pakistan and China, to support this process, little realising that while they wanted a representative government in Kabul, China had an interest in seeing an ISI-sponsored regime in Kabul. Such a regime would do Pakistan’s bidding and spare China’s Xinjiang province, where Muslims are persecuted, from terrorist violence. China had, after all, been one of the very few countries that had had diplomatic contact and even economic cooperation with the Taliban regime led by Mullah Omar in the 1990s.

Set for violence

These developments have set the stage for more intensive Taliban attacks across Afghanistan in the coming months. The ISI’s favourite Taliban leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is after all a deputy leader, along with Mullah Yaqoob. The US State Department has threatened reprisals even on Pakistani soil if attacks in Afghanistan by Taliban insurgents based there continue. But the Obama administration is now a ‘lame duck’. It remains to be seen how it will react in its last days in office.

Gen Sharif, meanwhile, appears to be realising that he has perhaps bitten off more that he can chew by committing his soldiers to fight the Tehriq-e-Taliban in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. He had obviously learnt no lessons from history.

India needs to stay the course in its existing policies on Afghanistan. Its image as a benevolent power will be further enhanced when the Salma dam built by Indian engineers is commissioned in Afghanistan’s Herat province, bordering Iran, later this year. The presence of the leaders of Iran, Afghanistan and India for inking the agreement making the Chabahar Port a major gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia has sent a powerful message across the region. The reported request of President Ashraf Ghani for more MI-25 attack helicopters needs to be considered after assessing the security situation in Afghanistan.

When I last visited Kabul three years ago, I learnt that Pakistani visitors to the Kabul market often declared they were Indians to avoid the public wrath against Pakistanis which runs deep across Afghanistan. One hopes good sense will prevail and Pakistan will learn to behave with greater circumspection and consideration with its northern neighbour.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

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