The death of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor in a U.S. drone strike was, first and foremost, an impressive achievement not only not the part of the U.S. Special Operations Command and the U.S. intelligence community, but also on the part of President Obama, who gave his personal approval for the elimination of the top Taliban leader. But while welcome, the operation’s import remains uncertain, and all sorts of intriguing mysteries surround it.
Mansour was killed in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, making him the first Taliban leader killed in that region by U.S. forces. As Long War Journal noted, 390 of 391 previously reported U.S. drone strikes took place in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, with North Waziristan being the top center of U.S. drone operations. U.S. commanders have long agitated for permission to go after Taliban commanders who are affiliated with the Quetta Shura based in Baluchistan, but permission has never been forthcoming in the past because Washington did not want to alienate Islamabad. The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency has a close relationship with the Taliban, and their leaders were previously seen to be out-of-bounds for U.S. attacks within Pakistan; the Pakistani government only allowed the U.S. to go after al-Qaeda leaders, Pakistani Taliban, and Haqqani Network leaders in the tribal areas.
A key question that remains to be answered is whether the operation against Mullah Mansour took place with or without Pakistani permission. If the Pakistanis did not sign off, it is a bit surprising that they are not loudly protesting an infringement of their sovereignty — and it is all the more to Obama’s credit that he risked a strike that would be sure to alienate our “allies” in Pakistan. If on the other hand, the Pakistanis were aware of this operation and approved it, that raises the intriguing question of why?
There are reports that Mullah Mansour was averse to peace talks with Afghanistan, and that in resisting talks he incurred Pakistani ire. It’s possible that the Pakistanis felt he was being too independent, and OK’d his elimination for that reason.
But there is no reason to think that with Mullah Mansour gone, the Taliban will suddenly renounce their armed struggle, which has been making so much headway recently, particularly in southern Afghanistan. Indeed, Mansour’s death could easily lead toe the ascension of his No. 2, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is already the Taliban’s top military commander.
The son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, an extremist warlord who has been fighting nonstop against one government after another in Kabul since the 1980s, Sirajuddin is not exactly known as a moderate. Indeed, the Haqqanis have developed a reputation as the most skilled and depraved terrorists in the entire Taliban — and that is saying something. The Haqqanis are said to be responsible for most of the high-profile atrocities carried out in Kabul. They also are said to have close links to the ISI, which raises the intriguing possibility that the ISI helped to eliminate Mansour so as to make way for their fair-headed boy, in much the same way that mafia dons will finger rivals to the authorities so as to take over their turf.
Whether Sirajuddin Haqqani or someone else inherits Mullah Mansour’s post — and other rivals include Mullah Omar’s oldest son — the probability is that the new leader of the Taliban will need to show success on the battlefield in order to consolidate the various factions of the Taliban behind his leadership. That, certainly, is the strategy that Mansour followed after taking over for Mullah Omar, and it suggests that there will be no respite anytime soon from the Taliban offensive.
The irony of this situation is that, while the top Taliban leader has been killed in Pakistan, his brethren enjoy virtual immunity from American air strikes inside Afghanistan itself, where in theory the U.S. should be much freer to take action with the approval of the government in Kabul. Yet that’s not the case. As General David Petraeus and Michael O’Hanlon noted in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday, the U.S. retains considerable air power in Afghanistan but “existing U.S. and NATO policy generally allows them to strike targets on the ground only when hostile forces can be identified as al Qaeda or ISIS loyalists, when they pose an imminent threat to NATO personnel, or, reportedly, when a strategic collapse is imminent. The rules of engagement mean that the indigenous Afghan and Pakistani Taliban generally get a pass.”
That’s right: The U.S can attack a Taliban leader in Pakistan but not in Afghanistan under most circumstances. That’s a crazy situation which is entirely the result of the illogical rules promulgated by the Obama White House. If Obama is serious about beating back the Taliban offensive that has gathered momentum since his ill-advised troop drawdown, he will need to relax the rules on targeting Taliban forces wherever they may be found. That means not only in Baluchistan but also, critically, in Afghanistan itself.
If the Mullah Mansour is not a one-off operation, and if Obama approves a wider air campaign, Afghan forces, with U.S. help, can take advantage of a period of disorientation and confusion in the Taliban ranks to make real gains against the group. If Obama maintains the current, restrictive rules of engagement, then this will be a wasted opportunity and the Taliban will be back to business as usual as soon as a successor to Mansour is appointed.