The Latest Taliban Leader’s Death Changes What, Exactly?

An Afghan local newspaper with photos of then-new leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, center, and former leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, from Aug. 1, 2015.

AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini, File

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An Afghan local newspaper with photos of then-new leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, center, and former leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, from Aug. 1, 2015.

Ask three people what they make of Mullah Mansoor’s death by drone and you’ll get three answers, none offering a swift end to the war.

In the aftermath of the drone strike that killed Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Akhta Mansoor in Baluchistan, Washington is debating what his death means and what message the strike sends. What is certain is that the attack has become a Rorschach test for those favoring and opposed to peace talks. It’s an airstrike in which everyone can see what they wish, when it comes to divining the future of Afghanistan and America’s role in it.

Many saw the attack as opening a new and decidedly less cordial phase of U.S.-Pakistani relations.

“It is one thing for U.S. officials to describe Pakistan as the ‘ally from hell’ and its policies as ‘duplicitous’, and quite another to actually remove any doubt about it by taking out Mullah Akhtar Mansour right on Pakistani soil,” wrote Mohammad Taqi in the Indian publication The Wire.

Indeed, the attack removed any doubt that the U.S. intended to strike wherever it wanted against those it viewed as placing American lives in danger and creating obstacles to peace.

“Where we have a high-profile leader who has been consistently part of operations and plans to potentially harm U.S. personnel, and who has been resistant to the kinds of peace talks and reconciliation that ultimately could bring an end to decades of war in Afghanistan, then it is my responsibility as commander in chief not to stand by, but to make sure that we send a clear signal to the Taliban and others that we’re going to protect our people,” said President Barack Obama during a press conference in Vietnam. “And that’s exactly the message that has been sent.”

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter added, “Removing Mansur from the battlefield eliminates one roadblock to peace in Afghanistan.”

But State Department officials past and present warned against reading too much into the attack when it comes to expanding the war in Afghanistan. The U.S. still sees the peace table as the only way out of the fighting in Afghanistan, they argue.

“I don’t think it says anything about efforts for reconciliation — it doesn’t say there is any less of a desire to find a political settlement,” said Eileen O’Connor, who served until recently as deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia and senior adviser to the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “I see it as more of the same.”  

Indeed, those still serving inside the State Department share that assessment. And they caution against seeing the strike against Mansoor as the start of a whole new chapter in the 15-year fight in Afghanistan.

“This was more like an Osama bin Laden/Abbottabad strike; a one-time strike, and then sit back and see where things fall,” says a State Department official focused on Afghanistan. “I don’t think that this is a policy shift, I think it was we have got an opportunity to get Mansoor and send a signal to the Taliban that they have to make a choice, and Mansoor made a choice and he paid the consequences.”

And despite Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson and predecessor, Gen. John Campbell, wanting the White House to ease restrictions on striking the Taliban, those who have watched some of the White House deliberations play out have yet to detect an appetite for re-escalating the Afghanistan War.

“The president was in no mood to up attacks on the Taliban, he was basically saying ‘we are done fighting the Taliban, we are not at war with the Taliban,’” said the State Deparmtent official of recent conversations. “I think the president is still not looking to go back to war against the Taliban, this is a signal he wants to send, let the Taliban leadership shake-out happen, see where they come out.”

American officials told their Pakistani counterparts in recent weeks that they needed to do more to get the Taliban to the table, only to be told that the Pakistanis have “influence, but not control.” Now Taliban leaders face a choice of moving back toward the peace table and restarting stalled talks or upping the fight further and looking overhead constantly to see what might be pursuing them from the sky. 

From the perspective of those who have lived Afghanistan’s security woes, the one certainty they fear they can count on is more violence. And many pointed fingers at their neighbor with whom they share a border.

“I am glad Mullah Mansur is dead,” said Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, which runs a network of family centers and shelters across Afghanistan. “Today is was Mullah Mansur; tomorrow it will be Mullah some-other-name who will be the leader of the Taliban with support from Pakistan. Enough is enough and we should call Pakistan for what they are: a terrorist state; a country harboring terrorists and exporting terrorism.”

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