Has the U.S. Finally Run Out of Patience With Pakistan?

The drone strike that killed Mullah Mansour might also have been a message to Islamabad.

Locals at a vehicle in which Afghan Taliban Chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour was believed to be traveling when it was destroyed by a drone strike in Ahmad Wal, Pakistan, May 21, 2016.

-/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, President Obama announced that Mullah Mansour, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, was killed in an American drone strike in Pakistan. The successor to Mullah Omar, who died in 2013, Mansour was known for his role in the opium trade, and for his close connection to elements of the Pakistani armed forces, which have long nurtured the Taliban. Analysts have interpreted the American strike as a signal to Pakistan to get serious about the peace process in Afghanistan and to stop harboring extremists.

To discuss the effects of the strike, I spoke by phone with Aqil Shah, a professor of South Asian Politics at the University of Oklahoma, and the author of The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan. We talked about the fraught relationship between America and Pakistan, the possibilities for peace in Afghanistan, and whether the strike marked the beginning of a significant shift in American policy. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Isaac Chotiner: What message do you think the Americans were sending to Pakistan with this drone strike?

Aqil Shah: There are two prevailing theories on what happened and why. One is that the Americans have lost patience with Pakistan and are ratcheting up the pressure by taking the fight to Balochistan, which has been this sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban. The other is that the Pakistanis were in on it and want to use it to get leverage over the United States by offering this in return for concessions or military aid.

My sense is that it is the former. The United States is trying to tell Pakistan that if it doesn’t act on Afghan Taliban sanctuaries, America might do so itself.

The America-Pakistan relationship has had a lot of ups and downs, but how do you think the Pakistanis will react to this latest strike?

So far [the military] has been relatively silent. It cleverly passed the responsibility to the civilian government. It isn’t like the Bin Laden raid, where there was complete embarrassment with the Americans coming in. They have reacted pretty harshly at other times. But this time they haven’t done much other than the customary, “oh, this is a violation of our sovereignty.”

The history of the American-Pakistani relationship suggests that after one side lashes out, things are papered over pretty quickly and we revert to the norm.

Yeah. The military is also concerned about pressure that is coming from the U.S. Congress on the sale of F-16s, which was approved by the administration, but where there has been resistance. That is probably one reason why there would not be a strong reaction. The military is keen to not have the F-16 deal scuttled.

Do you think this is the first of several American moves to finally take a harder line?

It’s unclear if this is the first step in a campaign where the U.S. will try and take out other targets or not. But it seems like it might be a one-off: The talks were deteriorating and the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating. And this is the Americans saying: We can do this at will. But it is too soon to say it is necessarily a shift by the Americans. It will depend on what happens, and the Taliban’s continued ability to use violence against Afghanistan’s civilians.

We have heard for 15 years that Pakistan has not done what it could do to crack down on elements of the Taliban that are being sheltered. Do you see any potential for change from the Pakistani military establishment now, with Obama’s term near its end, and conditions in Afghanistan deteriorating?

I have seen no indication that there is any rethink of Pakistan’s policies in terms of Afghanistan. Despite claims by the military that it was really going to carry out nondiscriminating counterterrorism, not differentiating so-called “good” and “bad” Taliban, I think they remain stuck in the past. They still think they can distinguish between “good” and “bad” Taliban and control outcomes in Afghanistan through their proxies. I don’t think there is any sense that this policy has had bad consequences. The military thinks it is the only way Pakistan can remain relevant in this dialogue, this potential peace-process—which is actually at a dead end.

Mansour, despite his closeness to Pakistan, had shown resistance to negotiating. Do you think the Pakistanis were actually pressuring him, and if so, why wasn’t he budging?

After Mullah Omar’s death was announced, there was a split in the Taliban. Mansour was anointed by Pakistan, and they invested in him as a leader. He was trying to consolidate his power base, which seems divided. If there was distance with Mansour in terms of coming to the table, that was probably because he didn’t want to be seen as Pakistan’s lackey, and was signaling to recalcitrant Taliban commanders that he was really able to continue to inflict damage on Afghanistan without being Pakistan’s proxy. He wanted to get internal cohesion, consolidate his power, and then take it from there.

What do you think the Pakistanis are aiming for in Afghanistan now? This is obviously a question people have been asking for decades.

I imagine it is not complete destabilization or chaos. I think what they want is to push back India in Afghanistan. That is the primary goal. And then have a regime that has the Taliban or other Islamist Pashtuns as part of the governing coalition. I think the whole point of the peace talks is to relegitimize the Taliban, and have them make a political comeback, while Pakistan plays the role of the guiding hand, and is able to make sure that its interests are protected. That’s the rationale behind the political process.

But, at the same time, given that the Taliban under Mansour have been making some pretty huge gains in Afghanistan, I think it is also about keeping the pressure up in case the talks fail. They are playing the notorious double game or triple game: talking, but also allowing for sanctuaries to be used to hike up the violence in Afghanistan, which has been pretty bad.

I am sure this double game will continue working well for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Indeed. Indeed.

Do you think America will try to make a settlement in Afghanistan without Pakistan?

If you look at the record, America has been concerned about not alienating Pakistan for the last 10 years or more. But the Afghans are clear about this, and the Americans know that one of the reasons the Taliban insurgency has been resilient is that they have sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan, in Balochistan. I think the Americans were thinking that Pakistan would probably deliver the Taliban, because they had influence over them. That hasn’t really worked. Pakistan claims they have control, but then they say, “well, we don’t have full control, we can bring them to the table but we can’t make them do things unless you promise something concrete.”

I was just wondering, if the Americans said, “fuck it, we don’t want to deal with you guys anymore”—

Yeah, I mean, Pakistan really is the primary spoiler in the process. Not that U.S. policy didn’t screw up majorly: 15 years down the road we still have the Taliban in a pretty important position. But without Pakistani support and sanctuaries, the Taliban would not be in the state they are now. Maybe the U.S. realizes it, and this attack signaled, “We have tolerated this shit for a long time and enough is enough.” It’s too soon to know. But to think about it rationally, the United States really should say, “fuck you.” They should have said it a long time ago.