On May 21, 2016, the United States conducted a drone attack along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that killed the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour. The attack represented the first time the U.S. has targeted a Taliban chief since the U.S.-led coalition began pressing for talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban.
U.S. officials confirmed that they informed Pakistan and Afghanistan of the drone strike after it had occurred. In response, Pakistan predictably protested the “violation” of its “sovereignty.” Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali accused the U.S. of “sabotaging the [Afghanistan-Taliban] dialog process.”
So how much of a forewarning, if any, did Pakistan have of the drone attack that killed Mullah Mansour? There are effectively two schools of thought on the subject: the first believes that the U.S. kept the Pakistanis in the dark, a la the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in 2011.
The argument goes that the U.S., exasperated with Pakistan and its inability (or unwillingness) to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, killed Mullah Mansour to drive home the message that Pakistan’s continued duplicity will not be without costs. The latent reaction from Islamabad coupled with loud protests lends credibility to the argument.
On the other hand, there is the school of thought that believes that the U.S. could not have struck and killed Mullah Mansour without some level of on-the-ground intelligence on his location and movements. A New York Times piece confirms that the U.S. told Pakistan “several weeks ago” that Mullah Mansour was a target and that the Pakistanis provided the U.S. “general information about his location and activities…”
Further, the nature of the attack -- the first of its kind in Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province -- supports this argument. While the U.S. conducts drone attacks predominantly in North Waziristan, there is a tacit agreement between the U.S. and Pakistan against drone strikes in Balochistan. Would it therefore be farfetched believe that the U.S. might have sought Pakistani permission before launching the attack that killed Mullah Mansour?
The truth is possibly closer to this reading of events. Some in Pakistan’s military establishment were likely taken into confidence over the impending strike, but warned not to interfere with the operation. If some reports are to be believed, the Pakistanis had lost positive control over Mullah Mansour, who, since being appointed amir unleashed a bloody campaign of violence against Afghanistan and dissenting Taliban factions alike, while refusing to participate in the ironically-named “Afghan-owned, Afghan-led” (but in actuality Pakistan-owned, Pakistan-led) peace process.
If the Pakistanis came to believe that they miscalculated in placing their faith in Mullah Mansour, it is unlikely that they will lose much sleep over his killing, the public embarrassment of an American attack within Pakistani territory notwithstanding. Pakistan’s loud protests, then, are at best perfunctory.
Since Mullah Mansour’s killing, the Taliban moved quickly to appoint a new leader: Haibatullah Akhunzada. Mullah Haibatullah is considered to be more a cleric or religious scholar than a jihadi fighter. According to a news report published in BBC Urdu, Haibatullah is about 45-50 years old and was not among the 33 founding members of the Taliban movement in Qandahar in 1994. Mullah Haibatullah was also close to and respected by the Taliban’s first amir ul-momineen, Mullah Omar.
The news agency Reuters, quoting a senior Taliban commander at the Quetta Shura – the leadership council of the Taliban – suggests that Mullah Haibatullah was hesitant to take over the reins and only acceded upon the insistence of the majority of the council. The decision to appoint Haibatullah may have been informed by a desire to elect the least divisive figure as leader.
After all, it was only last September that members of the Shura stormed out when it was decided that Mullah Mansour be appointed chief after Mullah Omar. Mansour’s short rein was marked by bitter discord among rival Taliban factions.
Journalist Tahir Khan notes that even with Mullah Haibatullah’s appointment, real power in the Taliban is likely to be wielded by his deputies – Mullah Yakub, son of Omar, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani Network and an asset of Pakistan’s powerful Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). It is possible therefore that Mullah Haibatullah has been appointed chief in- name-only.
A few observations can be made about what these recent events portend for Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban. The death of Mullah Mansour will not significantly dent Pakistan’s continued desire (with the aid of the Taliban) to turn Afghanistan into a client state and thereby minimize Indian influence in that country. Indeed, if the Taliban’s spring offensive this year has taught us anything, it is that the insurgent group can sustain a brutal campaign within Afghanistan even in the midst of leadership transition and internecine conflict.
Haibatullah’s accession will also not alter the Taliban’s overall philosophy. The decision to continue taking the fight to the Afghan government is not decided upon by any one individual, but by the Shura, of which Haibatullah is part, his reputation of being less warlike than his predecessors notwithstanding.
The insurgency in Afghanistan will continue because the Taliban fundamentally seeks to return to power in Afghanistan, not to enter into a power-sharing agreement with an already strife-torn national unity government in Kabul. It is unlikely therefore that the group will abjure violence and enter into peace negotiations with the Afghan government. In any case, there is not much that the Afghan government can concede to the Taliban (other than sign its own death warrant) that will likely satisfy the insurgent group.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Ivo Toniut.