Americans were starkly reminded last week that their military’s role in Afghanistan is far from finished, nearly 15 years after the 9/11 attacks. A US drone strike killed the leader of the Taliban, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. While the strike may seem aimed at a military defeat of the insurgent group, it was not. Rather, Mr. Mansour was targeted for being an obstacle to peace talks – and to the hopes for national reconciliation.
This is why his replacement, Moulavi Haibatullah Akhunzada, is drawing so much interest. As head of the Taliban’s group of religious scholars – rather than a military commander – he may have a different temperament toward the prospect of peace. And as the group’s longtime clerical leader, he could bring greater authority in persuading other Taliban leaders to start negotiations with the Afghan government.
That possibility, while currently slim in the eyes of many experts, must not be ignored by the nations of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group – Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and the United States. This group has tried for three years to launch peace talks for Afghanistan.
Its efforts are based on the belief that the only and best way to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan is through negotiation and a peace process. Despite the Afghan Army’s improved performance on the battlefield under a recently elected government, a military victory over the Taliban seems remote.
To start the negotiations, however, Pakistan must finally implement its stated policy of opposing all violent extremists on its territory, not just those that strike its own people. The US was able to locate Mansour as he traveled openly in Pakistan before hitting him with a drone. While the strike was an embarrassing intrusion on Pakistani sovereignty, it revealed how little the Taliban worries about the Pakistani intelligence service.
China, as a close partner of Pakistan, has a peculiar interest in the Afghan peace process. It is spending billions on roads, railways, and other infrastructure to link its economy with countries to its west. It will need stability in the “Af-Pak” region to build what it calls a new “Silk Road.”
With President Obama planning to draw down US troop levels to a residual force of 5,500 by the time he leaves office early next year, the Taliban have an incentive to negotiate a peaceful role for the group in Afghan society. The obstacles to peace are not worth more war.