The apparent killing of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour in a US drone strike May 22 actually took place in Pakistan—and without the consent of Islamabad, which has demanded a "clarification" from Washington in the hit. It was also the first US drone strike in Pakistan's restive province of Baluchistan, rather than in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas where they have mostly been concentrated. The US has flown drones out of a base in Baluchistan, but never actually carried out any strikes there until now. The FATA is seen by Islamabad as something of a special case due to al-Qaeda's presence there, and the US has been given a free hand in the Tribal Areas. The insurgency in Baluchistan, in contrast, is seen strictly as Pakistan's internal war—despite the fact that the Afghan Taliban had evidently established it as their new staging area, with FATA getting too hot. This Taliban consolidation in Baluchistan was presumably permitted (if not actually overseen) by the Pakistani state. The strike on Mansour was apparently carried out from Afghan territory, and by the Pentagon rather than the CIA. And there are other ways in which the strike seems to indicate a break between Washington and Islamabad…
The strike came days after talks of the Afghan Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) ended fruitlessly in Islamabad. The fifth meeting of the QCG—comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US—came with a sense of urgency, as the Taliban is both gaining territory in Afghanistan and carrying out increasingly brazen terror attacks in Kabul. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani took a tough line on Pakistan, virtually accusing Islamabad of conniving with the Taliban. In Washington, US lawmakers meanwhile made clear that they would block the administration's effort to offer Pakistan a loan under the Foreign Military Financing program to buy eight F-16 fighter jets unless Pakistan did more to restrain the Taliban. There was a nationalist outburst from Pakistan's media about "American treachery" and the supposed influence of New Delhi over Washington. Leaders in Islamabad even issued a warning that if the US didn't underwrite the sale, they would look elsewhere—meaning Russia.
The QCG meeting concluded May 18 by issuing the following non-statement: "The QCG reiterated that violence serves no purpose and that peace negotiations remain the only option for a political settlement. In this respect, QCG countries reaffirmed to use their respective leverages and influences….to advance the goal of an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process," and that "the next QCG meeting will be convened as mutually agreed." In other words, an implicit acknowledgement that not a thing was accomplished.
Pakistan's position in favor of talks between Kabul and Taliban had already been dealt a blow by Mullah Mansour's recent hardline tilt and growing closeness to al-Qaeda—motivated, no doubt, by fear that ISIS is stealing the fire as the cutting edge of jihad in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri had recently pledged fealty to Mullah Mansour, with the Taliban leader promising greater cooperation in return.
The weeks to come should reveal whether the intransigent Qaedist faction will emerge victorious in the inevitable post-Mansour power struggle within the Taliban, or comparative "moderates" (sic) who could be bought off with a "peace-for-sharia" deal. Or if the Taliban will collapse completely in factional fighting, leaving ISIS to fill the vacuum and inherit the mantle of the Afghan insurgency which is now in its fourth decade. (NYT, NYT, Daily Pakistan, The Hindu, The Independent)
New Taliban leader named
The Afghan Taliban has reportedly named as its new "emir" Haibatullah Akhondzada, a former sharia "jurist" of the Noorzai Pashtun tribe, originally from Spin Boldak district of Kandahar province. He was a close aid to Mullah Omar, the movement's first leader, but was not of first generation that took up arms with him in 1994. There has been some controversy about a statement rejecting peace talks, purportedly issued by Akhondzada upon his appointment but later disavowed by the Taliban as inauthentic. (Pakistan Observer, The News, Pakistan)