Obama Rolls the Dice With Killing of Taliban Chief
The drone strike in Pakistan shows the United States is betting on weakening the insurgency on the battlefield — not at the negotiating table.
The Obama administration’s decision to kill Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in his Pakistani sanctuary signals that the White House has given up on peace talks for the moment and is willing to roll the dice on trying to undercut the insurgency by decapitating its leadership.
The operation represented a break in the administration’s approach to the war, as it had never launched a concerted effort to take out Taliban leaders based in Pakistan despite repeated pleas from Washington’s allies in the Afghan government.
But with efforts to kick-start peace negotiations going nowhere and the Taliban not even bothering to show up for talks, President Barack Obama gave the green light for the U.S. military to launch its first-ever drone strike in the anarchic Pakistani region of Baluchistan. The rhetoric the U.S. Defense Department used to explain the strike was notable in its emphasis on the Taliban’s chief diplomatic role rather than his military one: “Mansour has been an obstacle to peace and reconciliation between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, prohibiting Taliban leaders from participating in peace talks with the Afghan government.”
The stakes for the administration’s gamble in killing Mansour couldn’t be higher. The White House hopes the strike will inflict a lasting blow on the Taliban, undercutting the group’s capacity to carry out attacks, sapping morale and disrupting long-term planning, akin to the raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, which had a debilitating effect on the terrorist group’s ability to carry out overseas attacks. But it could wind up prolonging the war by permanently fracturing the insurgency and complicating any attempt at a political settlement.
There’s reason to assume the worst. When the Taliban acknowledged last August that its reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had been dead for two years, it was unclear how the insurgency’s foot soldiers would respond. But after the revelation, there was no letup in the scale and frequency of the Taliban’s attacks in Afghanistan. If anything, the group has stepped up the pace of its strikes, including large-scale attacks in the capital Kabul — and has enjoyed more battlefield gains than it has in years.
Since last September, the Taliban — under Mansour’s hand — have mounted an escalating offensive against Afghan government forces across the country, from Kunduz in the north to Helmand province in the south, gaining territory and killing hundreds of troops and civilians. The Taliban initiated about 800 to 1,000 attacks per month in the second half of 2015, according to the Pentagon. In September 2015, the Taliban seized the city of Kunduz in what was an embarrassing setback for Kabul. Afghan forces, backed by American air power, pushed the group out two weeks later but at an enormous cost: An accidental U.S. airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital left 42 people dead.
With no clear successor, the killing of the Taliban chief opens the door to a power struggle in the already divided insurgency. Speculation as to who will take over the Taliban has focused on Mullah Omar’s eldest son, Mohammad Yaqub; former Guantánamo detainee and senior commander Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir; and Mansour’s senior deputies, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Moulavi Haibatullah Akhunzada. All four are considered to be even more hard-line than Mansour, which could portend even bloodier attacks on civilian targets inside Afghanistan and even less willingness to take part in peace talks.
Still, the impact of Mansour’s death on the peace process is far from clear, and many of the world’s top regional analysts remain divided over whether his killing will help jump-start the long-stalled negotiations or, in fact, doom any attempt at national reconciliation.
“The strike would never have taken place if there were any prospects for peace talks coming together in the near term,” said Andrew Small, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “The fact that it happened is a reflection of how much people had given up on this coming together this year.”
Washington, at least publicly, says it believes talks are still the best way to end Afghanistan’s carnage. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told FP the United States continues to support an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process for a negotiated resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan.”
“All groups, including the Taliban, should be part of such a dialogue so that Afghans can talk to other Afghans about the future of their country,” he added.
The prospects for a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government peaked last July following a breakthrough round of talks between the two sides in Murree, Pakistan. But the reported death of former Taliban leader Mullah Omar not long after derailed the negotiations and led to a postponement of future talks as an internal power struggle ensued between Mullah Omar’s successors. Mansour — who had deep roots in the insurgency and even served as the Taliban’s aviation minister in the 1990s — eventually wound up on top.
“It was clear [Mansour] was the leader of the Taliban,” a U.S. defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Senior deputies were handling day-to-day tactical operations while Mansour was concentrating on its military and political strategy, including efforts to persuade breakaway factions to rejoin the insurgency, the official said.
The failure of peace talks to materialize in March further damaged the credibility of the Pakistani government, which the United States and China had pressured to help bring the Taliban to the table.
In February, following the meeting of the so-called Quadrilateral Coordination Group — Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and the United States — Pakistani diplomats raised expectations about a new round of direct peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in March. But that too failed to materialize after a Taliban bomb-and-gun assault on a government intelligence agency in Kabul slaughtered nearly 70 people in the group’s deadliest attack on the capital since it was thrown from power in 2001. The attack, which injured hundreds of people, prompted calls for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to abandon plans to engage in peace talks.
Small and other experts said the strike could prove useful because it raises the costs for the Taliban to avoid the peace talks. “The problem has been that not taking part in the reconciliation process became a cost-free proposition,” he said. “Now that’s no longer the case.”
But others say the killing of Mansour could actually make the Taliban’s return to the negotiating table even more unlikely.
That’s because despite 10 months of uncooperative behavior from the militant group on peace talks, Mansour may have been the Taliban leader most open to reconciliation and most capable of speaking for the entire group or instructing others to do so. By contrast, his potential successors are likely to aggressively oppose the peace process, said Marvin Weinbaum, a Pakistan expert at the Middle East Institute.
“His chief competitor for leadership, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a former Guantánamo prisoner, had regularly attacked Mansour for his conciliatory moves and close links to Pakistan,” Weinbaum said, adding that Zakir’s rival, Sirajuddin Haqqani, “has the reputation of being a ruthless, radical ideologue opposed to dialogue.”
That dynamic correlates with research done by terrorism analyst Max Abrahms of Northeastern University, who has not found a significant reduction in violence following the targeting of militant chiefs in most cases.
“I’ve found that decapitation strikes can be counterproductive because the successor is not more moderate,” Abrahms said. “In fact, just the opposite is true, and the replacement is actually more extreme.”
He pointed to two studies he conducted in 2015 looking at the behavior of militant groups around the world in the aftermath of a decapitation. The studies find that the groups become more extreme and tend to increase their attacks on civilian populations.
Even if the next Taliban leader is more moderate, he may have a weak hold on power, forcing him to rally his subordinates against the Afghan government in order to unite the various Taliban factions.
There’s also the possibility that taking out Mansour could trigger in-fighting that sets back peace talks by preventing any one leader from being able to negotiate for the group as a whole.
“The strike is likely to sow some confusion within the Taliban and interrupt some of the insurgency’s fighting plans,” said Scott Worden, an Afghanistan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “But a more fractured movement can make peace negotiations more difficult. While Mansour’s death may buy the government some breathing room, it is unlikely to bring Afghanistan closer to the long-term strategic goal of peace.”
But given the serious threats to the Afghan government’s rule — only expected to increase during the summer fighting season — the value of disrupting the Taliban may be worth the price. “Throwing the Taliban into some disarray and shaking things up is probably a good tactic, given that the peace talks weren’t working,” said Daniel Markey, a Pakistan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Afghan officials were elated over the operation, with many in Kabul interpreting it as a sign that the United States was committed to helping it defeat the Taliban.
The strike also represented a boost for Ghani, who has presided over a dramatic security deterioration in the wake of the withdrawal of the U.S.-led force, which has dwindled to about 12,000 troops.
Ghani had come into office promising to shore up relations with neighboring Pakistan in a bid to breathe life into stalled peace talks with the Taliban, but he came away empty-handed.
“He was seen as having failed, as having been weak, been outwitted and manipulated by the Pakistanis,” said David Sedney, a former senior policy advisor at the Pentagon on Afghanistan and Pakistan who has just returned from Kabul.
But the strike against Mansour has given Ghani a new lease on his political life and allows him to point to a success thanks to his close ties with the United States. “It has bought him not only time but a huge amount of political capital,” Sedney said.
Photo credit: BARKAT TAREEN/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce