On May 21, an American drone killed the Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour after he had crossed into Pakistan’s Balochistan province from Iran. Washington said he was killed because he blocked peace in Afghanistan and got American soldiers killed. Pakistan didn’t know how to respond. The foreign office took long till it was rebuked by a PPP leader Sherry Rehman running a think tank — Jinnah Institute — in Islamabad. Finally, it pleaded breach of sovereignty and called in the US ambassador to register protest.
Then, TV discussants pondered international law but soon came up against the right to pursue, that the Americans claimed. And no one paid heed to Urdu dares of retaliation against America. Awkward facts surfaced to embarrass even those inured against embarrassment over years of proxy aggression. Dead Mullah Mansour was Wali Muhammad on the passport he carried and had a flat in Karachi. Getting a genuine Pakistani passport and an ID card is no problem. A retired general on TV thought it was quite possible that the passport office window in Quetta was manned by an Afghan terrorist masquerading as a local Pakhtun, killing the Shia population of the city in off-time.
Quadrilateral peace talks (Afghanistan, US, China, Pakistan) were put off in 2015 because the world suddenly woke up to the fact that the Taliban chief Mullah Umar holding the talks had actually died two years earlier, probably in Karachi. Pakistan was always in denial. It denied Osama bin Laden was in Pakistan but was offended when the Americans killed him in the garrison city of Abbottabad and carried his body away. His successor, Aiman al Zawahiri, is somewhere around but this somewhere is more likely to be Pakistan rather than less-safe Afghanistan. More confusing are the whereabouts of old warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who has crossed the floor and joined the enemy of Pakistan, the Kabul government. Many think he will turn out to be biding his time comfortably in Peshawar.
Journalist Saleem Shahzad was killed in 2011 by no-one-knows-who after he revealed how al Qaeda ruled Pakistan. He had written: “At least 1,00,000 Pakistanis were active members of different jihadi cadres. Over one million students were enrolled in various Islamic seminaries, and there were several hundred thousand supporters of Pakistan’s Islamic religious parties.” Al Qaeda presided over this bazaar of killers bred by Pakistan.
Mullah Mansour’s exit, they say, leaves the Afghan Taliban in disarray. But that is exactly what the Pakhtun warriors like: Disarray in which no top leadership steps in to prevent the local warlord from doing what he wants. When Mansour was elevated there was disagreement among the Taliban; and after his “election”, this disagreement remained because his subordinates thought nothing of frequent insubordination. After Mansour, there is Mullah Umar’s son Yaqub who might take over, but the real strongman would thus be left out: Sirajuddin Haqqani. And that’s where Pakistan gets on the wrong side of the world: The Haqqanis enjoying safe havens deep inside Pakistan are thought to be Pakistan’s best bet against India in the next Indo-Pak proxy war to be fought in Afghanistan.
There is no doubt that Haqqanis getting on top of the Taliban in Afghanistan would find favour with some quarters in Pakistan unmindful of the way this would expose the country to global wrath. By creating chaos in which women and children suffer most, the jihad enthusiasts will take Pakistan from permanent instability to permanent conflict. As al Qaeda slips in the power-graph of West Asia, and more and more youth are attracted to Islamic State, Pakistan will have to be the test-tube in which the next jihad is born.
Strangely, Pakistan is not into navel-gazing after the latest death. It is busy getting angry with America and its rascally ally in the region, India. Its most anti-US army chief, Aslam Beg, gets up from his retired stupor to fire another shot across the bows of those who want Pakistan to wake up and change its thinking. On May 23, as Beg cursed America, a Pakistan Navy tribunal sentenced five naval officers to death for having joined IS and attacked the Karachi dockyard on its orders in 2014.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Living in denial’)