US drone strike and ensuing controversy

WEB DESK: The killing of Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in a US drone strike in Balochistan has generated a lot of anger and indignation in this country.

The foreign ministry summoned the US Ambassador on Monday to express its “concern over the drone strike on Pakistani territory on Saturday” while a raging public debate has erupted involving violation of national sovereignty.

The conversation about sovereignty tends to turn to self-blame. Pakistan has been playing a duplicitous game, goes the argument, providing sanctuaries to the Taliban whilst offering support to an Afghan-led Afghan-owned peace process, which has invited the attack. First the sovereignty issue.

This is not the first time the US has resorted to a drone attack on Pakistani territory. Under the Musharraf regime and later the PPP government the US carried out countless drone strikes in Fata and four in settled areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well.

Although publicly both previous governments issued protest statements after each attack, in private they were known to give the nod to the US for indiscriminate killing of people on this county’s soil.

In fact former president Asif Ali Zardari was even quoted having told an American interlocutor not to worry about the ‘collateral damage’ – euphemism for the loss of innocent lives.

Despite the public disapproval, those strikes could be legally justifiable since they had the government go-ahead. In the present instance, there is reason to believe the strike came without government endorsement and therefore constitutes violation of this country’s sovereignty, deserving the strongest possible condemnation.

The US, of course, cares little about the legitimacy aspect of its actions. As regards providing safe havens to the Taliban leadership, the presence of the so-called Quetta Shura in Pakistan has been an open secret. In fact, only recently the prime minister’s adviser on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, openly stated during a panel discussion at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington that “we have some influence on them [the Taliban] because their leadership is in Pakistan, and they get some medical facilities, their families are here… so we can use those levers to pressurize them to say ‘come to the table”.

” Sheltering those people as unacceptable as it is, is a rather complex issue. Pakistan has all along been known to hedge its bets based on the thinking that ultimately the US will leave – like it did after achieving victory in its first proxy war in Afghanistan against the erstwhile Soviet Union, leaving behind a royal mess – but the Afghans fighting them are not going to go anywhere.

As a Taliban sympathiser famously remarked while talking to an American official in Kabul, “you have all the watches, but we have all the time.” Part of the problem with our Afghan policy is that, by default and/or wilful encroachment on civilian space, it has been taken over by those whose business it is not to decide matters of war and peace.

Hopefully the absurd desire to seek strategic depth in that country has been overcome. But to put things in perspective, complicating the situation are outside interests vying for influence in a post-war Afghanistan. Hence the duplicitousness of Pakistan’s policy to counteract what it sees as a threat to its longer term security.

The key concern of course is about India entrenching itself across the Durand Line, with the active support of elements within the Kabul government, to undermine the security and stability of this state. There is nothing new or surprising about Pakistan wanting to thwart its traditional rival.

The day President Obama announced the Taliban leader’s killing, he was in Vietnam where he signed a defense deal as part of his ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy which is aimed at encircling his country’s new rival, China, to counter its growing assertiveness in East Asia by expanding US’ military bases and renovating old ones in the region.

While making the announcement Obama said the drone strike that killed the Taliban leader was a “clear signal to the Taliban and others that we are going to protect our people. … We will work on shared objectives with Pakistan, where terrorists that threaten our nations must be denied safe havens.”

As noted earlier, the US had known all along about the presence of Afghan Taliban leaders in Baluchistan. Which merits the question why act now? The answer perhaps has something to do with Obama’s legacy worries during the last few months of his presidency.

It may be recalled that soon after taking office he had described the US’ war against Iraq as “a war of choice” and the one in Afghanistan” a war of necessity” that had to be won. While his presidency is near end the ‘war of necessity’ is nowhere near winning. The next best thing he could think of was to shift the blame onto Pakistan by assassinating the enemy’s top leader on its territory.

If the hope was that Mullah Mansour’s elimination would send the Taliban into disarray that was not going to happen, and has no happened.

Following confirmation of his death the Taliban have quickly and smoothly settled the leadership issue in a unanimous agreement at a Shura meeting, elevating one of Mullah Mansour’s two deputies, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a religious scholar, to the top position, and installing Mullah Omer’s son, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, in the vacated second spot while Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Haqqani network stays as deputy to the new ’emir’.

Akhundzada, say reports, is known as a hard-liner. The drone strike clearly has not achieved anything. The Taliban are likely to go into revenge mode and further escalate their spring offensive.

Mullah Mansour may have been dragging his feet but he was amenable to negotiate peace as demonstrated by his side’s participation in the first round of Pakistan hosted intra-Afghan peace talks in Murree back in July 2015.

Apparently he was biding his time to consolidate his control and bargain harder for settlement. His killing will further push back the peace negotiations, causing more death and destruction in that unfortunate country. –Business Recorder