Afghanistan’s spy agency and Taliban sources are both confirming that Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Balochistan, Pakistan, on Saturday. As The Diplomat discussed yesterday, Mansour was targeted after the United States deemed him to be “actively involved with planning attacks against facilities in Kabul and across Afghanistan, presenting a threat to Afghan civilians and security forces, [U.S.] personnel, and Coalition partners.”
A lot remains uncertain about the circumstances of the strike. In particular, over the coming days, weeks, and perhaps even months, I’d look forward to learning more about the following:
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The 2011 covert U.S. operation against Osama bin Laden stirred up a hornet’s nest between Pakistan and the United States, two allies that certainly don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues, particularly terrorism. In the case of the strike against Mansour, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed that Pakistani and Afghan leadership had been told of the strike, but did not specify whether this was before or after it had occurred.
More recent reports by Dawn, citing a statement released by the Pakistani Foreign Office, suggest that the Pakistanis had been notified of the strike “a day earlier.” (The report specifies that both Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister, and General Raheel Sharif, the powerful chief of army staff, had been notified.) “John Kerry telephoned me yesterday night and told me about the drone strike,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said. Sharif and the Foreign Office both predictably noted that the strike violated Pakistan’s sovereignty, without discussing how Mansour might have come to be within Pakistani borders.
Indeed, given the immediate transparency on the U.S. side and the fact that this was a Special Forces drone strikes, under the oversight of U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, it may be true that the United States chose to notify both sides in advance. (The 2011 operation against bin Laden was a covert Central Intelligence Agency-led operation.)
Where did the United States source the intelligence for the strike?
This might be one of those questions that’s never quite answered in the public domain, but it is highly notable that Mansour was struck in Balochistan. This drone strike marked the first U.S. operation of the sort in Balochistan; previous strikes had been restricted to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Amid a domestic insurgency against the Pakistani state, Pakistan’s military and ISI maintain a tight grip on Balochistan. Incidentally, Quetta, the provincial capital, has been home to the Afghan Taliban’s leadership since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Given the stakes involved in striking a high-value target like Mansour in Balochistan, the United States had probably acquired particularly watertight intelligence. A failed strike that killed either innocents or Taliban leaders other than Mansour could have been a fatal mistake, prompting a well-coordinated Taliban response. It’s unlikely that the United States would have the sort of deep access to human intelligence necessary in Balochistan on its own (i.e., without the complicity of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence), but, if it did, it would be quite remarkable.
The flipside–assuming the complicity of Pakistani intelligence in the strike–also raises the question of why Pakistan’s military-intelligence interests would want to give up Mansour at this time. While the Pakistani military has targeted the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) within Pakistan, the ISI has cultivated a long-standing relationship with the Afghan Taliban. Before this strike, there were few indications that Mansour would have become irreconcilably hostile to Pakistani interests. (That, of course, brings us back to the conclusion that the United States sourced good enough intelligence inside Balochistan on its own.)
Who steps into Mullah Mansour’s shoes?
Mansour’s death will throw the Taliban into another crisis of leadership. Last year, after the group confirmed that Mullah Mohammed Omar, the group’s long-time leader, had been dead since 2013, there was a protracted leadership struggle. Mansour triumphed over other pretenders to the Taliban throne, including Mullah Yacub, Omar’s eldest son, and Mullah Manan, Omar’s brother. (Both Manan and Yacub swore their allegiance to Mansour after an initial period of protest.) After the 2015 leadership crisis, Mullah Mohammad Rasool formally broke off from Mansour’s Taliban, setting up his own splinter group in the west, with close ties to Iran.
Under Mansour, Sirajuddin Haqqani rose through the ranks to become the group’s deputy leader (effectively occupying the position that Mansour himself held under Omar). Haqqani, of course, wears another hat as the leader of the infamous Haqqani Network, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization that the Pakistani military has been hesitant to target. (One of the factors that led to congressional outcry against the sale of U.S. F-16s to Pakistan recently was precisely Rawalpindi’s lethargy in striking Haqqani targets.)
With Mansour out of the picture, Sirajuddin Haqqani could come to take over the Taliban. (Manan and Yacub’s initial break with Mansour have likely cost them the sort of widespread support necessary to step in.) There have been murmurs that Haqqani’s surge through the Taliban ranks was specifically engineered by the ISI. For instance, in a recent New York Times report, a former Afghan intelligence chief notes that “The ISI brought Sirajuddin as the deputy to the Taliban to give him protection, so if the peace talks get serious, the Americans wouldn’t be able to say, ‘We will make peace with the leader but not with the deputy.’”
Incidentally, should Haqqani succeed Mansour, it would lend credence to the idea that the ISI may have willingly parted ways with Mansour. Haqqani, no doubt, would be a more pliable client for Pakistani intelligence. For the United States, should Haqqani emerge as the Taliban’s next leader and Amir al’-Muminin (Commander of the Faithful), the issue of designating the Taliban as a foreign terrorist organization would be inescapable. (Sirajuddin Haqqani’s head currently carries a $5 million U.S. bounty.) To facilitate peace talks, Washington does not currently categorize the Taliban as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), but does list the Haqqani Network and the TTP as FTOs.
What does Mansour’s death mean for the peace talks?
The strike comes as the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), comprising the United States, China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, attempt to bring the Taliban back to the table for sustained peace and reconciliation talks. Just days before the strike, the quartet had reiterated its will to continue along the current path, which hadn’t yielded particularly encouraging results to date. Indeed, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s 180 degree turn after a deadly bombing in Kabul in mid-April suggests the QCG’s time may be running out soon. (Should Sirajuddin Haqqani succeed Mansour, expect Ghani’s resolve to intensify; the Haqqani Network is the Afghan government’s primary culprit for the Kabul attack.)
If there was reason to be pessimistic about peace talks before the strike, it’s been multiplied after the strike against Mansour. While a lot will depend on how the other parties to the QCG react in the next days and weeks, and indeed, how the Taliban itself reels from the effects of Mansour’s death, the overall prospect for peace talks is perhaps at an all-time low since the collapse of the Murree Peace Process last summer.