By Misbah Azam, Ph.D.
By definition, sovereignty is the quality of having independent authority over a geographic area. It can be found in a power to rule and make laws that rests on a political fact for which no pure legal definition can be provided. The land or territory is considered sovereign if the state has its law implemented there and the people are bound to follow the Social Contract between the people and the state. Food, health, education, economy, security etc. needs of the people belong to the land are among the prime responsibilities of the sovereign state. The land is not sovereign, however – no matter it belongs to the state territory geographically and/or socially – if the private armies and their operatives roam around at their will, break the laws of the land no matter they are allied with the state agencies and run their illegal operations with the consent of the specific state agency. If Pakistan claims to be a sovereign state, then why the terrorists like Osama Bin Laden, Mullah Omer, Khalid Sheikh, Ramzi Yusuf, Ramzi bin Al-Shibh, Sirajuddin Haqqani and now Mullah Akhter Mansour – who are not Pakistani citizens – were found in Pakistani sovereign territories, either on the fake passports and fake National ID cards or even without any legal document. Is it simply the porous 1,500 km Pak-Afghan border which cannot be watched and protected or these internationally declared outlaws – some of whom have millions of dollars of bounties on their heads – are protected and sheltered by Pakistan’s state machinery? Once again – after Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s assassination by the drone in Baluchistan — the question came up that how he was traveling to Iran and other parts of Middle East on Pakistani passport and no agency in Pakistan knows about his movements. After the news about Mullah Omer death – which caused the cancellation of second round of dialog between Taliban and Afghan government after the July 2015 Murree talks — broke out, both Pakistan and Afghanistan blamed each others’ intelligence agencies for the leaks at critical time. However, who leaked the news first was not so important but the important question was how Mullah Omar lived in Pakistan, treated and then died under the noses of Pakistani military and the intelligence services. These are the questions which further increases the growing mistrust about the seriousness of Pakistan as a partner in peace.
Prime Minister’s top advisor on the foreign affairs, Mr. Sartaj Aziz recently said that Taliban leaders are living in Pakistan and using medical facilities in Pakistan. General Musharraf as well – may be to keep himself alive in the international media – revealed that during his regime spies in Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) had secretly supported Taliban after 2001 because the government of President Hamid Karazai had an overwhelming number of non-Pashtuns and officials who were said to favor India. “Obviously we were looking for some groups to counter this Indian action against Pakistan,” he said while talking to The Guardian. “That is where the intelligence work comes in. Intelligence being in contact with Taliban groups. Definitely they were in contact, and they should be.” Although Pakistani and international experts were insisting about Pakistani agencies tacit support for Taliban for years which Pakistani civil and military leaderships were denying but these statements are clear public confessions of Pakistani top authorities that Pakistan is sheltering Afghan Taliban for years.
Pakistani experts always question Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban, because the Afghan Taliban never delivered on Pakistan’s demands even during the time when the Taliban were ruling over Kabul. Some groups of Taliban are involved in hiding and supporting Pakistani Taliban when they are chased by Pakistan Army in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Still, Pakistani establishment overestimated its influence over Taliban and raised hopes of the world that it can force Taliban into the peace talks with the Afghan government. Even with all the support Pakistan establishment provided to Taliban, it had failed to pressure Taliban to deliver on the peace talks with Afghan government. Now it seems that Pakistan establishment is learning the realities on the ground. Recently, Aizaz Chaudhry, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary said on PTV that Afghan government should extend “solid offer” to Taliban to bring them to peace table. This statement is rather perplexing, because at one hand Pakistan insisted that it can influence Taliban to bring them to peace table but at the other hand it’s asking Afghans to provide certain incentives before Pakistan can influence them. If Pakistan does not have enough clout over Taliban then why for years Pakistan is insisting to be the only player which can convince Taliban to call of their operations.
So far neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan seem to have any clear policy towards Taliban, and if it is, it is full of confusion. The US and China – although very important – but they have tangential roles in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) — a framework under the Heart of Asia/Istanbul Process of 2011, which included Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States, whose main manifesto is to facilitate talks between the government in Kabul and the warring Taliban faction, which is so far in the virtual dormancy. Without any clear policy by Pakistan and Afghanistan, the QCG cannot serve its purpose. According to Afghan Ambassador, although, the paperwork of QCG is significant however, it has not yet been matched by deliveries expected. Pakistani experts also question that at one hand Pakistan agrees that the peace process between Afghans and Taliban will be Afghan led but at the other hand Pakistan behaves as if it talks on behalf of Taliban, especially when it asks Afghan government to provide incentives to Taliban. Those suggestions could be discussed with Afghan government in private communications instead of in public. Unfortunately, the Pakistan’s Afghan policy is not made in the Foreign Office or in the Prime Minister’s secretariat but it is built in the General Head Quarters (GHQ) of Pakistan Army and sometime the civilian government is not even aware about the developments and next steps. This type of miscommunication between the GHQ and the Foreign Office further complicates the situation for Pakistan.
Mullah Mansour death by the drone once again brought raised more questions about the seriousness of countries involved in the geo-politics of the region. Many media outlets and the common people in Pakistan ask if Mullah Masour traveled Iran and Dubai many times, why Americans chose Pakistan instead of in Iran or in Dubai to kill him. Many experts believe, that the attack over the Pakistani territory is used by the US, not only to send a message to Taliban leadership to make peace or else, but it is also designed to send an equally powerful message to Pakistan which – according to some experts – is indulging and supporting Taliban and doing little against them when they launch brutal attacks on Afghans and American. However, the reason for striking him on Pakistan territory could be the availability of ground intelligence infra-structure, which is an essential part of Predator-Drone operations, and is already in place in Pakistan from early 2000s. Attacking him in Iran or any other country of Middle East would require well planned sting operation, which would require long training and planning time, and could be more risky with very high chances of failure with higher collateral damage.
Some outside experts argue that the elimination of Taliban top leader by US demonstrates its frustration over the virtual stalemate in Afghanistan at the time when US is ready to pull out and their belief that Mansour cannot deliver as per the expectation. President Barack Obama said during his visit to Vietnam that the death of Mansour marks an “important milestone in our longstanding effort to bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan.” The US Secretary of State Sen. John Kerry said, “Peace is what we want. Mansoor was a threat to that effort. He [Mansour] also was directly opposed to peace negotiations and to the reconciliation process. It is time for Afghans to stop fighting and to start building a real future together.” Gen. Joseph Votel , commander U.S. Central Command responded at a news conference in Amman, Jordan “Mansour played a key leadership role in not only orchestrating the Taliban but orchestrating a variety of other organizations to include the Haqqani Network and al Qaeda who were perpetrating operations against not only U.S. forces but coalition forces and Afghan forces for a long period of time.” However, the developments after the July 2015 Murree dialogs between Taliban leadership and Afghan government may point to another dimension. It was rightly believed that Akhtar Mansour was unable and even unwilling to bring the warring factions together for the peace dialogs with Afghan government, as per the understanding of QCG. Instead, Mansour had planned and executed some ferocious attacks on the civilian and military targets in Afghanistan and gave the message to the world that the QCG was completely irrelevant. The QCG – with or without Pakistan’s involvement — may have decided to eliminate Mansour but before stamping him out, the group may have exploited its “contacts” inside Taliban — who are inclined towards peace process with Ghani’s government — to agree on the name of new leadership as Mansour’s replacement. Once every asset was lined up, Mansour was removed from the scene. Section of Pakistani media which was baffled by the lukewarm reaction from the civilian government and even from the Pakistani establishment, had expected that China would react strongly on the “US action to bulldoze the peace process”. However, China decided to cautiously support the attack. When asked about the Chinese government’s reaction on the attack on Akhtar Mansour, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ms. Hua Chunying responded, “We have noted relevant report. China hopes that the Afghan peace and reconciliation process can continue to be pushed forward and relevant parties remain committed to peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region.”
The new leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhondzada — a low-profile conservative – could be the agreed candidate. Although, Mullah Akhondzada was a deputy to Mansour, but he is seen by many factions of Taliban as a natural choice for a movement that, despite some battlefield gains, has been in disarray for more than a year. He was close to Mullah Omar and helped him to formulate religious decrees to justify the war, and like Mullah Omar, he is a native of Kandahar province, which was the center of the Taliban’s regime which was thrown out in November 2001 US attack on Afghanistan. Although, Mr. Akhondzada is a hardliner religious scholar but he did not participate in any combat operation against US, Afghan government or against any other Taliban faction. Because of such background, he is revered among most of the factions and he may be able to unite the warring groups and convince them to sit on the negotiation table. Although farfetched, but coming days would reveal if the killing of Mansour was designed simply to convey strong message to Taliban that if they would not sit with the Afghanistan’s elected and legitimate government, one-by-one their leadership would be targeted and eliminated, or it was executed after well placed plan and homework which would drive Afghanistan to long lasting peace and prosperity.
In another development, Hizb-i-Islami leader Gulbadin Hikmatyaar and President Ashraf Ghani are getting closer to a 25-point peace plan which was initiated in 2014 and encouraged by the US officials — although, Dawa Khan Menapal, the spokesperson pf President Ghani, said: “This is a process. There are some minor differences. It may take one day, maybe weeks or even longer.” The Hizb-i-Islami, although is not very active against the Afghan government and its last major attack was launched in 2013 when 15 people were killed in the suicide bombing including six US soldiers. However, political scientists believe that the plan might serve as a potential blueprint for a far more complicated deal with Taliban insurgents in the future and the deal will be seen as a symbolic victory of Ashraf Ghani and it will boost people’s confidence in the government which is fast eroding. As per the 25-point plan, President Ghani would remove Hikmatyar’s name from terrorists list, and convince US to request UN to remove the Taliban leaders from the list of black listed leaders and provide them general amnesty. Also, the Afghan government would release as many as 2000 prisoners from Afghan’s custody. The plan would recognize Hizb-i-Islami as a legitimate political opposition and his members would be allowed to join Afghan National Army and police force. If US, President Ashraf Ghani and Hikmatyar would deliver on the plan it will mitigate the impression among the Taliban that Afghan government does not have any control over Afghanistan and they will come under pressure to work with Afghan government.
Political commentators in US and Pakistan argue that at least until the end of January 2017, when the new government will take over in US, there will be no significant movement in the peace process. In coming days, if the new leadership of the Taliban would decide to slow down its so called “spring offensive”, and Pakistani establishment will arrest some of Taliban leadership in Pakistan to increase pressure, there will be a chance that QCG would rejuvenate and the region will observe at least some movement towards peace. However, if this summer Afghanistan had to face more violent conflicts with Taliban and more people will lose their lives by the hands of Taliban, there may be another military surge in Afghanistan by the new government in Washington after January which will intensify the war and the hopes for peace in the region will not materialize for years to come.