The Taliban have a new leader — Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, one of the deputies of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was taken out by a United States drone strike in Baluchistan after he crossed the border from Iran. Akhundzada is seen as a religious scholar and was a senior judge during the insurgent group’s five-year rule in Afghanistan, issuing many of its harshest fatwas. Significantly, it was the first ever US drone strike in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, despite years of American bombing runs on al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan. The decision to kill Mansour in his Pakistani sanctuary signals a new aggression in the US approach to compensate for lack of any movement in peace talks. The Obama administration seems to have given up on negotiations that have been stalled since July. With its latest gamble, Washington is hoping that this strike, much like the raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, will inflict a lasting blow on the Taliban by undercutting the group’s capacity to carry out attacks, sapping morale and disrupting long-term planning. Obama himself has suggested that Mansour “was specifically targeting” US troops in Afghanistan, and had refused to enter into peace negotiations the Afghan government. Pakistan’s official response has been quite predictable, accusing the US of crossing the ‘red line’ and claiming the attack was a violation of its sovereignty even as it has failed to account for the presence of Mansour on its soil. Pakistani officials were alerted to the strike only after it happened. The US is signalling that its patience with Pakistan is running thin and is now willing to take the fight to Afghan insurgents in Pakistani sanctuaries. It has been clear for some time now that Pakistani efforts to broker peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government were going nowhere. Despite quietly cooperating with the US military in targeting al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban leadership through drone strikes, the Pakistani military had been protecting the Afghan Taliban, refusing to allow such strikes in Baluchistan. Pakistan’s unwillingness to cooperate fully with the US and Afghanistan in the fight against the Taliban has had some far-reaching consequences. The Obama administration and the US polity in general have been turning against Pakistan’s duplicitous game. In recent weeks, the US Congress has asked Islamabad to pay for the F16s it wants and is also tightening the screws on disbursal of military aid to Pakistan. As the Taliban expanded their operations in Afghanistan’s south, the Obama administration decided to do away with its earlier restrictions on the numbers of strikes and decided to allow US pilots to bomb a broader array of targets even at the risk of antagonising Rawalpindi. The US’ success in taking out Mansour may not lead to any change on the part of the Taliban as far as its hard-line position on peace talks is concerned. It is more likely that Afghanistan might witness an escalation of attacks as internal squabbles of the Taliban spill out into the open. But what is clear is that the Taliban are now under a kind of pressure that they had not felt in recent years. And Pakistan has been warned that there are limits to its policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. India should be watching these developments closely. At a time when Pakistan’s negative role in Afghanistan is once again under scrutiny, India’s more positive involvement with the signing of the Chahbahar trilateral agreement should give it greater strategic space to manoeuvre.
Harsh V Pant is professor of international relations, department of defense studies, King’s College, London.