The Taliban have a new leader — Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, one of the deputies of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was taken out by a US 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. 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. 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 sapping its morale and disrupting long-term planning.
Pakistan’s official response has been quite predictable, accusing the US of crossing the ‘red line’. The US is signalling that it is now willing to take the fight to Afghan insurgents in Pakistani sanctuaries.
For some time now Pakistan’s efforts to broker peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government have been going nowhere. Despite cooperating with the US in targeting al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban leadership, the Pakistani military had been protecting the Afghan Taliban, refusing strikes in Baluchistan.
Pakistan’s unwillingness to fully cooperate in the fight against the Taliban has had some far-reaching consequences. Recently, the US Congress has asked Islamabad to pay for the F16s it wants and is also tightening the screws on disbursal of military aid. As the Taliban expanded its operations in Afghanistan’s south, the Obama administration decided to do away with its earlier restrictions on the numbers of strikes, 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. 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 defence studies, King’s College London.
The views expressed are personal.