27.05.2016 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

On the Death of Mullah Akhtar Mansour

3453454543In a U.S. drone strike well inside the Pakistani territory of Balochistan province, the Afghan Taliban’s leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed, leaving many people wondering as to why the attack has taken place at a time when peace negotiations, howsoever fragile and uncertain these might have been, were going on and when the U.S. itself has repeatedly stated in unambiguous terms that it wanted a negotiated end of the war. With Mullah Akhtar Mansour dead, the Taliban leadership may shift to more hardline elements, such as the notorious Haqqani group, making the ‘negotiated end’ of the war even more difficult a task to achieve for all the parties involved, including Pakistan and China. Or will it?

On the other hand, this attack is most likely to provoke the Taliban into carrying out more attacks and, as such, provide the U.S. with the much needed excuse to prolong its stay in Afghanistan and keep the region militarized for as long a period as possible as a means to prevent China’s ingress into Afghanistan and through it into West Asia/the Middle East and to watch over Russia’s expanding political and economic relations in the region extending from Central Asia to Southeast Asia and beyond. The drone strike was, therefore, not merely aimed at eliminating the threat the Afghan Taliban have been posing to both the U.S. and Afghan civilians, it was equally linked with the U.S.’ larger regional objectives, the most important of which is, and has always been since the beginning of the war in 2001, to have maximum influence in the energy rich countries of Central Asia—and flow of energy resources from there— and extend that influence to an extent where that U.S. can manipulate the economic progress of countries, such as China, that depend upon supply of energy from this region.

As against what is indisputably in the interest of Afghanistan, Pakistan and other regional and international powers that the Afghan question be settled through dialogue, the strike is going to prolong the conflict. Given that the US has now bluntly stated that the Taliban leader was an ‘impediment’ to negotiations and eliminated him, it is not clear who dialogue can be conducted with among the group or even if the Taliban will be able to stay united. Commenting on the news, John Kerry stated, “Peace is what we want. Mansour was a threat to that effort and to bringing an end to the violence and suffering people of Afghanistan have endured for so many years now. He was also directly opposed to the peace negotiation and to the reconciliation process.”

As some ground sources available in Afghanistan indicate, elimination of Mansour is expected to trigger yet another ‘war of succession’ within the Afghan Taliban. This succession is also likely to result in intensification of Taliban attack in the civilian areas that the Taliban factions, vying for supremacy among themselves, would use to stamp their own authority over their rival factions. The war, in other words, would simply intensify just as it had intensified after the reported, yet never fully confirmed, death of Mullah Omar.

According to some highly informed circles in the Pakistani security establishment, the chief operational commander of the Haqqani militant network, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is known for employing ruthless tactics against the coalition forces in Afghanistan, is set to become the new leader of the Taliban. While the Haqqanis do not have clout with fighters in the southern Afghanistan, Mansour’s death could further strengthen their position within the insurgency, thus making reconciliation even more difficult.

While reconciliation may become difficult, both Pakistan and the U.S. stand to benefit from it in some way. For the departing U.S. president, as also for his party, this is yet another ‘victory’ against terrorism and yet another justification for the ‘peace prize’ he had been awarded with in the early years of his presidentship. It is, in simple words, a victory that the Democrats would certainly utilize to cash in on their election campaign against the Republicans who have been accusing Obama for his ‘passivism’ and ‘reconciliatory’ attitude towards the Taliban as also other terror groups.

As for Pakistan, this ‘co-ordinated strike’ can be a useful way to mend its fractured ties with the U.S. and pave the way for the deals and aid packages the U.S. congress has recently voted against. On the other hand, the loss of Mansour did not mean much for Pakistan. His replacement by the Haqqanis would, in turn, give Pakistan even more clout over the Taliban and enable it to manipulate the peace process to its advantage.

Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s death, in simple words, is far from a game changing incident. It is not going to turn the tide, leading to an outright US victory. It is, contrary to what the American might expect, only a small twist in the war that has been dragging on for almost 15 years now and is likely to go on for as long as the U.S. does not make a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan—a scenario that the incumbent president continues to resist politically and the up-coming president, whether Clinton or Trump, is expected, given their hawkish inclinations, to add more fire to.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.