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Following the killing of Taliban ‘Emir’ Mullah Mansour, US Secretary of State John Kerry claimed to have removed an ‘obstacle’ to the peace process. Mansour’s death has prompted hope that the Taliban will now be forced to negotiate. In reality, though, the ensuing leadership contest could further fragment the Taliban network, while their on-the-ground military operations are unlikely to be greatly impacted. Nor is there any evidence that the next leader will be any more supportive of the Afghan peace process.
A Taliban shura, or leadership council, has already begun meeting to choose a successor, a task that will be vital to the cohesiveness of the movement. Mansour’s death could trigger a difficult leadership contest, at a time when the fallout from his appointment as emir in August 2015 has not really settled, creating the possibility of splintering factions and internal violence. The optimistic view is that this could incite some factions to seek peace with the Afghan government. A more realistic view, however, is that Mansour’s death could galvanise the Taliban to prove they can still fight back. If the succession question is resolved quickly by coalescing around someone who most Taliban could agree to rally round, there is no reason the current fighting season will be unduly disrupted. While the Taliban are hierarchical, they are not homogenous and their network structure offers a degree of flexibility and resilience. Moreover, fragmentation does not always increase the prospects for peace and can lead to an escalation of conflict as rival groups seek to ‘out-bid’ each other through acts of violence.
Despite official statements, the US’s decision to kill Mansour probably reflects a set of other, unarticulated objectives. The assassination is likely a riposte showing US frustration over the refusal of the Taliban to recognise the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) talks – comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and China – which are tasked with measures to restore peace in Afghanistan. The US may have also decided to act in response to fears over closer collaboration between Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban, and the greater role for Haqqani under Mansour’s leadership.
Regardless of the motivations, Mansour’s removal is unlikely to pave the way to peace. Many Taliban leaders oppose peace negotiations, believing they can still win military, a perception strengthened by recent military success. Furthermore, the next Taliban leader will be under the same pressure as Mansour – who until his appointment had been perceived as more in favour of peace talks – to prove his credentials through military success. He will also have to adhere to the Taliban’s stated pre-negotiation conditions, which include the departure of all foreign troops and the creation of an Islamic state.
In fact, the next leader could be more hard line than Mansour. Potential contenders include Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoob; Mansour’s deputies, Serajuddin Haqqani and former chief of the judiciary to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Moulavi Habibullah Arkhunzada; and senior Taliban military leader, Mullah Zakir. While Serajuddin would likely prove an even more implacable foe and an even greater ‘obstacle’ – not least because Haqqani has been on the US blacklist since September 2012 – Yaqoob and Zakir are also known to oppose peace talks.
The role of Pakistan and the country’s response to the murder are, as always, key. Not only was Mansour believed to be operating under the auspices and protection of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, but the US attack took place in Baluchistan, which is home to the Quetta Shura – the Taliban’s political commission. This is unprecedented: according to the Long War Journal, a specialised US-based website, of the 391 drone and air strikes reportedly carried out by the US, only one other strike has taken place outside the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies.
It is still unclear whether Pakistan had prior information about the attack. Some observers therefore claim the US air strike has humiliated Pakistan and that this attack is a blow to the already-strained US–Pakistan relationship. In the event, however, that the attack took place with Pakistan’s knowledge, this could suggest that the country has finally bowed to the pressure to end its safe havens for the Taliban. Although, officially, Pakistan denounced the drone strike as a ‘violation’ of its airspace, it has been known in the past to agree to drone flights over its territories. It should also be noted that the last QCG meeting held only two days before the attack and attended by Pakistani representatives strongly condemned the 19 April terrorist attack in Kabul and underscored that those who perpetrate such acts of terrorism should be ready to ‘face consequences of their actions’.
It is important to proceed with caution: the elimination of one Pakistani ‘asset’ in Baluchistan does not mean Pakistan’s military has been persuaded to cut the umbilical cord of the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani or the variety of anti-Indian militant groups; however, it may reflect a shift in US determination to go after the Taliban inside Pakistan. Only time will tell whether Mansour’s demise is really a ‘game changer’. Meanwhile, the Taliban’s own capacity does not rest on the presence of one man: even the hugely symbolic loss of Mullah Omar failed to disrupt their military activities. As long as the funding continues (and the underlining drivers of the Afghan conflict remain unresolved), the group is likely to be able to maintain its operations undeterred.