BACKGROUND: Mansour effectively ran the Taliban for years before he became globally known as Omar's successor. Omar had been dead since April 23, 2013 and the Taliban grudgingly acknowledged his demise after it was reported by the Afghan government on July 29, 2015. Mansour, as second in command, had helped in the cover up, including sending out written decrees in Omar’s name. Rumors of Omar’s death had circulated for years, so when the truth emerged, the subterfuge caused dismay and bitterness in the post-Omar Taliban leadership. This became evident in the disputed Shura election of Mansour, opposed by among others Omar’s brother and son. Mansour lacked Omar’s stature and received his predecessor’s title as Amir al-Mu'minin for hierarchical purposes, not because of spiritual credentials.
Mansour’s election signaled profound changes in the wake of Omar’s death. This was most notable in the Taliban’s increasing domination of Afghanistan's illicit drug trade, which had grown by the time of Omar’s death to become a multibillion dollar criminal syndicate. Analysts tracked Mansour’s personal involvement and profit from drug trafficking, which saw him increasingly run the Taliban like a cartel, using his drug profits to buy loyalty with stacks of cash as he quashed opponents with brute force.
Beyond the Taliban’s deepening involvement in Afghanistan’s lucrative drug trade, Mansour’s brief tenure as Taliban leader saw the organization undergo notable policy shifts as regarded its relations with the Afghan government. In early 2015, Mullah Omar ostensibly supported direct peace talks with the Ghani government, the first round of which were held on July 7 in Murree, a Pakistani hill station. Further talks were effectively thwarted when on July 29 the Afghan government announced that Mullah Omar’s death had occurred two years previously, which the Taliban belatedly acknowledged the following day.
While questions of Mansour’s spiritual credibility may have triggered the Taliban’s worst internal crisis, he was determined to demonstrate his ability as a military leader, which led to the Taliban’s greatest military victory of the war in 15 years of fighting the Afghan government and interventionist forces, when Taliban guerrillas captured the northern city of Kunduz in September 2015 and held it for two weeks before being driven out.
IMPLICATIONS: The day after Mansour was killed, the Shura began gathering in Quetta to nominate a successor. The Taliban announced on May 24 that, “With heavy heart, but full belief in Allah’s will, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan announces that the Commander of the Faithful Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was martyred in an American invading and evil forces’ drone strike on Saturday,” adding, “Hibatullah Akhundzada has been appointed as the new leader of the Islamic Emirate after a unanimous agreement in the Shura and all the members of the Shura pledged allegiance to him,” noting that Mullah Omar’s son Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob would become a joint deputy head alongside current Taliban deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani.
Akhundzada, the Taliban’s former Chief Justice, is a respected cleric from the Taliban heartland of Kandahar, but is relatively unknown outside the movement, perceived as more of a scholar than a warrior. The appointment of both Yaqoob and Haqqani as deputies is an obvious attempt by the Shura to avoid the factionalism which followed Mansour’s appointment nine months earlier.
Mansour bequeathed to his successor not only a diminished spiritual authority, but a growing military conflict above and beyond the Taliban hands’ battles with the Afghan government. Coinciding with Mansour’s appointment was the rise of Islamic State militants in northern Afghanistan, who began to fight not only government forces but the Taliban as well. Beyond the military dimension of its presence, the leader of the Islamic State, self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also appropriated the title Amir al-Mu'minin, providing a secondary claimant to supreme spiritual authority over Muslims. A number of disaffected younger Taliban, upset over Mansour’s election, pledged loyalty to al-Baghdadi, further undermining Mansour’s authority.
The intensity of the armed clashes was such that in December 2015 Mansour announced the deployment of Taliban “special forces” in its increasingly bloody battle with IS militants. Analysts believe that IS commands up to 2,500-3,000 fighters in Afghanistan, largely concentrated in eastern Nangarhar province. ISAF and the Afghan government estimate the core Taliban force at over 60,000, but the increasing IS presence complicates the security situation for both the Taliban and the Afghan government.
It remains to be seen whether Akhundzada’s theological credentials will help repair the factionalism within the Taliban, or counter the IS claims of spiritual supremacy.
Mansour’s death is a milestone in U.S.-Pakistani relations. Previous U.S. drone strikes had been limited to Pakistan’s turbulent North West Frontier Province; the attack on Mansour’s vehicle was the first time that UAVs had been deployed over Baluchistan, representing a broadening of U.S. efforts against the Taliban into areas in Pakistan which the militants had previously regarded as safe. The sensitivity of the strike and the distrust in U.S.-Pakistani relations was underscored when the Pakistani Minister of the Interior said that Pakistan was officially informed by the U.S. after seven hours about the strike. Pakistan’s Minister for the Interior Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said that both corpses were charred beyond recognition and that DNA samples had been sent to Islamabad for identification. Eight days after the attack the Pakistani government acknowledged that “Wali Muhammad” was in fact Mullah Mansour.
The extension of U.S. UAV attacks into Baluchistan indicates a broadening of U.S. military efforts to decapitate the Taliban leadership into areas that were previously off-limits, no matter what the domestic cost of such policies is in Pakistan itself. Whether Akhundzada and his deputies will survive such an intensification of drone attacks remains to be seen.
CONCLUSIONS: Ghani’s government has offered Akhundzada a stark choice: make peace or face the same fate as his predecessor. Ghani’s pronouncement is tempered by the fact that the Taliban insurgency is more than entrenched; in the spring of 2015, it initiated some of the most intense fighting since 2001. Insecurity has increased in various degrees across the country, and 2015 was the bloodiest year of the decade and a half since the Taliban were forced from power. One of Mansour’s last significant pronouncements came on April 12, when the Taliban announced its spring offensive, dubbed “Operation Omari” in honor of Taliban founder Mullah Omar. The violence is expected to intensify once the poppy harvest in the southern provinces concludes in coming weeks, after which the Taliban will deploy extra forces to protect smuggling routes used for arms, minerals and other contraband that fund their insurgency. Whether Akhundzada is able to establish his authority over Taliban commanders grown rich from the drug trade remains to be seen.
If Ghani’s government makes good on its threat, Akhundzada’s tenure as Taliban head could be as brief as Mansour’s; amidst the Taliban factionalism and the rise of IS, the only certainty seems that peace talks remain the clearest casualty of the Taliban’s infighting.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Dr. John C.K. Daly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and has recently completed a study of Eurasia’s railway network.
Image Attribution: www.fxtribune.com, accessed on June 7, 2016