So Taliban supremo Mullah Mansour’s white Toyota Corolla was rattling across the Baluchestan desert just after it had crossed the Iranian border when a Hellfire missile fired from a US drone incinerated it into a charred / twisted wreck.
That’s the official narrative. The Pentagon said Mansour was on Obama’s kill list because he had become “an obstacle to peace and reconciliation.”
There’s way more to it, of course. Mansour was a savvy businessman who was extensively traveling to Dubai – the Taliban’s historic clearing house where all sorts of dodgy deals are made. He was also in close connection with Jundullah – a.k.a. the hardcore Sunni anti-Tehran militia very much active in Sistan-Baluchestan province in Iran.
This time Mansour was in Sistan-Baluchestan on a medical visit – allegedly to eschew hospitals in Pakistan heavily monitored by the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence]. Yet arguably Pakistan intel knew about it – so US intel also may have known about it and thus were able to track him.
But then there’s the real ace in the hole: the New Opium War.
The usual suspects in the Beltway insist that the Taliban profit handsomely from overseeing the opium trade out of Afghanistan –and now operate as a multi-billion-dollar drug cartel. That’s nonsense.
Bets can be made that Mansour’s kill will not reduce Afghanistan’s opium production – which has been steadily on the rise for years now. Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, Mansour’s former number two, has been designated as the new leader.
The fact is, poppy production in Afghanistan remains at the highest levels in provinces that are – in thesis – controlled by Kabul. More opium was produced last year – also in thesis the last year of NATO’s Enduring Freedom operation – than in any other year since the UN started tracking it way back in 2002. In 2016 Afghanistan will produce more opium – thus heroin – than the entire global consumption.
An inkling of what’s really going on in the New Opium War is provided by a recent book (in Italian) by Enrico Piovesana. He tells of shady military operations conducted by NATO in which massive quantities of opium have been sequestered by helicopter – never to be seen again.
So we’re back to the same old CIA opium rat line, which translates into control of the Afghan opium market in collusion with local police, military high brass in Kabul and the Karzai family, of former President a.k.a. «mayor of Kabul» Hamid Karzai. Doing business with narco traffickers has also handily provided liquidity – as in dirty money – to Western big banks. None of this has anything to do with the Taliban, which actually brought down opium production to near zero in 2001, before 9/11 and the American bombing/occupation of Afghanistan.
Those shadowy Af-Pak players
The first US drone strike ever in Baluchestan (another Obama «first») remains something of a mystery. A credible working hypothesis is that this was a covert US-Pakistani co-op. The hit allegedly came via the Pentagon, not the CIA. Mansour’s Corolla was something like 40 km inside Baluchestan after it had crossed the border – in an area where US drones would have been quite vulnerable to upgraded (in 2011) Pakistani air defenses.
A plausible – but unconfirmed – scenario would see RQ-170 Sentinels tracking Mansour’s Toyota, with the coordinates then fed to Reaper drones flying out of Kandahar airfield. Assuming the drones began tracking the Toyota at the Iran-Pakistan border, they would have been in action over Baluchestan air space for hours on end, undisturbed.
But then there are the incongruities. Pakistani sources mention that the Toyota – as in any real drone hit – was not totally smashed, but was still on its wheels. And a mysterious passport (Mullah Mansour’s) also showed up on the scene, unscathed.
As for the original HUMINT that led to Mansour’s trail, the notion that Washington had scored it stretches credulity. It would be more like a very well placed/rewarded asset somewhere – be it a military in Kabul or a disgruntled ISI operative.
What was Mansour really up to? He was quite savvy in playing for time. He clearly saw through the US «strategy» – which boiled down to encouraging Afghan president Ashraf Ghani to convince Islamabad to get the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Mansour though knew the Taliban could always advance militarily without negotiations; that’s why he duly announced the 2016 spring offensive – an annual Taliban ritual. At the same time he was very careful not to antagonize Islamabad so Taliban safe havens in Pakistan would not be compromised.
As far as what Islamabad is up to, that’s way hazier. Islamabad’s man in the Taliban succession was actually Sirajuddin Haqqani. After the death of his notorious father, Haqqani leads the homonymous network – which is very cozy with the ISI, arguably closer than the traditional Kandahar/Quetta Shura, a.k.a. the historic Afghan Taliban.
The new Taliban supremo will now have a handy window of opportunity to consolidate power. By early 2017 there will be a new US president, a new Pakistani army chief but the same Afghan so-called National Unity Government still disunited. The Taliban know what they want; be part of the government in Kabul, and get their cut in case the fractious Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline will ever be built. The more things change in Afghanistan, the more they hark back to two decades ago, during the second Clinton administration.
Meanwhile, former CIA asset, former pal of Osama bin Laden and still one of the US’s Public Enemies, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, defined by Washington as a «global terrorist» and the leader of the Hezbi Islami organization, is about to close a deal with Kabul.
Hezbi Islami is the second largest «insurgency» in Afghanistan. Most of the top brass have defected to the Taliban. Hekmatyar lives in exile somewhere in Pakistan; the ISI, of course, knows all about it. So if Ghani in Kabul can’t bag the Taliban, at least he bags a currently much smaller fish, Hekmatyar. Does it help? Not really. It will fall eventually to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – as in Russia-China joint leadership – to solve the Taliban riddle. Certainly not to Operation Enduring Freedom Forever – no matter the size of their kill list.
This piece was first published at the Strategic Culture Foundation.