The death of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan is not likely to paralyze the group. On May 25, the Afghan Taliban announced the appointment of Maulvi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a lesser known Taliban commander, as their new chief. According to a Senior Taliban commander, the appointment of Akhundzada was reached through a “broad-based consensus,” where all senior commanders, including the members of the Haqqani group, shared their opinion.
While Sirajuddin Haqqani will remain the deputy chief of the group, the appointment of Akhundzada was reportedly done to “reunite the insurgency” and to “avoid any controversy” over the leadership issue which overwhelmed Mullah Mansour’s short reign as leader. The media in Pakistan reported that Sirajuddin Haqqani voluntarily removed his name from the leadership race to avoid any controversy. Two things, however, stand out in this overall development.
First, the strike that killed Mullah Mansour in Pakistan’s restive province of Balochistan was the first outside the country’s Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa frontier regions. While the strike has been termed a “strong signal” to Islamabad, the resulting reaction from the Taliban and broader consequences may be fierce and deadly. The U.S. president confirmed Mansour’s death, saying it was “a clear signal to the Taliban and the others.”
The United States has not formally designated the Afghan Taliban as a terror group, to facilitate peace talks. Most of the U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan region have targeted leaders that belong to designated terror groups. One can argue that the U.S. strike which killed Mullah Mansour was a strike on the Haqqani network, rather than on the leader of Afghan Taliban. It’s widely believed that the Haqqani group’s leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is also the deputy chief of the Afghan Taliban, “runs day-to-day military operations for the Taliban” and reportedly carries significant clout among Taliban fighters.
The Afghan Taliban’s last attack in Kabul in mid-April, which killed 71 people, was reportedly planned and executed by the Haqqani group. The Haqqani-led assault actually killed whatever semblance of the peace process was left. On the other hand, after Mansour’s death, the Taliban will want anything but a return to the peace talks. The Haqqanis are in a perfect position to capitalize on this development. While Mansour wanted to look tough by continuing sustained terror attacks on Kabul, to quell any potential rebellion of the group’s leadership, he mostly relied on Sirajuddin Haqqani.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, contends that the Haqqani group is in an ideal position to steer the Afghan Taliban. “We can assume that the Taliban will want to launch some big attacks in Afghanistan to demonstrate it’s still strong. And it’s the Haqqani network that tends to lead the major attacks. So the group could be in a position to add to its prestige within the militant milieu by launching some particularly brutal attacks,” Kugelman told The Diplomat.
Second, Pakistan’s inaction against the Haqqani network, which was reportedly spared in the Pakistani military’s long-standing operation in the country tribal areas along the Afghan border, has infuriated Washington. In an attempt to build pressure on Pakistan to act against the Haqqani group, some U.S. lawmakers blocked the sale of F-16 fighter jets with U.S. taxpayer funds to Pakistan.
“I think the Haqqani group will now be furiously targeted and in turn this group will increase activity in and around Kabul. Islamabad can also come under attack in case Pakistan reverses its policy,” Hassan Abbas, a senior advisor and Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society, told The Diplomat.
While questions have also been raised on Pakistan’s willingness and commitment to sincerely support the Afghan peace process, many believe that by not helping in containing the surging level of violence in Afghanistan, Pakistan has failed to convince Washington and Kabul of its seriousness about the reconciliation process. “I think both Washington and Kabul have given up on Pakistan’s capability or willingness to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiation table,” said Abbas.
At this point, Pakistan doesn’t have any significant leverage vis-à-vis the United States like it did after the Osama bin Laden (OBL) operation in 2011. After the OBL operation, Pakistan expressed its anger over the attack by blocking supply routes for NATO forces in Afghanistan.
On May 23, The New York Times reported that Pakistan may have given up Mansour for good. While the article suggests that once in power, Mansour resisted Pakistan’s efforts for reconciliation, the annoyance created by Mansour does not mean that Pakistan would agree to his death, which might bring in even have resulted in a more hard-line leader, complicating the peace process. This would have proven especially embarrassing for Pakistan.
“Mansour’s supporters will now be angry enough not to lean towards negotiation. This is despite Ashraf Ghani’s efforts to reach out to the Taliban as well as [Gulbuddin] Hekmatyar, who opportunistically is now inclined to join Kabul under certain conditions,” Amin Saikal, the director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University, told The Diplomat. “If confirmed, Mansour’s death may not help the peace process,” Saikal added.
Besides the predictable response of calling the strike on Mansour a “violation of sovereignty,” there has not been much of a reaction from the Pakistani leadership, particularly the military. On May 24, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan in a press conference said that “You cannot expect them to come on (sic) talks’ table after killing their leader, this killing has put Pakistan in a very difficult situation.”
With the drone strike in Balochistan, the Afghan Taliban’s safe havens in Pakistan are clearly under threat. The United States has further warned that it will target terrorists inside Pakistan who might prove to be obstacles to the Afghan peace process. “Now that the U.S. has used a drone strike in Baluchistan, the Taliban could well fear that more could follow. And if they do follow, then you need to start talking about real threats to the Afghan Taliban in Balochistan and especially the Quetta Shura,” said Kugelman.
Saikal agrees: “The U.S. drone strike against Mansour may not be repeated too many times, but it does mean that whenever Washington has an opportunity it will target key Taliban leaders and operatives.”
Haibatullah Akhundzada’s selection as the new leader of Afghan Taliban may automatically quell any potential rebellion that might have surfaced if Sirajuddin Haqqani was elected. Moreover, Akhundzada is also not considered a proponent of reconciliation, which means his coordination with the Haqqani group to launch major attacks could be fierce. The Haqqani group will continue to wield significant influence over the Afghan Taliban, regardless of whether the group’s chief sits on the Afghan Taliban’s leadership throne or not.