The nature of warfare is constantly evolving. The rise of ISIS with its sophisticated use of technology for propaganda has revolutionized the War on Terroar. Today, disinformation and the use of cyber warfare is gaining momentum and showing how wars are likely to be fought in the future. On 21st May 2016, the world witnessed the death of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a drone strike by the United States in Pakistan. The strike was the last resort due to Mansour’s refusal to come to the negotiating table in the Afghanistan peace talks. Pakistan, the US’s ally in the War on Terror called the drone strike a violation of its sovereignty and “against international law”; completely bypassing its complicity in sheltering him on Pakistani soil.
Afghanistan’s peace talks though advocated as the larger good are completely about its $1 trillion mineral wealth. Afghanistan’s vast lithium, gold and copper reserves have sealed its fate forever. The stakeholders in this bounty are the US, China, Russia, and Iran. The US has been trying to bring the Afghan Taliban under Mansour for peace talks and was hoping for him to be more reasonable than his predecessor Mullah Omar. Qatar, another US ally is facilitating these talks; China has been in touch with Afghan Taliban since the 1990’s while Russia and Iran have been arming the Taliban to counter the influence of ISIS. The Afghan government was able to strike a peace deal with former Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar while the Afghan Taliban crucial for security in Afghanistan was not cooperating. In the wake of the US Congress denying Pakistan military aid for the F-16 jets and Pakistan’s increasing pivot to China, the Pakistani military and ISI were playing hardball with the US. After all, the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network are some of the most powerful assets of the ISI. The US knew it was time to teach Pakistan a lesson and show it who the boss is. Thus, mere hours post Pakistani Foreign Affairs advisor Sartaj Aziz’s statement that the Afghan Taliban was unwilling to come on board, a US drone strike took out Mullah Mansour.
The above is a brief summary of events as they were reported. However, there is an even more interesting story in the background that played an important role in maximising the impact of the drone strike ensuring that the Pakistani military, ISI and any other errant countries would think twice before crossing swords with the US again. Moreover, the US and other stakeholders in the peace process would gain a more pliable Afghan Taliban leader. The US administration in early 2016 had decided that the Afghan Taliban and Mullah Mansour would have to pay the price for disobedience. The US intelligence and other agencies started monitoring Mansour’s communication devices, tracking his locations and detecting his preparations for returning to Pakistan. They thus knew when he was likely to be in Pakistan next and also the route he took to reach Quetta from Iran and decided to strike. Simultaneously, days before the drone strike, on the 17th May 2016, a Twitter handle Paladin@virussec tweeted;
Paladin is a member of GhostSec, an activist hacker group and an offshoot group of Anonymous that has been launching cyber-attacks and taking down websites of ISIS, Taliban, etc. Moreover, GhostSec’s members are a global security group constantly gathering Intel on all extremist terror organizations globally to prevent the spread of their propaganda. Paladin claimed to be responsible for taking down both the official English language Taliban websites; Shahamat-english.com and shahamat-movie.com. The timing of this tweet a few days before the drone strike was interesting, to say the least, and a clear example of future hybrid warfare. This is not a one-off example. In January 2016, hacktivists began OpISIS to avenge the Paris attacks on Charlie Hebdo. These new vigilantes take control of the Jihadi websites, expose the identity of the supporters, kill communication tools, and share their wins on the internet creating a unique identity for themselves and though they do not claim to have any official allegiance to any country/intelligence agencies, their actions work beautifully in sync with covert intelligence ops.
Let us suppose the Taliban website was not taken down before the drone strike; it could have then been used to propagate that Mansour was alive, and the counter operation could have been launched through a doctored video. This would have lead to violence, social unrest and a total breakdown in peace talks. In case of another scenario, where a successor would have already been declared, the website could have been used to call for a counter strike to avenge the death of their leader again putting a break in the peace talks and causing much impediment to the Afghan Army and the NATO forces. With the use of social media and the internet gaining such importance for recruitment and propaganda; a timely launched cyber-attack in tandem with a conventional attack can almost paralyse the enemy. The US used hybrid warfare effectively by creating confusion about the whereabouts of Mansour’s status due to the official Taliban website being down and simultaneously sent a message through Russia that Siraj Haqqani would not be an acceptable choice for the leadership of Afghan Taliban. The new leader Haibatullah Akhunzada has stated that there will be no peace talks and terror on enemy will continue voicing the sentiments of his master, the ISI. Pakistan clearly seems to be in no mood to behave itself.
In Foreign Policy, there are no permanent friends or enemies just pure national interest. Hence, it should not come as a surprise that with the changing nature of warfare, the US is now using hybrid warfare to bring Pakistan to heel while Pakistan is gradually losing its leverage. The new Indo-US partnership and India’s Chabahar Port is likely to reduce Pakistan’s clout even further. The US will now have another gateway to Central Asia. As the Great Game of Central Asia heats up, the question that now comes to mind is how long will it be before the US starts using the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and other NGOs to advocate human rights and political reforms in Balochistan?