Leader's Death Revives Question: What Is Pakistan's Relationship With The Taliban?
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The Taliban in Afghanistan named a new leader after a drone strike in Pakistan killed its last one. He is a conservative cleric named Mawlawi Haibatullah. He was a chief justice handing down severe punishments back when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.
And he's apparently a compromise choice to avoid a power struggle by two younger candidates - one, the son of the Taliban's founder; the other, the son of the founder of a much more violent wing of the Taliban.
Swirling around that drone strike that took out Haibatullah's predecessor is the ongoing question of Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban. We reached New York Times reporter Mujib Mashal in Kabul on a Skype line. That - apologies, you will hear faltering at points.
The leadership of the Taliban has been living in the city of Quetta in Pakistan, across the border, for years. Why was he killed now?
MUJIB MASHAL: For 14, 15 years of the war, yes, the Taliban leadership has always been based in Quetta. No matter what happened in the battlefields in Afghanistan, they had this sense of protection. Then once they crossed over to Pakistan, they were safe. And the United States did not go after their sanctuaries because they didn't want to anger Pakistan.
They were hoping that at some point, they would reach some understanding with Pakistan that either Pakistan would bring them to negotiations or that Pakistan would crack down on them and it wouldn't have to get to this. But that got nowhere. So it seems like the pressure finally ran out.
MONTAGNE: So when the Pakistani government complains that its sovereignty has been compromised, is that for domestic consumption or for show?
MASHAL: It's really hard to tell. The Pakistanis may have helped the Americans target him. But on the other hand, there's a very public protest against the drone strike. So it is always hard to tell on part of the Pakistanis, just like it was when the Americans targeted bin Laden in
Pakistan. Did the Pakistanis help? Were the Pakistanis incompetent or complacent? But indications are that at least, the Pakistanis - they were frustrated with him over the past year because in a very public forum, he embarrassed the Pakistanis. Pakistanis were pledging in front of the Chinese, in front of the Americans, in front of the Afghans, that - we will bring this guy to talks.
And he refused to come. So he was an embarrassment in a way. But whether an embarrassment worthy of a drone strike that violates Pakistani sovereignty - hard to tell.
MONTAGNE: Does this, though, mean, potentially, that the Taliban can be brought to the peace table?
MASHAL: So one thing that could give us an indication is when Mullah Mansour, the one who was just killed in a drone strike, became leader last summer, there were talks that he's pro-peace. He wants to negotiate. That didn't turn out to be true because in the Taliban ranks, there wasn't much of a desire for peace talks.
So a leader is just an individual in a way. He can't go against the wave of feelings in the ranks. The same could be true with this new leader, especially when he's consolidating, especially when he's considered as not a heavyweight. He would have to go with the wave and what the movement feels.
MONTAGNE: Is he still living in Pakistan, in Quetta, the town where the Taliban leadership has been living for all these years?
MASHAL: All indications are that the new Taliban leader, Haibatullah, was selected in Quetta. The meetings and discussions to select him happened in Quetta. The only difference this time last summer, when there were these succession talks - it was out in the open. The meetings were very bold - large numbers - some of the Taliban leaders arriving in convoys of dozens and even hundreds of vehicles.
After the drone strike, these meetings have been very low key, underground. That idea of their sanctuary being invulnerable - that has burst. That's no longer there.
MONTAGNE: Mujib Mashal of The New York Times speaking to us from Kabul. Thank you very much.
MASHAL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.