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The fallout from the assassination of Mullah Mansour

Posted By on May 25, 2016 @ 14:30

Image courtesy of Flickr user Beluchistan

On 21 May, Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansour, leader of the Afghani Taliban, was assassinated by an American drone strike in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, just across the border with Afghanistan. Mullah Mansour’s death was announced by President Obama [1] during his visit to Vietnam. It’s the most successful American operation [2] in the region since the elimination of Osama Bin Laden five years ago. The political decapitation of the Afghan Taliban will have far-reaching consequences at three levels: on internal Taliban dynamics; on the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan; and on US–Pakistan relations. Let me address those in that order.

On Monday the Taliban leadership met to start the process of choosing a new head. There’s a sense that it’s important a new leader be agreed to quickly to avoid the long, acrimonious discussions that took place last year [3] to replace the previous leader, Mullah Omar.

Most experts would agree that the choice of a new leader will come down to three individuals. A favourite for the position is the powerful Sirajuddin Haqqani [4], at present one of the two deputy leaders and head of the notorious al-Qaeda-affiliated Haqqani network which has given so much grief to American and Coalition forces over the years—and still does [5]. Despite a reputation for ruthlessness [6], he was instrumental in bringing together all the different Taliban factions [7] following the selection of Mullah Mansour as leader last year. Haqqani has a US$5 million bounty [8] on his head.

Another candidate for the job is Haibatullah Akhundzada, the other deputy leader of the Taliban and a cleric. He comes from Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, and had the trust of the late Mullah Omar [8]. That gives him an edge over Haqqani, who comes from the eastern part of Afghanistan.

The third of the contenders is Mullah Omar’s 27-year-old son, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob. He has already been a strong, charismatic and popular candidate during the last selection process—and he was very unhappy that he didn’t get the job the last time. Being the son of the founder of the Taliban gives him an edge and some feel that he would be less of a divisive figure [9].

It’s difficult to assess with certainty so soon after the event what impact the removal of Mullah Mansour will have on the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan, specifically on the talks convened by the US, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan [10] earlier this year. However, one thing is certain: given Mansour’s active opposition to the talks, the peace process was going nowhere. So depending on his replacement, there may well be an opportunity to move those talks forward. That’s why both President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah welcomed the news of Mansour’s death [11].

If Mullah Yaqoob, who’s reportedly receptive to the talks [7], becomes the new leader, then there may be a glimmer of hope that the peace process may move forward. However, if Haqqani is chosen, then we might as well forget the talks. It’s important to remember that it’s under Haqqani’s critical leadership position in the Taliban that there’s been such a substantial increase in deadly attacks [5] in Kabul and elsewhere. And regardless of who eventually gets the top job, we can expect some nasty retaliatory terrorist acts in the near future to avenge the death of Mullah Mansour.

Importantly, even if a pro-talks leader emerges, it won’t be easy to sell the idea of negotiations to the Taliban governors, leaders and commanders given how well the Taliban is doing on the battlefield; it’s now in control of at least one-fifth of Afghanistan [12]. Washington-based experts and analysts generally agree that there’s little incentive for the Taliban to enter into negotiations with Kabul, at least at this time. However, one thing may nevertheless focus the Taliban’s minds on that issue. The drone strike on Mullah Mansour has sent one clear message to whoever is the next Taliban leader: unless you enter peace negotiations in good faith, you will be fair game anywhere, anytime, with no place to hide—including in Pakistan.

Third, it’s obvious that the elimination of Mansour will have a major negative impact on an already fragile relationship between the US and Pakistan. Although Pakistani leaders should be pleased that the Taliban head has been removed from the equation—given that the Pakistan military announced publicly some two years ago [13] that all terrorists would be hunted down—they would be fuming with rage. Mullah Mansour was always considered ‘their’ man and the lack of pre-warning before the attack would have upset them. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s official reaction was relatively muted.

There was an unwritten agreement between Washington and Islamabad that the Taliban leadership was off limits, as were drone attacks in Baluchistan, where Taliban leadership had been given refuge by Pakistani authorities. All previous drone attacks [14] (almost 400 of them) had all taken place in the tribal areas of Pakistan, north of Baluchistan. This is now off. The Obama administration has sent a clear message to military and civilian leaders in Pakistan that the US will no longer turn a blind eye to Islamabad providing safe havens to the Taliban and their fellow ideological travellers who threaten the lives of American and other Coalition forces in Afghanistan. Put differently, if in the future Islamabad doesn’t put genuine pressure on the Taliban to come to the negotiating table, it could expect more of these sort of drone attacks on the Taliban leadership. Complaining about the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, as it did in this case [15], would make no difference.

While President Obama’s decision to eliminate Mullah Mansour appears to be an escalation of America’s war in Afghanistan, it’s no more than a continuation of his 2009 objective of ‘disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaeda and its extremist allies [16]’. Why the Taliban leadership wasn’t targeted earlier is difficult to understand. And while this successful attack on the Taliban will give the Obama administration a badly needed boost of credibility to its battered foreign policy, Afghanistan will continue to be an unresolved issue waiting for the next occupant of the White House.

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URLs in this post:

[1] announced by President Obama: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/05/23/statement-president-death-taliban-leader-mansur

[2] most successful American operation: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/22/world/middleeast/us-drone-strike-targets-taliban-leader.html?_r=0

[3] the long, acrimonious discussions that took place last year: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/01/world/asia/taliban-leader-announcement.html

[4] powerful Sirajuddin Haqqani: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/06/world/asia/consolidating-power-taliban-leader-gives-senior-posts-to-skeptics.html

[5] and still does: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/world/asia/haqqanis-steering-deadlier-taliban-in-afghanistan-officials-say.html

[6] reputation for ruthlessness: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704561004575012703221192966

[7] instrumental in bringing together all the different Taliban factions: http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/taliban-official-group-leader-killed-drone-strike-39285037

[8] Haqqani has a US$5 million bounty: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-afghanistan-taliban-successor-idUSKCN0YD0H6

[9] some feel that he would be less of a divisive figure: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-afghanistan-taliban-idUSKCN0YC0P6

[10] talks convened by the US, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/06/world/asia/taliban-say-they-wont-attend-peace-talks-but-officials-arent-convinced.html

[11] welcomed the news of Mansour’s death: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/05/22/479072670/afghan-government-says-u-s-drone-strike-killed-taliban-leader

[12] control of at least one-fifth of Afghanistan: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/09/29/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-maps.html

[13] announced publicly some two years ago: http://tribune.com.pk/story/794198/army-to-ensure-terrorists-are-unable-to-reestablish-their%20base-in-pakistan-coas-tells-us-senators/

[14] All previous drone attacks: http://www.longwarjournal.org/pakistan-strikes/

[15] as it did in this case: http://www.dawn.com/news/1260181/islamabad-voices-concern-to-us-envoy-over-air-strike-inside-pakistani-territory

[16] disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaeda and its extremist allies: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-address-nation-way-forward-afghanistan-and-pakistan

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