What next in Afghanistan now that the Taliban have lost their leader (again)?
On Sunday 22 May, a US drone strike killed the leader of the Taliban Mullah Mansour in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, thus marking the opening of a new phase in the development of the AfPak region’s political dynamics. The killing of Mansour, in fact, not only will force the Taliban to go through the delicate process of appointing a new leader, but it will also have a major impact on the relations between the Taliban and the Afghan government – and therefore on the future of Afghanistan.
It was less than a year ago when the news of the death of the group’s founder Mullah Omar was released and the Taliban had to appoint a new leader. Far from being a smooth process, the debate on whom to appoint caused deep rifts within the Taliban, and when the final decision fell upon Mullah Mansour many denied to pledge allegiance to him and many others left the Taliban to join ISIS-Khorasan. In July 2015, thus, the Taliban had lost its traditional cohesion and appeared – to enemies and supporters alike – as a weak group.
Faced with such delicate and vulnerable situation, the new leader embraced a strategy made of deadly attacks across Afghanistan, continuous fights with the national forces, and rejection of any prospect of talks with Kabul so as to increase its credibility among the Taliban (as well as among enemies) and give to the group renewed cohesion.
Now that Mansour has been killed, the challenge the Taliban face is that of appointing a successor approved and recognized as legitimate by everyone within the group. A failure in this sense would make the Taliban even less united, with more splinter groups conducting their independent actions and attacks, and this would have tremendous consequences for the prospect of peace talks.
What last summer’s shift in leadership made clear, in fact, is the impossibility of having negotiations when one of the parties involved in them is internally divided. After a first round of talks held in Murree, what made it impossible to go ahead was that the internal division caused within the Taliban by the appointment of Mansour did not allow Kabul to identify in a clear and unambiguous way who its interlocutors were. With the group divided and led by a leader not recognized by all members, it became impossible for the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) to have a clear picture of which leaders/members were supporting the talks, to what extent, and how representative of the whole group they actually were.
From this point of view, thus, the killing of Mansour opens the possibility of having a new, legitimate and broadly accepted Taliban leader who could make the group more cohesive and thus make it possible for Kabul to at least identify whom pressure has to be put on to push the Taliban to talk.
For Ghani’s government, thus, the death of Mullah Mansour is of crucial importance both politically and militarily. Indeed, the death of Mansour represents for the Taliban a major blow in reputation and credibility capable of boosting the morale of the Afghan national forces that are involved in daily struggles against them and that had to see the terrorist group achieve important successes in 2015. Deprived of their leader, the Taliban are now immersed in the appointment process, which implies the Afghan national forces can take advantage of this temporary respite from fight to better organize themselves and strengthen their holdings on disputed regions and provinces.
In addition, Mansour’s death has not only affected the credibility of the Taliban’s operative capabilities. It has also shed light on how the Taliban’s war-based approach is inherently shortcoming if the group aims to territorial control and political say, and how the rejection of peace talks comes at a price for the group. Many among the Taliban used to reject talks because relying on the belief that war was the only way to political influence. The killing of Mansour has proved them wrong and might now strengthen the position of those Taliban most prone to talks.
However, until the Taliban’s new leader is appointed it is not clear which future lies ahead for the perspectives of negotiations. The only certainty is that the death of Mansour has opened a new chapter in the AfPak’s turbulent story. The way in which the story will evolve is now dependent on the intra-Taliban decisions and on Kabul’s capacity to adapt its political and military strategy to them.