By Nicholas Wadhams and Kamran Haider
The U.S. drone strike that killed the Taliban’s top leader as he traveled through Pakistan reflects just how much the U.S. is willing to disregard an ally it increasingly sees as an obstacle to securing peace in Afghanistan.
The May 21 killing of Mullah Akhtar Mansour was an embarrassment to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government because it highlighted how — five years after commandos killed Osama Bin Laden near an elite military academy — a top threat to the U.S. was able to enter and leave the country with impunity. It was also a departure for U.S. strategy because it occurred in Baluchistan province, beyond the tribal areas where drones typically operate.
The strike, which both sides said was carried out without Pakistan’s knowledge, was the latest signal by the U.S. of just how much mistrust has deepened as a result of Pakistan’s continued, if tacit, support for the Taliban. It also shows how difficult it will be for the U.S. to reach a true end to its longest war.
“The reality of the signals that are coming from both the executive branch and the Congress are that we’re finally getting to the point where we’re not going to accept the kind of discussions we’ve been having with the Pakistanis for the last four years,”’ said James Cunningham, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan who’s now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
Even the funds that are set aside for Pakistan come with a caveat: Congress has mandated that at least a third of that money be withheld unless Pakistan makes progress fighting militants in the areas bordering Afghanistan.
“A unilateral strike on Mansour would be one more indication that the relationship was not on the solid footing that both sides have claimed since repaired bilateral relations a few years ago,” said Stephen Tankel, a former senior adviser to the Defense Department who is now a professor at American University. “So patience is definitely wearing thin.”
Pakistan argues that it maintains contacts with the Taliban to prod it toward participation in the talks. The perception that Pakistan controls the Taliban has led to “unrealistic expectations,” Sartaj Aziz, Prime Minister Sharif’s foreign affairs adviser, said last week.
“In our view there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan,” he said, adding that 60,000 Pakistanis have died in the fighting. “The use of force for the past 15 years has failed to deliver peace.”
Bin Laden Killing
Still, the U.S. has for years expressed dissatisfaction about Pakistan’s role in tolerating or even aiding the Taliban, branches of which have long had ties with the country’s intelligence service. That frustration peaked after bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. special forces in the northern city of Abbottabad in 2011. But since NATO combat operations officially ended in Afghanistan in 2014, the U.S. has found more room to act because it no longer depends on Pakistan to maintain battlefield supply routes.
Despite an initial desire not to provoke Pakistan — when announcing the Mansour strike, the State Department would say only that it took place in the Afghan-Pakistan border region — officials there have been explicit about their frustration.
“We have been very clear-eyed and very clear in our interaction with Pakistan where we’ve believed that they need to do more to root out terrorists who find safe haven on some of their territory,” Deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters May 24.
The Taliban said after Mansour’s death that he lived in Pakistan and often traveled to the United Arab Emirates for meetings where he raised funds for the insurgency. Pakistani officials have said he traveled on a false passport. Pakistan has a large Pashtun population that shares the ethnicity of most Afghan Taliban militants.
While the U .S. calculus is changing, so is Pakistan’s. As the U.S. withdraws, Pakistani leaders are looking to China and Russia to form alliances, as well as to counter Iranian and Indian influence in Afghanistan.
Pakistan-China trade has surged to about $21 billion in 2015 from about $5 billion in 2009. Over that period, total U.S.-Pakistan trade has stayed in the $5 billion to $6 billion range. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s military depends to an important degree on a continuing alliance with the U.S., in part to maintain leverage against India, its main rival.
“The Pakistanis are not at this point of time putting their eggs in one basket,” said Najam Rafique, director of the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. “They have now a choice of basket that they can pick and choose. But they still want to have a workable relationship with the United States of America.”
The U.S. must now decide how far it wants to push this campaign or maintain the precedent of drone strikes on Pakistani soil, outside the lawless border regions with Afghanistan. A single strike in a province like Baluchistan is one thing, but a sustained campaign in other parts of Pakistan is another, according to Michael Kugelman, the senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Even though ground operations have decreased, the U.S. still has more than 9,000 troops in Afghanistan. And Pakistan still has enormous strategic importance — the Federation of American Scientists estimated in 2015 that the country has 110 to 130 nuclear warheads, an increase of about 20 from 2011.
“There is one potential game-changer that could really doom the U.S.-Pakistan relationship and that is if the U.S. does, against the odds, decide to launch additional drone strikes — take the war into Pakistan,” Kugelman said. “That would really ramp up the pressure on Pakistan, and I think it would make it very difficult for the relationship to continue as we know it.”