The death of Mullah Mansour and the appointment of the new Taliban leader (Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, a former head of the Taliban Courts) poses a true challenge to Pakistan, who is being pressed by Washington to prove its ability to counter terrorism before sending any more aid funds. But when this group is one of the many instruments of Pakistan's foreign policy (FP), we ask whether Pakistan will try to accommodate the Americans or look for military assistance elsewhere.
The Taliban have been suspicious of Islamabad for quite a while now, and when the organisation opened an office in Qatar, it was interpreted as a message to the Pakistani political echelon: we are stepping away from your sphere of influence. This is supported by the Taliban intentions to negotiate peace with Kabul and Washington only. But, in a typical political move, the group has not entirely discarded Pakistan just yet since they need the country as a safe haven (to hide, to regroup, to train, to re-supply etc) without which they would “not be able to keep their surge in the Afghan soil that would keep them relevant, perhaps give them an upper hand in the dialogue” (according to Suba Chandran).
Will Pakistan be able to find a replacement for him, or will the new Afghan Taliban chief be outside its hands? - D. Suba Chandran
The answer to the first question seems to be “no”. Emir Hibatullah Akhundzada, unlike his predecessors, did not receive his education in Pakistan; au contraire, he was fully raised and educated in Afghanistan, therefore it may be a bit difficult for Pakistan to bear an extended influence over this Islamic Scholar.
The Pakistani Dilemma
The ISI is now facing a dilemma: if they are on the brink of losing one of their FP instruments, and consequently their power of influence, this time they may have to actually do something to fight the group. If so, then Pakistan will have to consider shutting down the safe havens in its territory but once it does so it will unleash the rage of the Haqqani Network who is deeply linked to the Taliban – as Siraj Haqqani is the deputy leader of the movement.
Fighting the Taliban and the Haqqani Network within Pakistani borders (e.g. Waziristan) would mean waging battles on several fronts: the Islamic movement, terrorist groups (including Al-Qaeda, who is still hiding in the country) and the elements within the Pakistani security establishment who support such groups. This multi-layered battles would certainly destabilise the country and even generate the right environment for a civil war which, in the process, could result in an Islamist take over given the Islamic State's advances in Central and South Asia (which is not in the interest of anyone, in particular of India, Iran and China albeit for different yet similar reasons).
Pakistan is in a pickle. As a divided country with a divided leadership (between those who want to develop Pakistan by focusing on its ties with India, and those who want to keep the country the way it is and seek the destruction of India), it will have to eventually make a decision: either drop the support for terror Islamist movements and have the foreign assistance they so much need, or continue supporting such groups and be isolated till it is dragged into a civil war.
Pakistan's Lack of Options
It has been reported that the country intends to turn to Russia if the US doesn't help with the funding of two F-16s and aid, but though the Russians may be more than willing to sell jets and weapons to the Pakistani, how interested are they in becoming their patron?
At the moment, Russia is more interested in encouraging the US to converse with the EU to ease the sanctions, without jeopardising its interests in the Balkans and the Black Sea (to that end it may negotiate with the Americans and show willingness to make certain concessions). The Russians are also very much involved with Syria and Iran (and everyone within the Iranian sphere of influence), the rivals of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, therefore we are not sure how appealing it would be right now to support a Saudi satellite in central Asia. Besides, Pakistan supports Islamist terror groups, that obviously does not control (much like its patron – Saudi Arabia), and Russia is not interested in worsening its own domestic Islamist problem.
The US is not particularly worried about Pakistan's threats because now it has India on its side (a democracy, a much more organised country, less corrupt, more functional etc), therefore, the Pakistani lost its bargaining position near the Americans; but since it's not in the United States' interest to isolate Pakistan due to their nuclear programme (and because it's good to keep them near to control them, to prevent them from falling entirely into China's sphere of influence [which at this point could be dangerous, given the tensions in the South China Sea], to help protect India, to avoid destabilising the region) and to safeguard the kosher connections within the Pakistani establishment - who in the future may influence a more expedient outcome – we do not see the Americans letting them fall completely; and we wouldn't be surprised if India (through back doors) would be helping both sides finding a solution to the problem.
So, Pakistan has to weight its options very carefully and be wise. The political environment is changing and while threats may have worked in the past, they don't work in the present as interests and political alliances are shifting...
[The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dissecting Society]