The leader of Afghan Taliban, Mullah Mansour, was targeted on May 21, 2016 by U.S. drones in Pakistan. The Taliban have finally confirmed death of their leader. Since the 9/11 attacks, this is the first time that the United States has succeeded in targeting the highest-ranking Taliban official. It came as a surprise during the peak of both efforts at peace talks and the fighting season in Afghanistan. What are the consequences of the death of this very key — and controversial — Taliban leader?
Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansour, known as Mullah Mansour, was one of the strongest and cruelest leaders of the Taliban. He was a warlord with money and connections, likened to a “mafia boss” by one analyst. Mansour was a member of transnational criminal networks and terrorist groups; he had relationships with neighboring and regional countries.
Through his networks and money, he has hugely influenced key Taliban leaders. Even while Mullah Mohammad Omar, the first leader of the Taliban, was alive, Mansour had tremendous influence among the Taliban leadership and he was considered as a political opponent of Mullah Omar. Some Taliban even blamed him for attempts to kill Omar.
Mansour later deceived the Taliban for two years by withholding the news of Omar’s death. This enabled him to led the group unopposed for around two years. In June 2015, the Afghan government announced the death of Omar. Many Taliban realized that they had been cheated and started opposing Mansour, but he quickly managed to pressure, threaten and kill anyone opposing his leadership and he became a self-declared leader of the Taliban.
After taking charge of the Taliban, Mansour launched deadly operations across the country targeting Afghan civilians, journalists, government and non-government organizations. He destabilized north, south, east, and even central Afghanistan with a storm of suicide bombs and attacks. For the first time since the collapse of the Taliban regime, Mansour’s forces managed to occupy the capital of Afghanistan’s northern Kunduz province for a couple of days, and he also captured several districts around the country.
Several Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoob, opposed Mansour’s rule, but he arranged to expand his relationships with other insurgents and terrorist groups to bolster support. In a deal with the Haqqani Network, a designated terrorist group, he appointed Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Network, as his deputy.
He further strengthened his relationship with al-Qaeda. The leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has pledged allegiance to Mansour. Meanwhile, he asked the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to avoid creating any parallel structure in Afghanistan. When IS did not pledge to support him, Mansour announced war against the Islamic State across the country.
In addition to terrorist groups, Mansour was able to establish a close relationship with other regional countries, including Iran and Russia. The Shiite clerical Iranian regime, who is threatened by Sunni-led Islamic State, saw the Taliban as the enemy of their enemy and tried to strengthen its relationship with Mansour. A passport found after the attack suggsets that Mansour had just returned from Iran after a couple of months’ stay there.
Russia, which tries to deny access to the United States and its allies in the region, and which once was defeated by the U.S.-backed Afghan insurgency, would not remain indifferent. Russian established a direct relationship with the Taliban and new leader Mullah Mansour. In response to Afghan government concerns about Russian links with insurgents, Russia defined their ties with the Taliban as a relationship against IS, thus publicly acknowledging and justifying the relationship as part of Russia’s national interest.
Of course, Pakistan was a host and sponsor of Mansour, as it has hosted other terrorist leaders. Osama bin Ladin, leader of al-Qaeda, was killed while hiding in Pakistan; previous Taliban leader Mullah Omar died of illness in Pakistan. Mansour himself was killed in a drone strike on Pakistani soil. With the latest incident, there is no doubt that Pakistan provides a safe haven for international terrorists and insurgent groups. This has further harmed Pakistan’s reputation globally. It is not merely a claim or a secret anymore to say that many Taliban leaders freely live in Pakistan.
Ultimately, Mansour’s unwillingness to engage with the Taliban’s most important potential dialogue partner — the Afghan government — proved his undoing. Mansour’s death came as the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), formed from representatives of the Afghan, U.S., Chinese and Pakistani governments, held their fifth round of talks on a possible peace process in Islamabad. Mansour opposed any negotiation and all the recommendations of the QCG.
Meanwhile, negotiations with the second largest insurgents’ group Hizb-Islami Gulbuddin Hikmatyar (HIG) have been finalized and are waiting for the approval of the leader of the party, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, and Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani — proving what can be accomplished between two parties willing to talk.
The U.S. government proved its commitment to backing Afghan-led peace talks during the negotiations with HIG and it also supported Afghanistan’s call for peace with the Taliban. But the peace process has repeatedly rejected by Mansour. After the strike, the U.S. leadership said that one of the reasons that Mansour was targeted, was because he opposed calls for peace.Washington clearly said that it will continue to counter and target anyone opposing the peace talks.
Pakistan protested the U.S. attack against the Taliban leader in Pakistan, and called the strike a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. But the U.S. position in support of the Afghan peace process is firm. And Washington has already sent a clear message to the Taliban, in their safe havens in Pakistan, that they are not immune from U.S. strikes. It also sends a message to anyone who harbor insurgents and terrorists that the United States will not tolerate such policies.
Mansour’s death created a leadership vacuum in an already-fragile Taliban structure. Taliban leaders have been fighting for the top position since the death of Mullah Omar. Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the second deputy of Mullah Mansour, was ultimately named leader, but several others could claim to be qualified for the post. That includes Mullah Yaqoob, a member of the Quetta Shura and Mullah Omar’s son, as well as Sirajuddin Haqqani, the first deputy under Mansour and leader of the Haqqani Network.
The death of Mullah Mansour won’t bring an end to the war, but this has created a crisis of leadership among the Taliban. Mansour was also a serious threat to those Taliban who wanted to stop the war; now they have a chance to negotiate and reconcile with Kabul. This is an excellent opportunity for the Afghan government, its allies, and even for the insurgents to end the war through peace talks and reconciliation.
Mohammad Shafiq Hamdam is a writer, political analyst, and a social activist. Follow him on Twitter @shafiqhamdam.