Taliban Name New Leader
NEW DELHI: The Taliban have announced a new leader -- Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada -- lending credibility to the news that Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour had been killed in a drone strike. The militant group has thus far maintained silence over US and Afghan declarations that leader Mansour was killed in a drone strike. The announcement of a new leader, however, confirms the news.
Haibatullah -- a deputy of Mansour -- was confirmed as the new leader this week, with Sarajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub being announced as deputies. Mullah Yaqoub is the son of the previous Taliban chief, Mullah Muhammad Omar, whose death was acknowledged in July 2015.
Haibatullah, believed to be in his mid-50s, is viewed as an important cleric and a spiritual authority within the Taliban ranks. According to The New York Times, Omar, the movement’s founding leader, was reported to have relied on Haibatullah’s interpretation of jurisprudence when making decisions. Haibatullah served as a top judge during the Taliban’s rule of Afghanistan, in Kandahar as well as on the Supreme Court in Kabul.
Meanwhile, Pakistan -- in whose territory Mansour was killed -- have still not confirmed the leader’s death. On Tuesday, interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told reporters that the body recovered on Pakistani soil, near the Afghan border, was charred beyond recognition, adding that DNA samples would be tested against a relative who had come forward to claim the body. "The government of Pakistan cannot announce this without a scientific and legal basis," Khan told a news briefing.
In fact, reports in Pakistani media have focused on the fact that the Pakistani passport found near the body believed to be Mansour’s belongs to someone with another name. According to the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, the passport holder was believed to have travelled to Pakistan from Iran on the day of the attack. Pakistani media, however, quotes Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari denying that Mansour had been in the country before the attack."The competent authorities of the Islamic republic deny that this person on this date crossed Iran's border and into Pakistan," Ansari said.
Further, Pakistan issued a statement accusing the United States of violating its sovereignty with the strike. “This is a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty,” Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said.
Whether Pakistan was in on the strike remains unknown, although the official version will follow Prime Minister Sharif’s line.
The strike comes as the Afghan peace process fell apart, with the Taliban rejecting talks and following through with a spring offensive as better weather enables a push in fighting.
The talks -- supported by Pakistan, the United States and China -- sought to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Afghan government, and sought to use Pakistan’s leverage on the militant group in doing so.
In April, the Taliban -- after months of speculation -- formally announced that it would not be taking part in the peace dialogue. Soon after rejecting the peace dialogue, the Afghan Taliban formally announced the start of the annual spring offensive -- when better weather enables a push for fighting. The current offensive has been dubbed "Operation Omari" in honor of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar -- whose death provided the first blow to the peace process. Although rumours have circulated regarding Omar’s death for a long time, the Taliban officially confirmed the news for the first time last year. This removed a unifying figure for the militant group and emboldened the powerful factions that were opposed to the peace talks, with Afghanistan witnessing a sharp rise in Taliban-led violence. Further, militants who were opposed to a peace dialogue with the Afghan government reneged on their pledge to new leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who is seen as close to Pakistan. The BBC, in fact, quoted a Taliban spokesperson saying that newly appointed leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour had not been appointed "by all Taliban", going against Sharia law. A breakaway faction appointed another leader -- Mullah Mohammed Rasool -- and vowed to push on with their fight against the Afghan state.
Since then, the peace process has struggled to get back on track, despite the US and China intervening. And although at one point it seemed as if the talks would finally take place, the truth of the matter is that the process was beset with problems from the start.
For one, Mansour’s position on the talks remained unclear. In July last year, when Pakistan pressured the Taliban leadership to sit down for talks, Mansour disappeared, with his phones turned off. Even more importantly, although Mansour was the Taliban’s appointed leader, the extent of his command and mandate remained a big question mark. Mansour, incidentally, was known to be close to Pakistan.
This link had its own ramifications in Afghanistan -- where the public largely holds Pakistan responsible for providing a safe haven to Taliban fighters. In fact, the reason why Pakistan could push the Taliban leadership to agree to talks is because of the fact that Taliban leaders are based there — mostly in Quetta, in Baluchistan Province — and fighters depend on cross-border sanctuaries to escape Afghan and NATO security forces. Pakistan has a lot of leverage over the Afghan Taliban, no doubt, but this fact is the reason for the skepticism. Afghans have long maintained that Pakistan has aided and abetted terrorism, by providing training, finances and sanctuaries to militants active in Afghanistan (side note: India has a similar grievance in regard to militancy in Jammu and Kashmir).
This skepticism had for a long time echoed the official Afghan line -- as former President Hamid Karzai repeatedly hit out at Pakistan, with relations between the two countries dipping to historic lows. The current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani came to power singing a different tune -- that of talks. The strategy seemed to be bearing fruit, with the Taliban agreeing to a peace dialogue with the Afghan government in July last year -- a first in the 13 years since the fall of the Taliban government. The talks, and with it Afghan-Pak relations, hit a roadblock in August with the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, exposing the factionalism within the Taliban and making clear the fact that resolution through dialogue was not going to be easy in the least.
The upswing in violence that followed Omar’s death led to a volt face in Ghani’s rhetoric, as he employed language similar to Karzai and hit out at Pakistan for not doing enough to reign in terror.
The strike targeting Mansour -- whether on not he was actually the person killed and irrespective of Pakistan’s official line -- indicates that there has been a major reversal in US policy in regard to Afghanistan. The US, instrumental in initially pushing for dialogue, seems to be making clear that if Pakistan cannot get the Afghan Taliban to step up to the negotiating table, action will be taken. Caught between all of the above are the Afghan people, as the country witnesses one of its most violent periods yet. The Taliban has seen some of its biggest gains in the last few months including the fall of the city of Kunduz, Sangin district, Lashkar Gah, Gurian district and Warduj district. This, whilst civilian casualties touch record highs. UN figures for 2015 show a consistent upward trend in civilian casualties from the year 2001. At least 3,545 non-combatants died and another 7,457 were injured by fighting last year in a 4-percent increase over 2014. Further, according to a recent UNAMA report, women and children show the sharpest rise in casualties.
At this juncture, the question is: Will Mansour’s death push the Taliban into a compromise, or further splinter an already heterogenous group, thereby making it all the more difficult for a central authority to exert any form of control? Only time will tell, but if Omar’s death is anything to go by, the latter is far more likely.