The leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, was killed in a United States drone strike in Pakistan on May 21. The US administration said Mansour was opposed to the reconciliation process in Afghanistan and a threat to peace. But killing Mansour will not destroy the Taliban, nor will it revive the stalled peace process.
After the end of the International Security Assistance Force’s mission in Afghanistan in 2014, the security situation significantly worsened. In 2015, the Taliban managed to briefly capture Kunduz, the fifth largest city in Afghanistan. Peace initiatives taken by the Quadrilateral Coordination Group—an international body composed of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US, and China—stalled this year. The Taliban leadership refused to participate in talks with the Afghan government, instead announcing the start of a new Spring offensive. Shortly afterwards, Kabul experienced its deadliest attack since 2011, with dozens of civilians killed. The Taliban are determined to continue the violent insurgency in Afghanistan, even after it became known that their charismatic and long-time leader Mullah Omar died in 2013.
How Important is the Taliban’s Leader?
Mullah Omar’s death was kept secret for two years by a close-knit circle of Taliban leaders, indicating that his role was more symbolic than operational. It is unlikely that Mullah Omar was involved in running the military affairs of the Taliban, a task traditionally left to the military committees and mid-level commanders inside Afghanistan. Mullah Mansour, who took over the leadership after Mullah Omar’s death, was a less unifying figure, but it is likely that he played a similar role as figurehead and ideological leader. The need for unity after Mullah Omar’s death probably forced Mansour to take an uncompromising stance regarding peace talks with the Afghan government.
The selection of Mansour’s successor was announced on May 25, only four days after he was killed. The selection of Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada is uncontroversial and reinforces the impression that the main role of the Taliban’s leader is to be a unifying figure and spiritual leader. Akhundzada, believed to be well-educated in Islamic law, was a court official and religious adviser to the Taliban leadership. As he has no particular background as military commander, it is likely that he will follow in the footsteps of his predecessors and rely on mid-level leaders and commanders to run the military affairs.
Against this backdrop, the drone strike against Mansour seems ill-advised—at least if the purpose was to weaken the Taliban militarily and protect US soldiers in Afghanistan and their local Afghan allies. Killing the figurehead will not weaken the military capability of the Taliban. If anything, it represents another nail in the coffin of the stranded Afghan peace initiative. Drone strikes against the Taliban’s spiritual leaders will only make the Taliban more determined to continue pursuing their aims through violent means.
The Role of Pakistan
The killing of Mansour is intriguing for several other reasons. It is the first US drone strike in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan and it is the first time that a high-ranking Afghan Taliban leader has been killed by a US drone on Pakistani soil. The US has carried out numerous drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, but they have generally targeted al-Qaida, Pakistani Taliban, and other foreign fighters, not the Afghan Taliban. There appears to have been a tacit agreement between the US and Pakistan to leave Afghan Taliban leaders alone. The drone strike against Mansour broke this pattern.
Many observers interpret the action as a sign that the US is running out of patience with Pakistan’s apparently lenient policies toward the Afghan Taliban. This may well be true. The US administration is worried that the Taliban will repeat the battlefield successes of last year when they briefly captured Kunduz, a northern Afghan city with 300,000 inhabitants. The drawdown of international forces in Afghanistan may in the worst case create a similar scenario as that in Iraq in 2014. After the al-Qaida-offshoot Islamic State succeeded in capturing Mosul in June that year, it declared an Islamic Caliphate that attracted thousands of Western foreign fighters. While the killing of Mansour was hardly an effective way of weakening the Taliban militarily, it may have been intended to send a signal to Pakistani authorities to guard against such eventualities.
But the symbolic effect of Mansour’s killing is unlikely to be great. While the threat perceptions of Pakistan’s military and security establishment are shifting focus—from the external one posed from India, to the internal threat from domestic terrorism—their methods appear to be staying the same. Afghanistan is still seen as a bulwark against Indian influences in Pakistan’s backyard. In addition, Afghanistan is now seen as a safe haven for Pakistan’s domestic terrorists, such as remnants of the Pakistani Taliban, who fled to Afghanistan after being heavily targeted by the Pakistani Army from mid-2014. In spite of cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the field of counterterrorism, there is still a long way to go before mutual trust is established between the two countries.
Elements within Pakistan’s security establishment will continue providing their tacit support to Taliban’s military leaders. The purpose is not to support a complete Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. The purpose is for Pakistan to keep the tools that enables them to uphold a certain pressure on the Afghan government. If the drone strike on Mansour was meant as a warning to Pakistan, it targeted the wrong person. Mansour was a spiritual, not a military, leader of the Taliban. He was not a crucial asset to Pakistan’s security apparatus. In the best case, the US action was a warning to Pakistan about what is to come next. In the worst case, it was based on a limited understanding of how the Taliban really works.
Anne Stenersen is a Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, where she manages the Terrorism Research Project.