The US drone strike that killed the movement’s supreme leader has not boosted hopes of peace – quite the opposite, writes Rahimullah Yusufzai
If the US hoped the drone strike that killed the supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban movement, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, would split the organisation and bring it to the negotiating table, Washington faces disappointment. Not only has the Taliban quickly closed ranks and selected a new leader, the May 21 strike in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province has crossed a ‘red line’ as far as the Pakistani authorities are concerned.
This time there was no succession battle among Taliban leaders, as happened in July 2015 after it emerged that the movement’s founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had died two years earlier.
Senior Taliban figures who had become inactive, or were sidelined by Mansoor, came forward and accepted Shaikh Haibatullah Akhundzada as the new supreme leader.
Even the splinter faction led by Mullah Mohammad Rasool, which bitterly opposed Mansoor’s elevation as the Ameer (head), is not ill-disposed to his successor. Although it had some reservations about the process, and the haste of the top decision-making Taliban Rahbari Shura (leadership council) in choosing Akhundzada, it did not press the issue.
The Rasool faction has problems of its own: Pakistan has had its leader in custody for several months, leaving it weak and unable to influence events in Afghanistan. There are also growing differences among its members, thanks to a senior figure, Mullah Abdul Mannan Niazi, who supported unconditional peace talks with the Afghan government, made derogatory remarks against Akhundzada and criticized Pakistan for its interference in Afghanistan’s affairs. But Rasool and Akhundzada belong to the same Noorzai Durrani clan, and this could eventually bring them closer, since tribal kinship plays an important role in Afghanistan.
Having lost two supreme leaders, and suffering dissent in its ranks, the 22-year old Taliban movement decided to play safe in its choice. Following his elevation, Akhundzada’s position as one of the two deputy heads of the armed movement was filled by Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the young son of the late Mullah Omar. Despite the respect his father enjoyed among the Taliban rank and file, it appears his inexperience and reluctance to take on the mantle of leadership at such a young age prompted the Taliban elders to choose Akhundzada for what is arguably one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. All the same, observers assume that Yaqoob, who is in his early 20s, is being groomed to become the leader of the Taliban eventually.
The other deputy leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the dreaded Haqqani network, was retained in his position. Both Yaqoob and Haqqani are primarily handling Taliban military operations, and thus enjoy significant influence over the fighters. Like the new supreme leader, they are hardliners who are expected to continue the inflexible Taliban policies of their predecessors, diminishing the chances of any deal with the Afghan government.
Akhundzada is a religious scholar and firm believer in jihad and Sharia law. He is expected to resist pressure from Pakistan, or from the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), consisting of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US, to hold peace talks with Kabul. Islamabad is being urged to bring the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table, or take military action against it, but Pakistan has made it clear it will not attack the Afghan Taliban on its own territory, fearing this would spread the Afghan conflict and destabilise the country.
The US argued that Mansoor was eliminated because he was an obstacle to the peace process and a threat to its forces in Afghanistan. But that description applies to almost every Taliban member, and disregards the fact that the Taliban Rahbari Shura collectively takes the decision to go to war or make peace, rather than leaving it to an individual, even the supreme leader.
Instead the drone strike has put a brake on the Afghan peace process. While no peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have taken place, the four countries involved in the process had not given up. There is widespread recognition that there is no real alternative to a negotiated political settlement of the Afghan conflict after the failure of some of the most powerful armies in the world to force a military solution against the Taliban during the past 15 years.
Having lost Mansoor, the new Taliban leadership at this stage seems unable to calm down its rank and file and justify holding talks with the Afghan government, which is heavily dependent on US military and economic assistance for its survival. The Afghan government too is finding it difficult to justify peace talks with the Taliban, particularly in the wake of the devastating April 19 attack against the central Kabul office of the intelligence agency, the National Director of Security (NDS).
Pakistan argues that this would be premature, but at the same time wants the Afghan government and Nato forces to act against Pakistani militants who have taken refuge in Afghanistan, and are using its soil to launch terrorist attacks in Pakistan. It also alleges that India is using Afghan territory to destabilize Pakistan. All this has led to an almost unbridgeable gulf in trust between Islamabad and Kabul.
Meanwhile, the US drone strike further strained relations between Washington and Islamabad, which protested that its sovereignty had been violated. The Pakistan Army chief, General Raheel Sharif, told the US ambassador that the attack was unacceptable, amid concern about the US threat to undertake more drone strikes in Pakistan. Islamabad went to the extent of calling the US a ‘selfish’ country, asking how Washington expected Pakistan to bring peace in Afghanistan if American-led Nato forces could not do it in 15 years.