war on the rocks

The Killing of Mullah Mansour: Major Milestone or Fart in the Wind?

May 27, 2016

By affording a sanctuary to Taliban leaders in Pakistan, the United States has allowed the insurgent movement to grow in strength, to the point that they control nearly a third of Afghanistan. The U.S. drone strike that killed Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansour, the emir of the Taliban, could have been a good first step in altering a failing regional foreign policy. After all, a comprehensive campaign of targeting senior Taliban commanders, on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, could serve as an effective counter to the insurgency’s growth.

Unfortunately, President Obama has sent clear signals that this was probably a one-off attack and that he intends to stick to a tunnel vision approach of fostering political accommodation between the Afghan government and the Taliban. As a result, Mansour’s death will have a subdued impact on the insurgent movement – effectively a fart in the wind. The Taliban have already selected a successor: Malawi Haibatullah Akhunzada. Instead of driving them to the peace table, the Taliban will follow up Mansour’s death with an increase in attacks in Afghanistan in the near-term, similar to what we witnessed last summer when news of Mullah Omar’s death surfaced.

During his visit to Vietnam, Obama told reporters that Mansour’s death marks an “important milestone in our longstanding effort to bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan.” Obama was quick to point out that this strike “was not signaling a shift to our approach,” suggesting, in effect, that the U.S. will not be taking the fight more aggressively to the insurgency on any sustained basis.

Secretary of State John Kerry also made it clear immediately after the strike on Mansour that the United States targeted the Taliban leader because he was impeding reconciliation efforts. “Peace is what we want. Mansour was a threat to that effort,” Kerry said, in comments during a press conference in Burma. He continued: “He also was directly opposed to peace negotiations and to the reconciliation process. It is time for Afghans to stop fighting and to start building a real future together.” General Joseph Votel, the head of Central Command, highlighted Mansour’s importance in the Taliban movement during a press conference in Jordan, ending his comments with a curt “I’m glad he’s gone.” But, the fact that he’s gone will likely not impact the Taliban in the way that the Obama administration hoped it would.

Of the roughly 400 U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan since 9/11, none have been in Baluchistan. As a result, the Taliban senior leaders have been able to move about the province with no fear of attacks. Many Washington and Kabul pundits have argued for years that it would be hard to defeat the Taliban insurgency while its senior leaders maintained a sanctuary in Baluchistan province. After all, the Taliban supreme council (the Quetta Shura) is named after the provincial capital, which has remained unmolested despite being the political and military headquarters of our enemy.

In many ways, Washington’s approach to Pakistan has been more about offering or withholding carrots rather than combining incentives with consequences for negative behavior. Offering a steady diet of carrots to Pakistan in order to leverage their influence over the Taliban to bring them into the political fold in Afghanistan clearly has not worked. Following up the killing of Mansour with additional strikes against other Taliban officials and commanders in Baluchistan could have made it clear to Islamabad that the United States would no longer tolerate the Taliban sanctuary on Pakistani soil and that carrots would finally be paired with sticks.

Already Pakistan has protested the attack on Mansour, but the response to what amounts to the highest profile attack on its soil since the bin Laden raid in 2011, has been rather anemic. No doubt, additional strikes would strain relations even further. But Pakistan, even if begrudged, would be more likely to take a stronger position against the Taliban and end their sponsorship of the group – or, at least, pretend to. Then, if Pakistan proved sincere, in deeds not just words, the Congressional block on U.S. funding assistance for Islamabad’s purchases under the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program could be lifted. This means the United States could make $700 million, instead of the original $270 million, available for the purchase of eight U.S.-made F-16 Block-52 fighters to Pakistan. But, if the Obama administration does not follow up the targeting of Mansour with additional strikes, , the Taliban will recover quickly.

Thus far, the Taliban seem unfazed by Mansour’s death. Akhunzada, the new Taliban leader, is a respected elder from Kandahar province and was considered Mullah Omar’s spiritual guide. His transition to the leadership post appears seamless and his appointment is likely a signal to Taliban hardliners that the movement remains uncompromising in its pursuit of victory. Sirajuddin Haqqani — Mansour’s deputy, leader of the Haqqani network, and close al Qaeda ally — was reelected to the Taliban’s “number two” post and will likely handle most of the operational orders to field commanders. The appointment of Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub, the son of the Mullah Omar, as the second deputy to Akhunzada is also considered by many as a sign that the Taliban want to minimize the friction amongst various factions. After all, Mansour spent most of last year managing internal dissent, in no small part because some Taliban senior commanders viewed Yaqoub as a more fitting successor of Mullah Omar than Mansour.

Ironically, even though Mansour was killed because, according to U.S. officials, he was opposed to the peace talks, Akhunzada, has already made it clear that he is not interested in reconciliation efforts either. his first message as emir, Akhunzada mentioned, “No, no we will not come to any type of peace talks.” Also, if Siraj Haqqani, the architect of the most spectacular attacks against Afghan cities, takes more operational control of combat operations in Afghanistan, attacks will likely get even more extravagant and violent.

Like the last stanza in T.S. Eliot’s Hollow Men, Mullah Omar’s death came “not with a bang but with a whimper.” To the contrary, Mansour’s “martyrdom” on the battlefield will reinforce the field commanders’, and rank-and-file Taliban, belief that their cause is just. All indicators at this point suggest that the war in Afghanistan will likely continue to intensify and that Mansour’s death will not be a “game changer” for reconciliation efforts.

Ultimately, for the past 15 years, successive administrations have signaled that the United States does not have the stomach for what it will take to win in Afghanistan. Killing Mansour was necessary to demonstrate seriousness in a new approach to targeting the Taliban but, in and of itself, the strike was insufficient in bringing the Taliban to the peace talks or altering their behavior on the battlefield. Without following up this strike with more attacks against Taliban targets in Baluchistan, Mansour’s death will end up galvanizing Taliban support, increase the risk to NATO and Afghan troops in Afghanistan, and, most likely, deliver more carrots without a return on U.S. investment on Pakistan. Sadly, the killing of Mansour, while necessary, will prove insufficient and contribute to the notion that Washington’s regional approach is abysmally inadequate.

 

Ioannis Koskinas served as a special operations officer in the U.S. military for over 20 years. Currently, he is a Senior Fellow at New America and is the CEO of Hoplite Group, a bespoke consultancy firm that focuses on political risk mitigation strategies in frontier markets.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Christian Clausen