The killing of Mullah Mansour comes at a crucial time in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This crucial period is characterised by factors on both the state and non-state level. On the state level, the peace process, supported by Pakistan, China and US has stagnated, the Afghan government remains weak and bilateral relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan are failing. On the non-state level, the Taliban are gaining a resurgence and are taking over territory. The battle for the legitimacy of Jihad is also being waged among different Taliban factions – those that claim loyalty to the Islamic State group (IS) and those that do not. These factors make for an unstable environment, which is why it is important to ask: Why was Mullah Mansour taken out now, and what possible consequences are there for this action?
It is being revealed that the CIA acted on a pre-approved authority by the US President Barack Obama to take Mullah Mansour out. Under this assumption, the assassination of Mansour unraveled in the following sequence: The intelligence community receives an actionable intelligence about the movement of Mullah Mansour. The intelligence is then verified and a drone strike is ordered (presumably within hours to conduct the operation in a timely manner). Yet, it seems difficult to imagine that the CIA ‘pulled the trigger’ without notifying the White House first. After all, Mullah Mansour is the leader of the most formidable force fighting not just the US – but NATO as a whole.
Therefore, it is likely that the operation against Mullah Mansour was not a tactical decision, i.e. an opportunity-based operation; but rather, a strategic decision that required the highest executive authority.
If that is the case then a few questions need answering: Why take out Mullah Mansour now? And, most importantly: Why take him out without knowing who will replace him? It is well known that there were only a couple of possible replacements for Mullah Mansour: Siraj Haqqani, Mullah Omar’s son or someone else . If Siraj Haqqani were to have replaced Mansour, then it is likely he would have been more radical than his predecessor, being that he gains his success as an operational commander and is close to Pakistani authorities. Mullah Omar’s son – another contender – would not necessarily have been an ideal replacement, either. We doubt that the Taliban’s new leader, Mawlwai Haibtullah, would have been at the top of the list. He is quite well known as a very conservative figure, who was close to Mullah Omar and not much in favour of peace negotiations. In essence, none of the likely replacements forTaliban leadership would have aligned with US interests. So, why replace a leader with the one who is much more radical?
The answer is much more complicated. If Siraj Haqqani was to be deemed as the next leader, then the intelligence about Mullah Mansour’s location is likely to have come from Pakistani authorities, due to their close relationship with Haqqani. Under this premise, it is then questionable to believe that Pakistan was only informed after the operation had occurred. Pakistan would have something to gain from sharing the information. It is widely known (backed by some of our sources) that Mullah Mansour was becoming an obstacle to the peace talks. If Haqqani was chosen as the new leader of the Taliban, Pakistan would have a more opportunity to coordinate and exert more influence over Taliban.
Timing is also important to note. The announcement of new leadership of the Taliban corresponded with Pakistan strongly denouncing a breach of its sovereignty by U.S. drone strikes. If the above hypothesis is correct, then Pakistan seriously miscalculated the leadership struggle within the Taliban as well as its ability to exert influence on the organisation.
The killing of Mullah Mansour offers a short-to-midterm strategic benefits, regardless of who got chosen as leader. These strategic benefits include: adding another kill to ‘Obama administration’, which adds to the Administration’s legacy, the operation sends a message that US has not changed its strategy to take out figure heads of insurgencies, it had the possibility of creating more division within Taliban movement and stopping their momentum, it gives some credibility to struggling Afghan government, etc. Despite this expansive list of possible strategic benefits, they are all medium term strategic benefits. It seems that this decision failed to include larger strategic calculations, which are more crucial to US interests in the long-term.
First, the ‘kill and capture campaign’ in Afghanistan has shown that once a Taliban leader is killed, a more radical one appears. This is because the US ‘kill and capture campaign’ has brought up a young, inexperienced and more radical level leadership. If the experienced, well-seasoned leaders are killed, then only the inexperienced remain. In a larger context, the killing of Mullah Akhtar Mansour may have the reverse effect. Instead of throwing the organisation into further disarray, it is more likely – as historical pattern suggests- that the cadres of Taliban will unite against a more radical leadership, which Mullah Akhnuzada provides. Mullah Mansour’s leadership was contested; but Mullah Akhunzada’s leadership may not be. After all, he has appointed Siraj Haqqani (the most prominent military leader) and Mullah Omar’s son as his deputy. It is very likely that the new leadership will unite, rather than divide, Taliban factions. Revenge for the killing of Mullah Mansour will play another key role. Vengeance is an integral part to Pashtun culture and will therefore reinforce unity among the Taliban.
Under Mullah Akhunzada’s leadership, dictating peace may not be viable in the long-term. Mullah Akhunzada is coined as a ‘stone age Mullah’. He handed down harsh sentences under his role as Qazi (judge). Mullah Mansour, on the other hand, was more open minded in his negotiations. He took amnesty offered by Karzai Administration, threw down his weapons, initiated peace talks with the US, and opened an office in Qatar. On the other hand, Mullah Akhunzada is a religious leader and his deputy Siraj Haqqani is a military leader. Our previous report ‘Revisiting Hamasisation in Taliban’ suggested that the Haqqani group is playing a similar part as Izze din Qassam brigade of Hamas. It is a strong, operationally independent unit, with allegiance to the leadership. Under the new leadership hierarchy, peace talks will become more complex and difficult – if not completely impossible.
Third, the killing of Mullah Mansour will further agonise Taliban against Pakistan. As discussed above, it is likely that Mullah Mansour’s death was a direct result of Pakistani intelligence. Thus, Taliban cadres will believe that the ISI sold out their leader and will cause them to unite against the Pakistani government. The appointment of Mullah Akhuzada demonstrates, above all, that the Taliban’s Shura cares about unity and strength. The ‘insiders’ of the Taliban leaderships and cadres (who are based inside Afghanistan), already have strong anti- Pakistani feelings, which will be exacerbated. For this reason, the Taliban’s new leader will not be as favourable as Pakistan had hoped. The killing of Mullah Mansour will also create a further hostility against the US and its allies – as noted above. Achieving peace maybe more difficult when there is an air of vengeance amongst junior and mid -rank cadres of the organisation.
Finally, the strategic decision to kill Mullah Omar shows short-sightedness of US policy-making. This dilemma can be characterised in two ways. On one hand, the US desperately wants to stabilise Afghanistan so it can give a ‘mission successful’ stamp on the operation. On the other hand, the US is gravely concerned about China’s strategic ambitions in South and Central Asia. Despite the rhetoric, the US is actively seeking to balance Asia Pacific so that China does not become the sole regional power . From this logical point of view; stability in South Asia – where Chinese core economic interests’ lies – is not really in US strategic interests.
Above all, the selection of Mullah Akhunzada by the Shura demonstrates that killing a militant leader does not work. It also shows the adaptability, maturity and strategic thinking of the Taliban movement. Despite strong pressure and remarkable little time,the Shura decided to choose a rather unexpected and strong leader. Being a religious leader, Mullah Akhunzada will give the Taliban movement more legitimacy over the ensuing battle between traditional Taliban Jihadists forces and those allied with IS. It will also unite different factions to take on NATO forces and on ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces).
‘The Hamasisation effect’ will decrease on both fronts with Mullah Akhunzada as the new leader. The ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ leadership, which had been the norm within the Taliban movement since the beginning of the GWOT (Global war on Terror), will reduce. Most of the new leadership is likely to remain within Afghanistan. Pakistan’s place as a safe haven for an effective ‘outside’ leadership is seriously challenged with the killing of Mullah Mansour. Pakistan has also ‘picked up’ key Taliban leaders in Pakistan (such as Mullah Baradar) . The lack of trust between the Taliban and Pakistan will lead to continued deterioration of influence that Pakistan has on the Taliban. Ultimately, this decreases the amount of leverage that both Pakistan and China will have in any future peace talks with the organisation. As the Taliban’s focus moves from strengthening to refocusing inwards, it will become a stronger military force. In doing so it will move away from ‘neo-Jihadism’. Neo-Jihadism is defined below by IISA:
Neo-Jihadism is a diverse, syncretic form of global organisation and interaction that emerged from within Islamic Jihadism, is unique to early-twenty-first-centuries, is increasingly sectarian and through its advocacy of violent form of war and selectively literal interpretations of sacred texts, radically differentiates itself from the traditional Jihadist forces, the faith’s mainstream and constitutes a new body of thought and actions.
Essentially neo-Jihadists are sectarian, regional and territorial; IS being a prime example. The Taliban, with a more internal focus and without an ‘outside’ leadership or safe haven mechanism, will reduce its regional ambitions and focus more on Afghanistan. They will renew their military struggle not just against ANSF and NATO forces, but also against emerging neo-Jihadists forces (such as IS affiliates). In doing so, the Taliban’s interests may align not with US, Russia, China and Iran but ironically with Al Qaeda core – which is challenging IS and neo-Jihadist forces in other places i.e. Syria, Yemen and Libya.
Despite mutual interests over neo-Jihaidsts forces, the Taliban are unlikely to have any operational communication with NATO, Russia or China, although some minor channels of political communication may remain open. Unlike the early years of Mullah Mansour’s leadership, the Taliban is unlikely to offer initiatives or demonstrate confidence-building measures to quell the major powers, such as joint operation against Al-Qaeda.
In short, by killing Mullah Mansour, the US has made a very careless strategic decision. At best, it will unite the Taliban under the new leadership. At worst, it may create a way for the Taliban to become closer to Al Qaeda-core or similar ideologies – as they battle neo-Jihadist forces in Afghanistan. With the ever divided and increasingly weakened Afghan government, expanding ethnic tension in the country and over-stretched NATO and US forces elsewhere, the killing of Mullah Mansour may be the stimulus the Taliban movement had been waiting for: to turn the tide in their favour.