It is very interesting to look back at the turn of events in the last one year or so.
In early July 2015, Pakistan ‘arranged’ for a meeting between the Taliban and the Afghan High Peace Council at Murree. Even the Haqqanis attended this meeting as were government representatives from the US, China and Pakistan (this was the precursor for what is now called QCG, Quadrangular Coordination Group). Pakistan earned brownie points for its ability to make the Taliban and the Haqqanis come to the negotiating table. In hindsight, it is clear that it was a big ruse. During the mujahideen days, the ISI retained the access to the seven mujahideen groups to itself and the US, China & KSA were allowed to distribute arms only through it. It is the same kind of leverage that the ISI has repeated now, by insulating the Taliban leadership from others. (The Doha office that the US setup precisely to break this stranglehod failed for various reasons). The Taliban delegation that was invited — Mullah Jalil, Mullah Hasan Rahmani and Abdul Razzaq — was the same trio that met a high-level Afghan delegation earlier in Urumqi, China two months earlier. This trio is very close to Mullah Akhtar Mansour who would take over the Emirship very shortly. That was not known at this time. As Gulbuddin Hekamtyar seemed to have been sidelined in the meetings, he announced his support for the IS. However, the Taliban exhibited a faultline when several young Taliban commanders decried those attending the Murree talks as ‘Pakistani puppets’ and not ‘real Taliban’ who they claimed were based in Doha, Qatar where the Taliban setup an office in c. 2013. However, many older Taliban leaders supported the talks. Let's remember that Mullah Omar's death was unknown at this time (It was announced on 28 July 2015).
In any case, the Murree talks resulted in the agreement to have the next round in mid-August, 2015 at Doha! The Murree talks were the latest in a spate of talks in Doha, China and even Norway. It had been reported that there were differences among the Taliban leaders on talks. For example, Taliban’s Deputy Emir (after Mullah Omar) and its political leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour (a Durrani), considered close to the ISI, favoured negotiation, while Abdul Qayum Zakir, Taliban’s military commander and former Guantanamo Bay detainee, was opposed to any talks. In late 2014, Mansour had sacked Zakir (who is aligned with Iran) from Taliban’s leadership council (which is also known as the Quetta Shura) and tightened his own position. Mullah Akhtar Mansour is deeply involved in the drug trade and his huge personal wealth amassed through this means was put to best use in winning over many to his side. Mansour-led leadership council had assigned Mullah Jalil, a former Taliban deputy foreign minister, to mediate between them and Taliban’s Qatar office, headed by Tayab Agha (son-in-law of Mullah Omar), which essays a more hardline stance. It was Jalil and two colleagues, Mullah Hassan Rahmani and Abdul Razaq, who held secret talks with Afghan officials in China in May 2015, which I alluded to earlier. Mullah Rahmani is a known ISI favourite.
The Qatar office was manned by hardline military commanders who did not favour a peace dialogue. Thus, by mid-2015 it was very much evident that the Taliban had split on the issue of talks. On July 28, 2015 the Afghan government announced that it had been informed by Pakistan that Mullah Omar died in April 2013. (Later reports emerged that he might have been killed by Mansour Akhtar and Gul Agha, his two trusted lieutenants who were now taking part in peace talks, but these have not gained traction subsequently). On 29th July 2015, the Quetta Shura (Rahbari Shura) formally elected Akhtar Mansour as the new Emir while Mullah Omar’s son Mohammed Yacoub and Mullah Omar’s brother Mullah Abdul Manan Hotak walked out of the shura protesting the choice. The shura was held in a madrassah in Quetta. This development led to the postponement of the second round of the Murree talks scheduled for August 1, 2015.
In the meanwhile, Tayyab Agha, the head of the Taliban’s political office in Doha resigned saying that he was uninterested in taking sides on the successor to Mullah Omar. He objected to keeping the death a secret for so long and then choosing an Emir on a foreign soil. Some say that Mansour ousted him from his position. It appeared then that in the days ahead, there would be a stiff competition between Mullah Omar’s son Yacoub and Mansour. Yacoub had earlier got the support of Sirajuddin Haqqani whom the Pakistani ISI presuurized to shift to Mansour. A grateful Mansour appointed Sirajuddin Haqqani as his Deputy. (In April 2016, reports appeared that Mohammed Yacoub has agreed to be a key commander under Akhtar Mansour) Another source of opposition to Mansour comes from the Peshawar Shura Military Commission of the Taliban headed by Qari Baryal. In the meanwhile, the IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), an important component of the Al Qaeda, which was targeted by the Pakistani Army as part of its Zerb-e-Azb naturally denounced Mansour’s actions and announced its support for the IS. This announcement was made by the senior IMU leader Saidullah Urgenji in August 2015. Due to Op. Zerb-e-Azb, IMU moved to the Tajikistan, Uzbekitan borders and has been operating in the adjacent Afghan provinces of Kunduz, Badakhshan, Takhar, Badghis and Faryab. However, on August 13, 2015, the Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri pledged his support to Mansour, thus showing that IMU might have also possibly split.
In November 2015, the dissident Taliban group which opposed Mansour’s imposition as Emir and which calls itself as “High Council of Afghanistan Islamic Emirate”, chose Mullah Mohammed Rasool, a long-time associate of Mullah Omar, as its Emir. Mullah Mansoor Dadullah -- brother of the top Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah Akhund, who was killed by British special forces in Helmand province in 2007 -- has been named as Rasool’s deputy. Under Taliban rule, Mullah Rasool was governor of Nimroz province.
Now, Mansour had to tackle two things. One, he needed to show to not only the Taliban cadres but also to the Afghan rulers, the Americans and the rest of the world that he was firmly in charge. Two, he needed to have talks from a position of strength (or, at least, that is what we thought. See my conclusion at the end.). Expectedly, a series of attacks rocked Kabul in the early half of August. In a suicide bombing using a truck full of explosives outside a police academy in Kabul on August 7, 2015, over 50 died and 400 were injured. Another suicide bombing on August 10, 2015 in Kabul led to 5 dead. These prompted the Afghan President Abdul Ghani to accuse Pakistan of sending ‘messages of war’. Responding to such accusations, a senior Pakistani diplomat had earlier made it clear that Pakistan could not fight “others’ war on own soil”. The Afghan Loya Jirga did not pass the MoU between the NDS and the ISI, much due to opposition from the CEO, Abdullah Abdullah. The Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship nosedived. The US National Security Adviser, Susan Rice arrived in Pakistan in early September, 2015 to bluntly tell the Pakistanis that attacks on Afghanistan came from Pakistan and Pakistan was not taking any action at all on the Haqqani Shura. She said that such attacks from Pakistan into Afghanistan were “absolutely unacceptable”. The Spring offensive of c. 2015 took a toll of 11,000 lives in Afghanistan. There was internecine war in the Zabul province between Mullah Dadullah’s forces (Mullah Dadullah refused to accept Mansour as the new Talibani emir) and Mansour’s. It was also reported that Mullah Dadullah had pledged his support to the IS.
Meanwhile, news emerged that the US was seriously reconsidering its timetable for the withdrawal of its residual forces form Afghanistan. As per the original timeline, the 10,000 US troops are to be reduced during 2015 to 5,000 and then gradually to a ‘normal’ embassy presence by 2016. There was argument from several Congressmen that such a drastic reduction would put to waste the 14 year effort of the US as it happened in Iraq where the American withdrawal led to the emergence of the ISIS.
On September 29, 2015, the Taliban started attacking Kunduz from all directions and over ran the city quickly seizing its control, releasing prisoners etc. The Afghan Army’s (ANSF) attempt to re-take the city from the Taliban ended in failure initially, and US support was called for before the city could be taken back after five days. The Taliban attack showed a grand coalition of Afghan Taliban, LeT, Arabas, Chechens, Uzbeks of the IMU and even Uyghurs of the ETIM. Could they be the nucleus of the Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinet (AQIS) that Ayman al Zawahiri announced in c. 2014? Soon, the real strategy behind the Taliban attack on Kunduz became clear when the Taliban (or AQIS?) attacked Maimana (capital of Faryab province) and Ghazni (capital of Ghazni province). Fighting also spread to Badakhshan and Takhar. The idea was to capture provincial capitals. Thus they want to reverse the usual saying that “those who rule Kabul, rule Afghanistan”.
In the light of the capture of Kunduz by the Taliban (AQIS?) for a week and their withdrawal from the city on their own volition, rather than through a decisive operation by the ANSF (the American airforce attacked a well identifies hospital run by the “Doctors Sans Frontiers” killing two dozen inmates, thus adding to the panic), the American side was shaken up and the President Barack Obama decided to halt the planned withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan until 2017.
In November, 2015, the Pentagon announced that it was no longer conducting counter-terrorism operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan because it viewed the group as an important partner in its efforts for restoring peace in the country. “What we’re not doing is counter-terrorism operations against Taliban,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis told a news briefing. “We actually view Taliban as being an important partner in a peaceful Afghan-led reconciliation process. We are not actively targeting Taliban,” he said.
On December 8, 2015, the Taliban attacked the Kandahar airport leading to the death of 50 military and civilian personnel. Two days later, on December 10, 2015, the chief of the Afghan spy agency, Rahmatullah Nabil resigned following differences with the President, Ghani, over approaches to dealing with the Taliban, including his friendly approach to Pakistan. He said the president had imposed unacceptable conditions on the way he did his job, with “repeated verbal summons” that put him under impossible pressure. He said the blood of innocent people spilled in recent attacks was “the same colour as the red carpet we trod like a catwalk” in an apparent reference to the red carpet and beyond-expected-protocol welcome to Ghani in Pakistan on December 9, 2015 when he came to attend a global conference, Heart of Asia. Surprisingly, Ghani himself outlined in several interviews that if peace talks with the Taliban did not produce results quickly, Afghanistan may not survive beyond c. 2016.
In early 2016, a Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States on Afghan Peace and reconciliation process was setup but the flux in the Taliban ranks after the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death and the opposition to the elevation of ISI-sponsored Mansour to Emirship led to non-participation in the first meeting in January 2016. The third round of the QCG was held in Islamabad on February 6, 2016 and it was announced that direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban would be held by the end of that month. The next meeting of the QCG would be held on the 23rd of February. Meanwhile, the Taliban office in Doha, Qatar had been taken over by the Akhtar Mansour faction and his trusted lieutenant Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai had been appointed the ‘political head’ there, in November 2015.
However, contrary to QCG’s expectations of talks in early March, the Mansour-led Taliban group laid down pre-conditions for resumption of talks, such as stopping all attacks on them and withdrawal of all ISAF troops. A statement by its spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the Taliban “reject” peace talks and that reports of their participation were “rumours.” It also said “(Islamic emirate) once again reiterates that unless the occupation of Afghanistan is ended, blacklists eliminated and innocent prisoners freed, such futile misleading negotiations will not bear any results”. Earlier, the Pakistani Foreign Advisor Sartaj Aziz had claimed that Pakistan could deny the Taliban access to their families, medical facilities, etc, if the group was not willing to partake in the peace negotiations. He even posited that the leadership could be expelled from Pakistan if they failed to comply; this was the first time ever such a threat was publically made by a senior official of Pakistan. Sartaj Aziz had thereby admitted that the Taliban leadership resided in Pakistan, a long-held suspicion. The Taliban kicked off their annual Spring Offensive (what the Taliban leadership council, Rahbari Shura, called as ‘Operation Omari’ in honour of Mullah Omar) on April 19, 2016 with a bloody truck-bomb attack with hundreds of kilogrammes of explosives on an elite division of the Afghan National Army in central Kabul killing 37 and wounding 300 more. This came after the brief take-over of Kunduz about six months earlier in September, 2015 and many significant attacks around the country even during the winter.
Following the Kabul attack, Afghan President Ghani called an extraordinary joint session of the Afghan Parliament (first time since 2001). In his address, Pres. Ghani termed the attacks as “undeclared war” which “ is not a civil war, but a war waged by terrorists and their regional supporters against our country”. Referring to the unfulfilled promise made by Pakistan to bring around the Taliban to the negotiating table, Pres. Ghani said, “Those who have failed to implement their commitments within this international framework or have been unwilling to implement them, are isolated more than ever today”. The Presidential Spokesman had been blunt earlier saying, “Pakistan is in a state of isolation. We want to use diplomatic initiatives to isolate Pakistan at the regional and international levels and to tell the world community where the terrorists are and which country and intelligence (agency) supports them.” Simultaneously, the US State Department said, “We have consistently expressed our concerns at the highest level of the Government of Pakistan about their continued tolerance for Afghan Taliban groups such as the Haqqani Network operating from Pakistani soil. And we did again – after this week’s attack [April 19, 2016 Kabul Attack] we have pressed the Government of Pakistan to follow up on its expressed commitment not to discriminate between terror groups regardless of their agenda or their affiliation by undertaking concrete action against the Haqqanis.” Ultimately, the US Congress in late April 2016, put its foot down on the sale of eight F-16 aircraft to Pakistan under US aid by asking it to pay the entire cost of USD 770 million.
On May 21, 2016, the US State Department said that a drone had killed the Emir of Taliban Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a remote area in Balochistan in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
I can only conclude that the PA/ISI imposed a pliable Mansour on the Taliban with the sole intention of hijacking the Afghan denouement. It was able to successfully smother opposition to him and in fact get Al Qaeda to support his elevation. This even proves that Al Qaeda is well under the ISI control now which is why I believe that AQIS is a PA/ISI creation. The PA/ISI was then able to sell a lemon to the desperate Americans and the Afghans that Mansour was interested in peace talks. A convenient time was chosen to announce the death of Mullah Omar. China was drafted into the 'peace talks' by Pakistan to balance the Americans. However, the PA/ISI and Mansour combo never had any intentions of peace. They wanted to use this as a cloak to gain territory, impose conditions and have their will prevail over desperate Afghans & Americans. Within the QCG itself, China could be used to goad the US to give more and more concessions to Pakistan and the Taliban. A desperate Afghan government and the US clung to straws in the wind, never learning from past mistakes in dealing with the PA/ISI. The PA/ISI-Mansour group almost succeeded. The turning point in the US attitude came in September 2015 (after the Kabul attack directly traced to the Haqqanis & Pakistan) when NSA Susan Rice sent a blunt warning to PA/ISI. The F-16 & Aid cutoff stem from there. The fact that the most intransigent Haqqani was the Dy. Emir of the Taliban gave away the game plan very eaarly on, but that seems to have been tragically overlooked. It appears to me that those Taliban (like Mullah Omar's son & brother) who broke away from Mansour returned to the fold after seeing the military actions he undertook. The pressing urgency now is the elimination of the Haqqani Shura.