May 31, 2016
There is little reason to believe that the U.S. removed an obstacle to peace talks in Afghanistan by killing Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour because his replacement is even more radical and committed to waging a “holy war” against Kabul. The Taliban’s newly-appointed emir, Haibatullah Akhundzada, may not have the military expertise but is a religious ideologue who is much more twisted than Mansour when it comes to Islamic extremism, evidenced by the fact that, according to the Afghanistan Analysts Network, his son is a “registered” suicide bomber currently being prepared for martyrdom in a “suicide bombing training camp.”
On May 23, President Barack Obama claimed Mansour’s death in a U.S. drone strike inside Pakistan was an important milestone:
“Mansur rejected efforts by the Afghan government to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that has taken lives,” Obama said in a statement. “The Taliban should seize the opportunity 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.”
However, the killing of Mansour may have doomed any hopes of peace negotiations considering he was one of the few senior leaders willing to engage in talks in the first place. According to the Associated Press, his successor is considered a religious “hardliner” whose rise to the top “has inspired little hope for an end to the bloodshed.” In fact, Akhundzada’s need to prove himself, consolidate power and unify the Taliban, “could mean escalated violence, as he seeks to be taken seriously as a warrior.”
As head of the Taliban courts under Mullah Omar, Akhundzada was reportedly a brutal, unforgiving dispenser of justice against violators of the Sharia code. Akhundzada possesses impeccable so-called religious credentials, attaining the status of sheikh ul-hadith – a specialist in interpreting the sayings of the Prophet, with a track record for doing so in medieval fashion.
Although he is a more pious Muslim who eschewed Mansour’s dabbling in the drug trade and love of wealth, this puritanical streak is worrisome given there was at least a scintilla of hope to coopt Mansour by playing on his worldliness.
Akhundzada is also considered “tribe-neutral,” a sign that he has little respect for indigenous Afghan tribal traditions and is in favor of implementing an extremist form of Islamic law that is an affront to true Pashtun sensibilities. This mindset of course goes hand-in-hand with Pakistan’s strategy to de-Pashtunize Afghanistan and force a madrassa-centered ideology over Afghanistan’s more moderate and egalitarian Jirga-centered culture.
Moreover, the move is unlikely to debilitate Taliban military capabilities in any substantial way because the organization is a multi-headed hydra beast whose operations are autonomous and impervious to decapitation, especially given its continued support by Pakistan’s military, a reality attested to by several Afghan experts.
“The only thing that is going to totally degrade this Taliban insurgency is if the Pakistanis really invest themselves fully into ending their existence,” University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Thomas Gouttierre, who served as a State Department official and coached Afghanistan’s national basketball team, told this writer during a phone conversation on Tuesday.
TOLO News reported on Sunday, lending credence to this assessment, that a spokesman for Mullah Rassoul’s breakaway Taliban faction said the new leader is nothing more than a “puppet” of Pakistan.
Former US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) official Seth Jones, also in a phone conversation, said that Taliban operations will not be affected by the change in leadership because the insurgency’s military command structure has not changed in the least. Jones also provided comments that bode ill for any future political settlement:
“Since 1946 there have been just under 200 insurgencies, Afghanistan just being one of them,” Jones observed. “Peace deals have only occurred in about 29 percent of those. The rest of them were won on the battlefield.”
Undermining the Afghan insurgency will take more than targeting Taliban leaders. The main problem is the illegitimacy and corruption of the Afghan government because the Taliban thrives on alienation, especially in the tribal areas in the south and east. Until the Afghans see a legitimate government, then and only then will peace talks or reconciliation be possible.
A truly legitimate government will deprive the Taliban of support in the countryside and as a result many fighters may finally decide to rejoin Afghan society. Those Taliban who continue to resist can stay in Pakistan and will remain enemies of the Afghan state. The local populace will no longer see them as fighting against an unjust government in Kabul, but would see them as destabilizing outlaws who themselves need to be brought to justice.
Until that happens, the Afghans will suffer from a reinvigorated Taliban jihad under the guidance of an even more uncompromising Commander of the Faithful.