Mullah Mansour is dead. The man who replaced the evanescent Mullah Omar at the helm of the Taliban in July was killed Saturday afternoon by an American drone, while he was traveling in Pakistani Baluchistan. The Taliban still have not confirmed the news, but the most senior members of the U.S. administration and Afghan intelligence officials say they are confident. Mansour was killed because he was an obstacle to peace, said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry from Myanmar, convinced that with Mansour gone, the Taliban will come to the negotiating table.
Born in 1960 in the southern province of Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold, Mansour was a former back-seat governor of his province and Minister of Civil Aviation and Transportation at the time of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Since 2013, Mansur was the de facto leader of the movement. Since then, he had re-established the primacy of the Quetta Shura militant group, one of the three main centers of Taliban power, above the Peshawar Shura and the Miran Shah (the Haqqani network). He marginalized the main antagonists, co-opted the undecided and gained control of much of the — decreasing — funding from traditional regional sponsors.
But in recent months Mansour had struggled to hold the reins of the movement. His appointment as the absolute leader in July was questioned by some Taliban, including the son of Mullah Omar, Yacub, who later decided to support him; Qayyum Zakir, the head of the Military Commission; and Tayyeb Aghha, who resigned his post as head of the Taliban’s political office in Doha in protest. All three now have the right credentials to succeed him.
But the most reliable are the men chosen in July as Mansur’s deputies. One is Maulawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a respected and authoritative cleric and a former confidant of Mullah Omar, who boasts his Kandahar origins and his reputation as a skilled mediator. The other is Sirajuddin Haqqani, who replaced his father in 2005 as head of the Jalaluddin Haqqani network, the network of Islamists operating mostly in the border provinces of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The head of a veritable financial empire, merciless on the battlefield and a talented negotiator, Sirajuddin Haqqani has strong relationships with the Pakistani secret services, which certainly will not give up promoting their candidate. But what secret jostling is playing out in the wake of the apparent death of the Taliban leader? Everyone is looking to Islamabad, which condemned the violation of its air space in Baluchistan, a red line crossed only in very rare cases by U.S. drones that concentrate their action in the tribal areas of western Pakistan. Islamabad always complains, but everything suggests that this time it’s not mock outrage.
Mansour has always been close to Pakistan, which saw him as a good horse to control negotiations. But the Pentagon and NATO contend that in fact Mansour was the main impediment to a peace deal and therefore needed to be eliminated. The turning point was perhaps in April 2015, when, after another Taliban massacre in Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani narrowed his offensive against the organization. In reality, the negotiations were hampered from the outset: To be successful, Mansour needed to have unified the movement behind his leadership.
That was not the case: Several factions contested his reign, and Mansour was at odds with key elements of the movement. He knew his leadership was as fragile as the organization itself. The capture of Kunduz, in October, was his first test of strength, the need to prove he was not inferior to Mullah Omar. But if Mansour was attempted to put on a cold face, his enemies — the Americans — were certainly not to be outdone: While hunting for insurgents near Kunduz, they pummeled a hospital and haven’t stopped their secret raids in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Citizens of the U.S. and allied countries are not aware of these activities, and the Afghans and Pakistanis themselves only become aware after the fact, when relatives of the killed civilians seek revenge. Now another raid has killed the Taliban No. 1, a man on whom Pakistan counted and who may have been the bitterest enemy of the Islamic State, which Mansour considered yet another threat to the unity of the movement.
Mission accomplished? Yes, but certainly not of the peace negotiation mission, which may or may not restart after Mansour’s death.
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