US drone strike on Taliban leader: Will it enable or impede Afghan diplomacy?

Afghan Taliban leader Mansour, target of a US drone strike, was seen as an opponent of the peace process with Kabul. But killing him could backfire, analysts say.

Abdul Malik/Reuters/file
Afghan policemen keep watch during a battle with the Taliban in Nahr-e Saraj district of Helmand province, Afghanistan, on May 11.

Even before the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, was killed Saturday in a US drone strike in Pakistan, the ultra-conservative Islamist insurgents and Afghanistan were embroiled in a bitter new round of violence that punctuated their failure to rekindle a peace process.

The Taliban were in the midst of one of the bloodiest spring offensives in years, which they kicked off last month with a complex attack in Kabul that left 64 dead.

In sharp response, the Afghan government had executed six Taliban prisoners, signaling its rage that the insurgents – and their Pakistani backers, who were especially close to Mr. Mansour – had refused to come to the negotiating table despite overtures for more than a year.

With Kabul now bracing for a wave of expected retaliatory attacks, analysts concur that the drone strike in Pakistan’s remote Balochistan Province had removed a man who had been an impediment to diplomacy. President Barack Obama called Mansour’s death “an important milestone.”

But analysts are uncertain over whether killing Mansour, whom Pakistan had helped assume the Taliban leadership last year, will allow the peace process to move forward, or drive the parties even farther apart.

“There was quite a dependency syndrome from both sides [Pakistan and Mansour] on each other,” says Ahmad Rashid, a Pakistani analyst and author of several books on the Taliban and Central Asian militant groups.

“I think the reluctance from Pakistan to push for these peace talks over the last one year has partly been because of Mansour, but also because policy has been divided within the Pakistani establishment over whether to allow the Taliban to go into peace talks or not,” says Mr. Rashid, contacted in Lahore.

Diplomatic offensive urged

“Now is the time when excessive, massive diplomacy is needed from everyone, especially the Americans,” says Rashid. “The mood in Pakistan among the establishment may be very angry and revengeful, and even among some of the Taliban angry and revengeful. That can only be placated if there is a diplomatic offensive now for these talks.”

That won’t be easy, since the Taliban have expanded their insurgency in recent years against US-led NATO forces and the Afghan government, now led by President Ashraf Ghani. The Taliban control or have substantial influence over an estimated one-third of the country – more than at any time since US forces ousted the Taliban government in 2001 – and there is little sign that Afghan Army and security forces are reversing that trend.

The fact that Taliban leaders like Mansour can travel with apparent freedom across Pakistan, and rely on support networks there, including the Pakistani intelligence apparatus, only amplifies concerns in Washington, where Congress had already been raising legislative hurdles to Pakistan’s request to buy eight F-16 jet fighters.

According to Pakistani news reports, the Afghan-born Taliban chief carried a Pakistani passport with the pseudonym Mohammed Wali and used Pakistani airports to travel to Dubai and Bahrain. When he was killed, Mansour reportedly had hours before crossed by road from Iran, where he had sought medical treatment.

'Back to square one'

“The most important consequence of this strike is that we’re back to square one with the peace process,” says a Western official in Kabul, who asked not to be named.

“Some will argue that negotiations with the Taliban were such a distant prospect that it won’t matter, but the fact is that assassinating militant leaders usually makes their movements more radical,” the official says. “That’s true around the world, but it’s also specifically been our experience in Afghanistan.”

The only exception, says this official, was the killing in 2007 by British and American special forces of Mullah Dadullah, the Taliban military chief and a “particularly bloodthirsty leader – but Mullah Mansour was a very different character, much more pragmatic.”

According to Rashid, part of the problem with Mansour may have been his bid to consolidate power among cantankerous Taliban factions after the announced death last July of the reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

Keeping those factions together has been a full-time job, considering the lessons learned from the early 1990s, when Mujahideen factions tore apart Afghanistan, leading to the Taliban’s initial rise.

Pakistan holds the key

“Things are very bad this year, militarily, but much of that has to do with Mansour” who was “not a moderate by any means,” says Rashid.

“He was only interested in securing his position,” says Rashid. “And to secure his position he restricted, attacked, and harassed the peace lobby in the Taliban, those who were interested in making peace, in opening talks with the government. [He] had a lot to lose if there was going to be a peace process.”

One quid pro quo of a renewed diplomatic push, Rashid suggests, may be “private guarantees” that during the post-Mansour leadership change there be no more US attacks if the Taliban committed to engaging with Kabul. But that would require Pakistani buy-in.

“I’m sure there are a lot of [Taliban] hard-liners still there, who would want to take revenge for Mansour’s attack, would want to kill NATO American soldiers, etc,” adds Rashid. “Therefore a great deal rests with Pakistan and what Pakistan does.”

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