The death of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansour, who reportedly was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan on May 21, raises a host of questions about the Taliban’s future, U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and American relations with Pakistan. The strike, which Pakistani officials have protested, was the first publicly-disclosed military action by the U.S. inside Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province, and the first to directly target senior Taliban leaders sheltering outside of Afghanistan.
The Taliban insurgency, beset by infighting and a power struggle last year over Mansour’s ascension to the leadership position after the revelation of the death of his predecessor Mullah Omar, now must again find a replacement. Analyzing the possible ramifications of the strike are USIP experts Andrew Wilder, vice president for the Institute’s Asia center; Moeed Yusuf, the center’s associate vice president; Scott Worden, director for Afghanistan and Central Asia programs; and Shahmahmood Miakhel, Afghanistan country director.
The U.S., Pakistan, Afghanistan and China have been working to start a peace process with the Taliban that Mansour, according to the U.S., opposed. What effect will his elimination have on those efforts?
Wilder: Any successor will use the fight against the Afghan government to unify Taliban factions around him. No one in the Taliban ranks is going to seriously be talking about pushing the peace talks further. While the short term impact is likely to be greater Taliban fragmentation, getting consensus within the surviving factions to carry on the fight is likely to be less internally contentious than a peace process, making it prohibitively difficult for a weakened leader from taking the much more difficult step of bringing a critical mass of the Taliban factions into a peace process.
Worden: The strike is likely to sow some confusion within the Taliban, but a more fractured movement can make peace negotiations more difficult.
Under Mansour's leadership, the Taliban has grabbed control of more territory in Afghanistan than it has held since 2001. Will his death undermine the insurgents’ operational capabilities?
Miakhel: It will once again open a leadership fight between different groups of Taliban, as happened last year after the revelation of Mullah Omar’s death. The Taliban will be weakened, especially during the summer fighting season. But some Taliban groups, such as the Haqqani network, might still carry out significant attacks even though they can’t hold ground. The Afghan military may gain some short-term relative advantage, but in the long run only better governance and political reform will improve the situation.
Wilder: The news of Mullah Omar’s death last summer did lead to some factional fighting within the ranks of the Taliban, but it didn’t play a significant role in weakening the Taliban’s ability to put lots of pressure on the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and to actually increase levels of violence. Similarly, Mullah Mansour’s death could weaken the Taliban in the short term, but the immediate response is more likely to be increased rather than reduced levels of violence. But if this marks a shift towards targeting senior Afghan Taliban and Haqqani leaders in Pakistan, and making their safe havens less safe, that could ultimately weaken the Taliban’s effectiveness as a fighting force.
What does this strike say about U.S. strategy for Afghanistan?
Yusuf: Two things will determine whether this strike amounts to anything more than a tactical success: whether there is a coherent strategy to further degrade the top tier leadership of the Taliban and the Haqqani network; and the degree to which Pakistan has altered its calculations, or will do so in response to this incident, regarding the costs of hosting Taliban leadership on its territory or cracking down on their presence.
Worden: Mansour’s death may buy the government some breathing room on the battlefield. But it is unlikely to bring Afghanistan closer to the long-term strategic goal of peace, without more significant action by the Afghan government on governance reforms or by Pakistan on reducing safe havens for externally-oriented militant groups. At this point in the conflict, the Taliban and citizens of Afghanistan will be studying whether U.S. and Afghan government positions remain consistent over time; positions on a peace process are unlikely to change overnight.
It’s been reported that in the weeks before the strike, the U.S. was failing to make headway getting Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to take part in peace talks. What are the strike’s implications for U.S. relations with Pakistan and for Pakistan’s involvement with Afghanistan?
Yusuf: The strike is a clear message that the U.S. has given up on Pakistani promises regarding reconciliation talks. It presents an opportunity to force a shift in the Pakistani position on the presence of Afghan insurgents on its soil. But an approach that bypasses Pakistan can also lead it to hunker down further, making the counterinsurgency effort even more challenging despite the tactical fallout from Mansour’s death. Based on the initial reactions from both sides, it seems that we will fortunately avoid another rupture in the relationship; and yet, both the U.S. and Pakistan will have to manage the aftermath of this strike very carefully to reach a new common vision on how to move forward in Afghanistan.
Mansour faced several challengers during his time as leader; following his ascension, representatives of the Haqqani network are also reported to have gained a greater role within the formal Taliban leadership. Looking inside the Taliban, what frictions and pressures are likely to surface with Mansour’s death?
Miakhel: The Taliban won't accept Sirajuddin Haqqani as their leader, even though Pakistan is in favor of a greater role for the Haqqanis within the Taliban leadership. Other potential contenders might be Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Mohammad Yaqub, or other Mansour rivals like former military commander Abdul Qayum Zakir or Mullah Mohammed Rasool.
Yusuf: It will be critical to watch the succession process. If the next Taliban leader is someone palatable to the Pakistani security services or open to negotiations with the Afghan government, it would signal the degree to which this strike may have prompted Pakistan to reconsider its stance, or the extent to which Pakistan may have been on board with the idea of targeting Mansour. A hardliner opposed to negotiations or independent of Pakistani control would pose greater strains on the U.S.-Pakistan relationship going forward.