An Assasination That Could Bring War or Peace
At a press conference in Hanoi on May 23, President Obama announced that he would lift the decades-old arms embargo on Vietnam, which he called “a lingering vestige of the Cold War.” He also confirmed that, two days earlier, a missile launched from a U.S. Special Operations Forces drone had killed the Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur in a taxi about a hundred miles southwest of Quetta, the capital of the Pakistani province of Balochistan. (The strike also killed the driver, Muhammad Azam, whose family the U.S. should compensate.) Obama called the air strike an “important milestone” in terminating that other vestige of the Cold War: the protean, never-ending conflict in Afghanistan.
The strike, Obama said, “removed the leader of an organization that has continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and Coalition forces, to wage war against the Afghan people, and align itself with extremist groups like al Qaeda.” Afghan social-media users thrilled to the news that the U.S. had, for the first time, taken the fight to the Taliban’s safe haven in Balochistan, from which the Taliban leadership sent suicide bombers and assassins into Afghanistan with impunity.
Obama also expressed the hope that the Taliban would “seize the opportunity” of Mansur’s death “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.” So far, the Taliban do not seem to have interpreted the assassination of their leader as an outstretched hand for peace. Like other fighters, including ours, the Taliban respond to blows that fail to destroy them with determination to make their enemy pay the consequences. Research on the “decapitation” of terrorist groups shows that it rarely splits them and often radicalizes them.
Mansur had taken charge of the organization less than a year before, when an attempt to start peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government triggered the revelation that Mansur had concealed the April, 2013, death of the Taliban’s founding leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar. A small group hurriedly appointed Mansur as successor, but the closed nature of the process, the visible effort to shore up Mansur’s support by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the I.S.I., and Mansur’s two-year-long deception of the Taliban’s membership caused dissension from Mullah Omar’s family and other leaders.
On May 25th, the Afghan Taliban leadership council in Quetta chose Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, a religious scholar, as the new leader. As the head of the Taliban’s council of ulama (Islamic scholars), he played a role like general counsel to both Omar and Mansur, providing Islamic legal justification for acts such as suicide bombings and targeted killings. He had also served as a judge in the Taliban’s military courts, where he gained a reputation for harsh rectitude. So far, the succession process has gone smoothly: many of those who objected to Mansur’s selection have agreed to pledge loyalty to the new leader. Hibatullah need not exert much authority to continue the Taliban’s annual spring offensive, especially now that the fighters have an additional motivation: avenging their leader’s death.
In the past year, the main issue in the peace process was whether Pakistan could or would use its influence with the Taliban leaders to bring them into negotiations with the Afghan government. This was just the latest round in a history of mistrust, missed opportunities, and power plays. The day after the signing of the Bonn Agreement, which established Afghanistan’s current political dispensation, in December, 2001, President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban leadership agreed on a truce and amnesty that might have allowed the Taliban to enter the new order. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared there would be no negotiated settlement. He sent U.S. Special Forces to capture Taliban leaders, including those who had agreed to the truce, and deport them to Guantánamo Bay. Those Taliban leaders who escaped capture fled to Pakistan, where the military used them to pressure the U.S. and Afghan governments over a settlement in Kabul that they believed threatened their interests.
Pakistan and the Taliban used each other, but they did not have the same goals. In 2008 and 2009, when the Taliban felt that their military and terrorist campaign had made them strong enough to seek international recognition, they sent emissaries to Saudi Arabia as a possible intermediary with the U.S. The U.S., not the Afghan government, had fielded the main military force fighting them, was holding Taliban leaders as prisoners in Guantánamo, and had blocked initial attempts at a settlement. Pakistan allowed envoys engaged in Taliban fund-raising to travel around the Persian Gulf with false passports like one that was found in Mansur’s baggage. A tiny group in the Taliban leadership secretly used these envoys for political purposes without, they hoped, the knowledge of Pakistan.
After falling out with the Saudis, the Taliban turned to Germany and Qatar, who arranged direct talks between the Taliban and the U.S. starting in November, 2010. Pakistan learned of them immediately, of course. As U.S.-Taliban talks sputtered on through the following year, the Pakistan Army tried to discredit the Taliban in Doha. In September, 2011, however, it changed tactics. The Pakistani intelligence chief, General Shuja Ahmad Pasha, travelled to Doha, where he remonstrated with the Taliban for acting independently. Thereafter, Pakistan tried to extend its influence to the Taliban in Doha as well. U.S.-Pakistan relations worsened throughout the year. In October, 2011, Secretary Clinton went to Pakistan, whereshe reflected tough private exchanges when she told a press conference, “You can’t keep snakes in your back yard and expect them only to bite your neighbors.”
Soon after, in January, 2012, multiple leaks and reports forced the Taliban to admit publicly that they had been talking to the U.S., setting off disputes in the leadership and stunning the rank and file. Taliban military leaders encountered resistance to recruitment for that spring’s offensive. On March 11th, U.S. Sergeant Robert Bales murdered sixteen sleeping villagers in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar province, where many of the Taliban leaders were born. The Taliban suspended direct talks soon after and made the military effort their priority.
Continued indirect talks led to the botched opening and immediate closing of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, in June, 2013 (an effort in which I was involved, as a U.S. State Department official). Both Pakistan and Qatar claimed some credit for the aborted breakthrough. They also resulted in the June, 2014, transfer to Qatar of five Taliban Guantánamo detainees in return for the release of the captured U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, an exchange the Taliban had originally proposed as a confidence-building measure that could lead to negotiations with the U.S. and Afghan governments.
While President Karzai consented to the U.S.-Taliban talks, he and the Afghan government, including his successor, Ashraf Ghani, were always uncomfortable with them, not because they opposed a settlement but because they thought that direct talks between the Taliban and the U.S. without the Afghan government failed to take Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban into account, gave the Taliban too much importance, and undermined the government’s authority. Karzai concluded that the U.S. would never exert enough pressure on Islamabad and tried to bring the Taliban back to Afghanistan through secret talks without Pakistan’s knowledge. Ghani took a different approach, launching a public diplomatic offensive to calm Pakistan’s fears about the Indian presence in Afghanistan and cross-border territorial claims. He also lined up Pakistan’s all-weather friend China to support a settlement. Consultations among these countries and the U.S. led to the formation of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (Q.C.G.), including the U.S., China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and dedicated to launching the Afghan peace process.
President Ghani has wanted to use the Q.C.G. as a format for talks in which Pakistan would have such a strong stake that it would make the negotiations succeed, especially under pressure from the U.S. and China. Pakistan would use its control over the Taliban to bring the group’s representatives to negotiate with the Afghan government, at a meeting held in and chaired by Pakistan with the U.S. and China present as observers, but the Afghan government would mainly negotiate with Pakistan, not the Taliban. Pakistan, eager to control the process and assure that any political agreement would not be not at its expense, welcomed this format. You can force a combatant to the table, however, but you can’t make him negotiate. Pakistan brought three individuals from the Taliban, under duress, to a meeting in Murree, Pakistan, last July, but could not or would not bring them or any others back to a new round of talks.
Killing Mansur with a U.S. drone may reinforce the Taliban’s conviction that if they need to talk to anyone, it is to the U.S., while killing Mansur as he was riding down a Pakistan national highway with a Pakistani passport confirms Afghans’ belief that their real problem is with Pakistan. It may not matter at this point, however. The Taliban seem determined to pursue their offensive to test the strength of the Afghan forces, without their former U.S. and NATO partners, in battle. Ghani has ruled out talks this year and told the population to prepare for six more months of war.
Ghani also announced a change in what he expected of Pakistan in future talks. Pakistan’s role had been to use its “influence” on the Taliban to bring them into negotiations. In an April 27th speech to a joint session of the Afghan parliament, however, Ghani demanded military action or law enforcement against Taliban who refused to negotiate. Islamabad has argued that taking such measures against the Taliban would compromise its ability to persuade them to talk. Pakistan claims to have warned the Taliban that if they refuse to negotiate they risk losing permission to stay in Pakistan and other facilities they have there, but none of these threats has been carried out. As the stamps from Iran and Dubai in Mansur’s false passport show, Pakistan has not even restricted the Taliban’s movements.
In January, the Q.C.G. adopted a road map that requires all members, including Pakistan, to undertake “steps in their respective territories to reduce violence including by measures necessary to dismantle militant sanctuaries, recruitment, financing, communication and supply systems.” That should be Pakistan’s priority: communicating through its actions that it is closing the safe haven. Even if the U.S. and China hold Pakistan to the commitment in the Q.C.G. road map, Afghanistan and the U.S. will still have to address Pakistan’s legitimate concerns, as President Obama promised to do in a November, 2010, letter to then President Asif Ali Zardari. Such discussions will require clarity about what concerns are legitimate. No actions by Pakistan will remove the ultimate need to include the Taliban in political dialogue, but they can reduce the Taliban’s ability to use terrorism and violence as leverage.
Ending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan without abandoning the country to decades more of violence and instability is central to the legacy that Obama wants to leave behind. In his statement on Mansur’s death, he suggested that, in his nine remaining months, he may use means he had previously ruled out to remove obstacles to his goal. He hinted that the U.S. could target the Taliban in Pakistan again, and not only in the tribal areas, where all but one previous drone strikes have taken place. He also signalled that the ultimate target of such strikes is not the Taliban but those within Pakistan’s state who harbor them. “We will work on shared objectives with Pakistan, where terrorists that threaten all our nations must be denied safe haven,” he said, and then added that the U.S. had “once again sent a clear message to all those who target our people and our partners: you will have no safe haven.”
This article was originally published in the New Yorker on June 4, 2016