The ‘likely’ killing of Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a drone strike will incite further violence in Afghanistan.
News reports, quoting U.S. officials, say Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour has been likely killed in a drone strike near the town of Ahmed Wal in Balochistan. Some Taliban commanders, quoted by various outlets, have rejected the claim, while The Associated Press said Sunday one Taliban leader, Mullah Rauf, confirmed Mansour’s death.
Last year, reports circulated that Mansour had been killed in a gunfight. The Afghan government later rejected the reports as false.
The bigger issue here, however, is not whether Mansour is alive or has been killed, though if the news about his killing is correct, then the Taliban and with them Afghanistan enters another round of instability and infighting. The real issue is the great policy divergence between Pakistan and the U.S.-Afghanistan duo. The deep irony is that the three, along with China, form the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), which was supposed to get the talks process underway between Kabul and the Taliban.
The QCG, as I noted in a previous piece, is on life support. Kabul refused to send its official delegation to the 5th meeting in Islamabad on May 18 and the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Omar Zakhilwal, who represented Kabul made plain in his statement that the forum hadn’t delivered in terms either of talks or bringing down the level of violence in his country. With the U.S. strike on Mansour, QCG’s work is over without ever getting started.
Despite earlier optimism when the QCG was formed on the sidelines of the ministerial meeting of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process in Islamabad in December, and despite pro forma diplomatic statements at the end of every meeting, we now know that Pakistan and Afghanistan do not even agree on what roadmap was decided. This in itself is incredible, given that it stretches credulity to think that there’s no written document that lays down the roadmap and was agreed upon by the four countries of the QCG.
But this is not all.
Since the news of the death of Mullah Omar became public, Pakistan has been helping Mansour to emerge as the leader of the Taliban. This has been arduous. Mansoor faced much opposition from some members of the Rahbari Shura, as also Mullahs Mannan and Yaqoob, brother and son of Mullah Omar, respectively. It took a lot of effort for Mansour to eliminate opposition to his leadership and sideline his main opponent, Mullah Mohammad Rasool.
In doing this, Mansour had to pull in Sirajuddin Haqqani, bete noire of both Kabul and Washington. Mansour also had to show results on the ground to get firmly in the saddle. Under him the Taliban increased the tempo of attacks and mounted some spectacular attacks, including in Kabul.
This was a major bone of contention between Islamabad and Kabul and also Pakistan and the U.S. Last year in October, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif went to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama, the joint statement mentioned taking action against the Haqqani Network. However, at a speech at the United States Institute of Peace, Sharif made clear that Pakistan could not be asked to get the Taliban to the table and at the same time kill them, a clear reference to Haqqani and the fact that the group now provided the muscle to the leadership, and Mansour, emerging as the leader, was the best bet for talks.
Pakistan’s reasoning was sound, except for one flaw. It could not get Mansour to go easy on violence. That riled Kabul. President Ashraf Ghani’s primary concern, after demanding that Pakistan facilitate talks, was to get Pakistan to force the Taliban into bringing down the level of violence. Neither was happening.
The Taliban are amenable to some pressure from Pakistan but it is clear—or should have been clear—that their strategy will primarily be dictated by the situation on the ground, not by what Pakistan wants or wanted. The ground situation, for the most part, was going in their favor, with the ANSF taking heavy losses. The statement by Pakistan’s foreign secretary, Aizaz Chaudhry, that Kabul needs to get a grip on the ground situation voices this. His implication is that while we are trying, you need to punish them too in order for them to get to the table.
This resulted in two different sets of reasoning. Pakistan insists that any talks will have to be with the dominant group, that group being Mansour’s. Washington and Kabul have come round to assessing that Mansour is not amenable to talks at this point and needs to be eliminated. Pakistan doesn’t have any option but to ‘rely’ on Mansour’s group. Kabul and Washington can’t afford to wait until Mansour is done with violence and decides to come to the table, preferably from his viewpoint, from a position of strength. The timeline for that, all other things being equal, would be to see how the U.S. presidential election pans out and how long can the Unity government in Kabul survive.
That’s a very long timeline for Kabul and Washington.
Whether Mansour is dead or alive, and at this point perhaps more dead than alive, one thing is certain: the QCG, off life support now, the game’s focus has shifted from talks back to the use of force.
What does this mean?
It means more violence and it means further divergence between how Pakistan perceives the situation and what the priorities are for Kabul and Washington. If Mansour is indeed dead, it will be a blow to the Taliban, but it is unlikely to change the patterns of violence on the ground. It will also not lead any closer to talks which, in the end, is the only way out of the cycle of violence.
Violence could also spiral because the U.S. is most definitely also trying to track down Sirajuddin Haqqani. He will be a bigger prize, in fact. Would taking him out get the Taliban to the table? That’s anybody’s guess. Going by past experience, it’s highly unlikely.
Be that as it may, it is now clear that even as the QCG was deliberating on how best to get its job done, U.S. intelligence was trying to track down Mansour and waiting for an opportunity. Either the political representatives of the U.S. delegations to the QCG didn’t know this, or they did. Either way, it is likely to create more distrust between Pakistan and the U.S. and also between Islamabad and Kabul.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect, in part or whole, those held by Newsweek Pakistan.