NeverEnding Story Global War on Terror saw some big news over the weekend:
An American drone strike on Saturday in a restive province of Pakistan killed Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, the White House confirmed on Monday.
Calling the death “an important milestone,” President Obama said in a statement, released just as he was meeting with top officials in Vietnam, that the United States had “removed the leader of an organization that has continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and coalition forces.”
“Mansour 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,” Mr. Obama continued in the statement. “The Taliban should seize the opportunity to pursue the only real path for ending this long conflict — joining the Afghan government in a reconciliation process that leads to lasting peace and stability.”
Now, nothing I am about to say should be taken as a defense of Akhtar Muhammad Mansour or a lament that he’s now departed this earthly plane. He was the leader, and before that the deputy leader, of an organization that has brought misery to countless decent human beings over the past 2 or so decades. He won’t be missed.
Except, and here’s what worries me, his successor may very well be worse. And by “worse” I mean more violent, more capricious about that violence, more criminally minded, and less inclined (or able) to contemplate ever negotiating an end to the Afghan war. At the very least, Mansour’s successor will likely be even more constrained on that last point than he was, and he was pretty constrained.
Oh, and there’s also the very strong possibility that a succession dispute will further fracture the already fractured Taliban, which could pay off in the long run but means more inter-factional fighting and performative terrorist attacks in the short term.
When Mansour officially succeeded Mullah Omar last year (or to put it another way, when the Taliban governing council finally acknowledged that Omar had been dead for a couple of years and Mansour was already running things), there was a fleeting thought that Mansour might be amenable to talking to Kabul, and he himself said he was open to talks “if the country is not under occupation” (I have no idea what he’s talking about). But then a couple of things happened. Mansour’s position as the new Taliban leader immediately began to look tenuous, probably because he was seen as a bit of a softie on the idea of negotiating with Kabul, and so the organization a) appointed Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani network, as one of his deputies, and b) broke apart. The latter led to, say it with me now, more violence. The upshot is that nobody ever got to see if Mansour was actually amenable to negotiations or if he was just blowing smoke, because he couldn’t make any move toward talks without potentially losing power (which would have also meant losing his life) to internal challengers.
Sirajuddin Haqqani is considered one of the two most likely contenders (along with his fellow deputy leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, to succeed Mansour, though there’s also talk of naming Mullah Omar’s son to the job. Haqqani is a, or the (I’ll explain in a second), leader of the Haqqani network and has a $10 million bounty on his head courtesy of the US government. His father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, was one of America’s best mujahideen clients in the 1980s (Charlie Wilson, the Texas congressman who made arming the Afghan rebels his life’s mission, called him “goodness personified”). He brought his military operation (the Haqqani network) under the Taliban umbrella (while retaining considerable autonomy) in the mid-1990s just before the Taliban seized control of the country, which post-9/11 meant that he and America had to throw out their matching “FRIENDS FOREVER” bracelets. Jalaluddin was allegedly killed sometime in 2014 (and anyway he suffered a stroke several years ago and hasn’t been able to run the network directly since), though there’s been no hard evidence of that, so Sirajuddin may be running the network along with his father or may be in charge of the whole thing himself.
The Haqqanis are ultra-violent even by Taliban standards. They were the first Taliban fighters to employ suicide bombing as a tactic against American forces and Afghan targets. The network’s policy on talking to Kabul appears to be complete opposition. They engage in a whole host of activities–to name just a few: extortion, kidnapping, smuggling, drug trafficking–more akin to an organized crime outfit than a politically-minded insurgency, and to the extent that the Taliban has started to emphasize those same kinds of activities it could well be due to the increasing Haqqani influence on their parent organization. If Sirajuddin takes over the whole Taliban, that could be very bad news for Afghanistan. Also, I should probably mention that the Haqqani’s have deep ties, again going back to the mujahideen days, with Pakistani intelligence, though Pakistan naturally denies this. Those Pakistani connections have increased the network’s power and capabilities.
Whoever takes over, even if it’s Akhundzada or Mullah Omar’s son Muhammad Yaqub, is still likely to be less amenable to talks than people thought Mansour was, either out of personal preference or because the organization’s dynamics are likely to be even more set against the idea of peace talks now than they were a year ago. The organization, whatever internal dynamics may be at play, is in a competition for recruits with ISIS-Khurasan (which hasn’t really been able to get a foothold in Afghanistan but is hanging out there as an alternative for hardline fighters), and that’s enough to push any competing jihadi group toward a more militant orientation. Plus, hey, the Taliban is doing pretty well for itself right now, so any impetus to cut a deal and end the fighting just isn’t there. And if there’s no consensus about the succession, you can expect to see some splinter groups form (maybe the Haqqanis will go off on their own if Sirajuddin doesn’t get the gig), which will mean more fighting and more incentive for all those groups to move toward harder line positions with respect to negotiations.
In the long-run, a less accommodating, more violent (and therefore less able to gain broad popular support) Taliban that’s at war as much with its own splinter groups as with anybody else could turn out to be OK for Afghanistan. It could weaken the insurgency and make it less popular to people who are unhappy with Kabul. But that’s a ways off and speculative. Meanwhile, the chances that things in Afghanistan are about to get even more violent than they already are seem pretty high.