Commentary

U.S. Drone Strike Kills Taliban Leader in Pakistan

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Views from the Region

The targeted killing of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in Pakistan by a U.S. drone strike, less than a year after he replaced Taliban founder Mullah Omar, has dominated commentaries in the English-language dailies of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States is thought to have acted on the urging of the Afghan government, which is frustrated by the ongoing targeting of civilians in Kabul and elsewhere on the part of the Taliban. While some are considering whether the new leader of the Taliban, Haibatullah Akhunzada, will be any more likely to make peace with the government in Kabul, many believe the U.S. drone strike was meant not just to damage the Taliban, but to wake up the Pakistan government, which has been walking a tightrope between accommodation and coercion with the Taliban. Still, with a new leader in charge, it remains to be seen what direction Taliban will take going forward.

According to a report in the Afghanistan Sun daily, the new Taliban leader has widespread support among the Taliban, but military authority continues to rest with leaders of the violent Haqqani network, and therefore prospects of renewed peace efforts remain dim: “The Taliban's new chief, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, has a reputation as a respected religious scholar with the title ‘sheikh-ul-hadith’, a specialist in interpreting the words of Mohammad, the prophet of Islam. He enjoyed the esteem and trust of the Taliban's founding leader, Mullah Omar, who turned to him for a final say on important and potentially sensitive edicts and fatwas....Haibatullah also comes from a very strong tribal background. By electing him and his deputies, the Taliban has managed to accommodate all racial, tribal, ethnic and subtribal actors that needed to be pacified....The Taliban shura, or council, has also elected two deputies for Haibatullah. One of them, Sirajuddin Haqqani, was also a deputy to the recently killed Mansoor. He is the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the Haqqani network, one of the most lethal groups in Afghanistan....While Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani has warned the Taliban to renounce violence or face the same fate as their late leader, chances of reduction in violence are now less than before.”

As a result, Afghanistan Outlook’s Abdul Ahad Bahrami argues that Mullah Mansoor's death should not be seen as a game changer.  In fact, for the foreseeable future, the Taliban is more likely to dig in rather than engage with the government in Kabul: “it seems the optimisms are largely based on the euphoria of the operation's success and the sense that the killing is a major military as well as political achievement for the administrations in Kabul and Washington. It is obviously a major blow to the Taliban, but the argument that it would help peace seems to be quite premature. Irritated by Taliban's refusal to join the four-way peace plan backed by Pakistan, China and the US, the Obama administration and the government of Afghanistan is trying to attribute the failure of the peace initiative to Mansoor's hard line, and that his demise is going to help renew the peace talks with the Taliban. This is while there are no assured signs that the Taliban's senior leadership will be more willing to talks with the Afghan government after managing to find a new leader to replace Mullah Mansoor.”

But many, including The National’s Tom Hussain, suggest that the killing is aimed at sending a message to Islamabad as much as to the Taliban: “The message delivered by Saturday’s drone strike could not have been clearer: the U.S. acted against the Taliban when Pakistan was not prepared to do so. It certainly is no secret that the Taliban has used Pakistan as a rest-and-recreation center since resuming its insurgency in Afghanistan in 2006. Nor can the Pakistani military’s special relationship with the Haqqani network be disputed. The U.S. has been leaning on Pakistan to leverage that relationship to bring the Taliban into an Afghan peace process, in return for which it would be treated as a legitimate political entity, not as a terrorist group.”

The Khaleej Times editorial staff believes that the strike could be a major coup for peace efforts and urges Pakistan to seize this moment to push the Taliban out: “The taking out of Mullah Mansour, the Taleban chief in a drone strike is being seen as a major victory against the dreaded militia....The fact that Taleban are active on both sides of the Durand Line, and the militia under Mansour managed to capture an important province for the first time in 15 years, proved his influence and effectiveness. But his exit will lead to rumblings in the ranks and a period of uncertainty in the group, which the government should exploit....The need of the hour is for all the stakeholders in the region is to join hands against the militants, and drive them out from Afghanistan. Pakistan will benefit from the peace that follows and so will the region as a whole.”

But the strike is said to have put Islamabad in an uncomfortable situation, causing the Dawn’s Zahid Hussain to conclude that Pakistan's policy of accommodation toward the Taliban is not paying dividends: “That the attack was carried out well inside Pakistan’s territory has worsened the predicament — exposing Pakistan’s vulnerability in balancing an alliance with the United States with maintaining relations with the Afghan Taliban....It was obvious that the new leadership was not willing to participate in any peace efforts without some preconditions — creating an embarrassing situation for Islamabad, that was expected to bring them to the negotiating table....This will have serious repercussions for Pakistan that seems to have little control over the Afghan Taliban who have themselves established strategic depth inside Pakistani borders. The incident has further exposed the confusion in Pakistan’s Afghan policy....With no clear strategy in place, tough times are ahead for Pakistan that is fast losing its balance on the tightrope it walks on with the United States and Afghanistan.”

The plot surrounding Mullah Mansour’s death thickens, if we consider that days prior to his killing, Gulf Today hailed Pakistan for facilitating the gathering of the United States, China, India, and Pakistan, hoping it would usher in a new era of stability: “Pakistan’s hosting of a new four-nation meeting aimed at reviving long-stalled direct peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents becomes significant. The group was formed in January to try to restart the direct peace talks. But the lack of a breakthrough has left many frustrated as the Taliban have intensified their insurgency, launched in late 2001 after they were toppled from power by a US-led invasion. The four-nation peace push comes even as Afghanistan signed a draft agreement with the Hezb-e-Islami militant group in a move the government hopes could lead to a full peace accord with the group’s leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.”

Hujjatullah Zia writes that, for its part, Islamabad remains unconvinced that the strike that killed the mullah will contribute positively to the negotiations, with Pakistan concerned especially about timing of the strike: “Islamabad is upset with Mansour’s killing because there seems to be an understanding among Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the US that a framework would be evolved for the use of force against the Taliban if they refused to join the peace process. “That stage has not arrived yet but the US went for solo flight,” a Pakistani official is quoted as saying referring to the latest meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) in which all sides decided to give peace a chance.....The escalation in civilian casualties from insurgent attacks in Afghanistan brought the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan to new lows. Islamabad has long argued that the only way to end the war in Afghanistan is to bring the Taliban into the mainstream. But the question is that what if they continue their militancy despite the struggles made for talks?”


Click here to read previous installments of Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.