The death of Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour in an American drone strike on Saturday was an extraordinary event, even in a theatre of war renowned for the unconventional.
It was unprecedented for a CIA drone to venture so deep into Pakistani air space to carry out a strike. The hundreds of previous strikes were limited to the northwest Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering eastern Afghanistan. Specifically, nearly all were conducted in the North and South Waziristan tribal areas, with the odd excursion into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Only one strike had ever taken place in an area of Pakistan governed under the articles of its federal democratic constitution. In November 2013, three commanders of the Taliban’s Haqqani Network faction were killed in the Hangu district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, a few kilometres from the Kurram tribal area.
Mullah Akhtar’s vehicle was hit near the town of Ahmad Wal, in Noshki district of western Balochistan province, about 50km from the border with Afghanistan. He was driving with a single companion along a well-used national highway, on the way back from Iran. His vehicle was struck by three missiles shortly after the two men stopped at Ahmad Wal for what was to be their last meal.
The only times that CIA drones had previously seen action in Balochistan were when they were deployed at two air bases there after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. This arrangement ended after a November, 2011 incident at Salala in which 21 Pakistani troops were killed by United States forces.
The message delivered by Saturday’s drone strike could not have been clearer: the US acted against the Taliban when Pakistan was not prepared to do so.
It certainly is no secret that the Taliban has used Pakistan as a rest-and-recreation centre since resuming its insurgency in Afghanistan in 2006. Nor can the Pakistani military’s special relationship with the Haqqani network be disputed.
The US has been leaning on Pakistan to leverage that relationship to bring the Taliban into an Afghan peace process, in return for which it would be treated as a legitimate political entity, not as a terrorist group.
The turning point was Kabul’s announcement of the death of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban founder, on the eve of talks last July. The test for Pakistan was to bring his successor, Mullah Akhtar, to the table. Instead, the Taliban was wrought with infighting over the succession and Mullah Akhtar, fighting for his leadership and the cohesion of the group, had little choice but to reject the talks.
Instead, the Haqqani network launched a campaign of suicide bombings, culminating in an April 19 attack on an Afghan intelligence facility in Kabul that killed 64 people and injured 350.
That attack – and the near-certainty that it was planned by the Taliban’s exiled leadership, most of whom live in Balochistan – changed matters dramatically.
Afghan president Ashraf Ghani demanded that Pakistan act against the Taliban on its soil, as agreed in January at a meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group – comprising Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the US – established to facilitate peace talks.
Pakistan stalled, not wanting to engage the Afghan Taliban in addition to its own Pakistani Taliban insurgents. The historic enmity between Islamabad and Kabul was another factor.
The third motivation for Pakistan to procrastinate is the forthcoming downsizing of the US-led Nato military presence in Afghanistan and, ultimately, its exit.
Historically, Pakistan has good reason to question America’s commitment to Afghanistan. Instead of consolidating its hold after the 2001 invasion, the US pulled out resources for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. When that allowed the Taliban the time and space to regroup, president Barack Obama ordered a troop surge, but he also announced his intention to refocus US policy on East Asia to counter an increasingly assertive China.
If the US drone strike that killed Mullah Akhtar was a tactical measure, aimed merely at restraining the Taliban’s capacity to fight the Afghan government, then it will do nothing to persuade the next Taliban leader to halt the attacks and talk peace. It may well increase fighting within the Taliban, but that too would work in favour of the group’s hardliners.
Sooner rather than later, however, the US is going to pull out of an Afghanistan increasingly mired in fighting between competitors within the government as well as between the government and insurgents.
Exactly that situation prevailed in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, creating a political and security vacuum that led to the rise of the Taliban and established Afghanistan as the global hub of Al Qaeda operations.
Obviously, that is the kind of situation the US is seeking to avoid by militarily propping up the Afghan National Unity Government, and by publicly telling Mr Ghani and Afghanistan’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, to stop bickering.
There is good reason to hope that the involvement of China, which wields huge influence in Pakistan, will help stabilise the situation in Afghanistan.
But it is the Afghan protagonists who must decide whether they wish to stop fighting. History tells us that the country has never seen more than a decade of peace at a time.
Tom Hussain is Asia-Pacific editor of The World Weekly