Pentagon Report: Killing Taliban Leader Helped Unify the Group

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On May 21, 2016, a US drone strike in the Pakistani province of Balochistan killed Mullah Mansour, leader of the Afghan Taliban, along with his taxi driver Mohammad Azam, who had the unfortunate luck of picking up a passenger on the US kill list.

At the time, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook claimed that Mansour had “disrupted U.S.-backed efforts to broker a political solution to Afghanistan’s long conflict.” Secretary of State John Kerry told a news conference that Mansour was “directly opposed to the peace negotiation and to the reconciliation process.” President Obama himself called Mansour’s death “an important milestone.” The Taliban leader, said Obama, “rejected efforts by the Afghan government to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that has taken the lives of countless innocent Afghan men, women and children.”

The US strike against Mansour came at a curious time. The Afghan government, under President Ashraf Ghani, had been attempting to pursue peace talks with the Taliban, along with regional and international powers. Just a few days before the strike, senior officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the United States had suggested at the Quadrilateral Coordination Group meeting that talks were the only remaining option to bring an end to the 15-year-long war.

It was also less than a year after Mullah Mansour had been appointed leader of the Taliban, following the news that the previous leader Mullah Omar had died years ago. Mansour’s appointment had opened significant rifts within the group, leading to deadly clashes between rival factions and resignations of high-profile leaders. Mansour had only begun to consolidate his grip on the group before he was killed in a US drone strike.

The death of Mullah Mansour expedited the consolidation of the group under its new leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhondzada. A few months after Akhondzada took control of the Taliban leadership, a splinter faction’s top political deputy and battlefield commander pledged the faction’s allegiance to the main group.

Nearly seven months later, a Pentagon report on the war in Afghanistan concedes that taking out Mullah Mansour may actually have helped unify the Taliban. The Department of Defense’s biannual report, titled “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” was published last month and seems to have been ignored by all mainstream media outlets.

The report claims that “the Taliban have largely coalesced around [Akhondzada] with limited public fracturing or dissension.” More worryingly, it suggests that “cohesiveness among senior leaders has improved compared to levels seen under the former leader Mullah Mansour.” Mullah Akhondzada’s appointment also had no “negative impact on tactical operations.”

A surgical strike taking out the Taliban leader was always unlikely to have any major effects. The Taliban are highly decentralized and there was no reason to believe the death of their leader would have weakened their operational effectiveness. Just a few months after Mansour’s death, the group was already making significant advances in the southern province of Oruzgan.

There were, however, some indications that a new leader may have been able to unify the organization in a way Mansour never could. Mansour was a controversial leader. The leadership meeting where he was named head of the group had ended in a stunning display of dissent by senior leaders, with the son and brother of the former leader Mullah Omar walking out in protest. There were numerous allegations that Mansour was the favored candidate of Pakistan’s intelligence agency and thus lacked independence. Mullah Obidullah Hunar, leader of a breakaway faction, even claimed that Mansour was funded by Pakistani intelligence.

There were always doubts about the ability of a leader as polarizing as Mansour to secure his hold on the group’s leadership. The Obama administration’s decision to kill Mansour presented the Taliban with a unique opportunity to rally behind a new leader. In addition to helping unify the Taliban, the Obama administration also squandered any opportunities which may have existed for reconciliation efforts between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Despite the attempts to portray Mansour as a unique danger to peace talks he may in fact have been the best hope for negotiations, especially considering his replacement.

Mullah Haibatullah Akhondzada, a hardliner who was previously a deputy to Mansour, was appointed leader after unanimous agreement among the Taliban leadership. Afghan officials see Haibatullah as “a rigid proponent of hardline orthodoxy who is unlikely to favor peace talks.” A senior Taliban member described him as “more uncompromising, complicated. Going forward toward peace talks [with the Afghan government] would be very surprising from Haibatullah.”

Some US officials seem to have grasped this after Mullah Akhondzada’s appointment. “I don’t believe that we will see peace talks any time in the short-term with Mullah Haibatullah,” US Army Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, a spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan, said in a media briefing. President Obama himself admitted that hopes for a negotiated settlement were “swiftly fading.”

The Obama administration has only itself to blame. Instead of recognizing and exploiting differences within the Taliban leadership, it chose to sabotage its own efforts to support peace talks and hand the Taliban an opportunity to unify under the leadership of a far less controversial figure.

After decades of war, almost 70% of Afghans want their government to reach some sort of political settlement with the Taliban. The US finally recognizes both the futility and the impossibility of a military solution in the country, calling the Taliban “an important partner in a peaceful Afghan-led reconciliation process.” While it is difficult to describe the precise steps which need to be taken to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, not killing leaders susceptible to the offer may be a good start.