Mansour strike highlights tense US-Pakistan relations
May 26, 2016
KABUL, Afghanistan — The killing of the Taliban’s top leader by U.S. drones on Pakistani soil could signal that Washington is finally running out of patience over Islamabad’s failure to crack down on Afghan insurgents who use Pakistan as a sanctuary.
Mullah Akhtar Mansour, successor to Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, died Saturday while traveling by car in a remote area along the border with Afghanistan.
It was the most significant U.S. incursion into Pakistan since al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs five years ago at his hideout near the Pakistani military academy.
President Barack Obama said the latest strike, which Pakistan protested as a violation of its sovereignty, was justifiable self-defense because Mansour posed a threat to American troops and their allies in Afghanistan.
Many believe the attack was also a message to Islamabad — a nominal U.S. partner in the fight against terrorism — that it is time to stop allowing the Taliban and other insurgents to use sanctuaries in Pakistan to prolong the fight against Afghan forces and their international allies.
“I think that the U.S. is fed up,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a veteran Pakistani journalist who has covered the Taliban since the 1990s.
Pakistan has been closely involved in Afghan affairs since 1979, when it acted as conduit for the U.S.-backed mujahedeen fighting the Soviet-installed secular regime. In the mid-1990s Islamabad started backing the Taliban as part of its continuing confrontation with archenemy India. It saw the religious extremists as a reliable ally that could provide Pakistan with the necessary strategic depth in case of another all-out war with its much stronger neighbor.
Although Islamabad publicly broke with the Taliban under U.S. pressure in 2001, it has regularly been accused of covertly backing the movement and harboring Taliban leaders.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the strike against Mullah Mansour was an attempt to “literally blow up the Pakistani policy of maintaining ties” with the Taliban.
Pakistan claims it was not informed of the strike until after it was carried out, which Yusufzai said shows U.S. mistrust of the Pakistanis, whom Washington has long suspected of playing a “double game.”
Despite Pakistan’s denials, evidence of Pakistani duplicity in the Afghan war has been mounting for years.
Last year, Pakistani officials confirmed that Mullah Omar had died in 2013 in a hospital in Karachi, the country’s largest city.
The Haqqani network, an especially violent insurgent faction, is believed to operate out of Pakistan. Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the network as a “veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency,” a branch of Pakistan’s armed forces.
Afghan officials have seized on the news of Mansour’s death to highlight Pakistan’s ties to insurgents.
“The Haqqani network is in Pakistan,” Afghan Gen. Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, said Sunday. “Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden were in Pakistan, and now Mullah Mansour was killed in Pakistan’s Baluchistan” province.
For years both Democratic and Republican administrations have grudgingly tolerated Pakistan’s ties to extremists because the U.S. needs Islamabad’s support in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world.
After nearly 15 years of war, patience is running out, especially on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said U.S. lawmakers have also grown weary of Pakistan’s conflicting interests — it receives assistance from the U.S. but aids or turns a blind eye to terrorists on its soil who target Americans.
“I think there’s certainly a growing impatience in Congress,” Schiff said.
Since 2002, the United States has pledged more than $26 billion in economic aid and military reimbursements to Pakistan.
But as the war in Afghanistan has dragged on, Congress has begun to put strict conditions on some of that assistance, hoping to pressure Islamabad for greater cooperation in denying insurgents a base of operations within Pakistan’s borders.
Earlier this month, the State Department told Islamabad that, “given congressional objections,” it would need to self-finance a $699 million deal to purchase up to eight Lockheed Martin Corp. F-16 fighter jets, radar and other equipment from the U.S.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he would block U.S. financing for the F-16 sale because of Pakistan’s harboring of terrorists.
After the Mansour strike, he said in a statement that the Taliban could be weakened more quickly “if Pakistan would play a more constructive role.”
Schiff said that while Pakistan has objected to the strike, the response has been somewhat “muted,” likely because Islamabad knows it’s on shaky ground with U.S. leaders.
“I think that Pakistan must realize that they’ve got some serious problems in Congress, in terms of the relationship,” Schiff said. The Pakistanis are “desperately eager to have the support and military aircraft and don’t want to jeopardize that.”
While Islamabad has argued that a peace agreement, rather than military action, is the best end to the 15-year war, it has so far failed to coax the insurgents into four-country peace talks, a situation that has heightened tensions with Kabul.
Since a massive suicide bombing attack in Kabul on April 19 that Afghan intelligence officials have said was planned in Pakistan, Kabul has stepped up its accusations that Islamabad has not done enough.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called on Islamabad to crack down on the militants after the bombing.
Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the independent Afghanistan Analysts Network, said the Mansour killing could be a signal to Islamabad that the West is “taking sides with Afghanistan.”
Barnett Rubin, a former State Department official who is an expert on the region, said that instead of trying to lure the insurgents to the negotiating table with offers of concessions, Islamabad “should say to the Taliban that their time to stay in Pakistan is coming to an end, which is what this strike was meant to say.”
While Pakistani leaders are cautious about how much pressure they will put on the Taliban, Yusufzai said Saturday’s strike in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province has “inserted a new element of violence.”
“This is like a warning: Either you do it, or we do it.”