The killing of Taliban leader Mullah Mansour by a U.S. drone on May 21st is unlikely to improve the prospects for successful peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban. This backgrounder describes why the Obama administration failed in its effort to broker talks between the Afghan government, the Taliban, and Pakistan. It argues that the weight of United States action should be on continuing to support the Afghan government and security forces as they take the fight to the Taliban, though remaining open to further discussions with the Taliban in coordination with Kabul and Islamabad based on a position of strength by weakening the Taliban’s positions in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the course of the next year.
- Since January, the Obama administration has sought to broker peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban by pressing Pakistan to use its influence over the insurgent movement. In March, Sartaj Aziz, advisor to the Pakistani prime minister on foreign affairs admitted: “We have some influence on [the Taliban] because their leadership is in Pakistan, and they get some medical facilities; their families are here. So we can use those levers to pressurize them to say, ‘come to the table.’” This claim came, however, after the Taliban achieved increased autonomy from Pakistan due to territorial gains in Afghanistan, though the core leadership of the movement remains in Pakistan and dependent on its support. Pakistan Military Chief Raheel Sharif also committed to bring the Taliban to the talks when he came to DC in November 2015, but promised more than he could deliver. These inflated assurances motivated the administration to double down on the process. The Pakistani leaders failed to acknowledge that even where Pakistan does have leverage, there are limits to the pressure it is willing to place on the Taliban. The Taliban is aware of this and exploits it. Nonetheless, the United States established the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) in January, composed of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and the United States, and “invited” the Taliban to attend. Three subsequent meetings have been held, but the Taliban has consistently refused to engage.
- The Taliban resists a negotiated political solution for three reasons. First, there are serious divisions within the movement over whether to engage in peace talks. In July 2015, Mullah Mansour led a Taliban delegation to the first face-to-face talks with the Afghan government. It was disagreement over those talks within the movement that led to the revelation of the death of Mullah Omar. Discussion about talks is demoralizing to fighters in the field, which is why participation in fora like the QCG is a non-starter for the Taliban. Second, the Taliban is reluctant to engage in talks where Pakistan is the main broker: while relying on Pakistan for support over the past fifteen years, the Taliban narrative is one of national liberation, and they do not want to appear as stooges of Pakistan, a country highly distrusted by most Afghans. Third, the Taliban does not see their main conflict as being with the Afghan government. Rather, it is with the United States, their main demand being the withdrawal of foreign troops. They see the United States as a party to the negotiation, not a potential broker of an agreement. Fourth, the Taliban remains cautiously optimistic about its long-term military prospects in Afghanistan, particularly in light of a fragile National Unity government and a continuing withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign forces.
- If the reasons for lack of progress in negotiations were structural (the four factors mentioned above) rather than personal (Mullah Mansour’s unwillingness to talk—undoubtedly also a factor), then a change in the Taliban leadership is unlikely to effect a change in the Taliban’s position until one or more of the structural factors change. The accession of Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada to the Taliban leadership took place with remarkable speed and smoothness, compared to the difficulty Mansour had in consolidating his leadership over the movement after the death of Omar. The appointment of Akhunzada to the leadership and of Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yakub, and Sirajuddin Haqqani as deputy leaders tends to secure the Taliban’s war footing rather than engagement in a political solution. Akhunzada does not have a fighting background but is reputed to be a hard-liner, based on accounts of his role during the Taliban government and subsequent decision-making. Sirajuddin, son of Jalaludin Haqqani (who reportedly died of illness in 2015), leads the Haqqani network, the most ruthless of the fighting elements within the Taliban. The appointment consolidates the Haqqani role within the Taliban movement. The network, nurtured by Pakistan’s secretive Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency since the 1980s, is its most reliable asset in Afghanistan and one that the ISI will be least likely to relinquish, whatever formal political position Pakistan takes out of a desire for negotiations.
- The U.S. drone strike against Mansour is significant in that it is the first time an Afghan Taliban leader was targeted in the settled areas of Pakistan. The last time something similar happened, when bin Laden was killed in his compound near the city of Abbottabad, Pakistan reacted harshly, suspending intelligence cooperation and hindering U.S. logistic supplies through Afghanistan into Pakistan. Frustration with Pakistan’s apparent lack of cooperation was already demonstrated when the U.S. Congress refused to subsidize the sale of F-16s to Pakistan as well as conditioning 450M of 900M total coalition support funds on a series of military benchmarks. Since the failure of the QCG process, there has long been a debate in Washington over whether Pakistan is willing but not able to influence the Taliban, or able but not willing. In either case, if Pakistan cannot be a positive factor then the United States will need to re-evaluate its relationship with Pakistan. Given the significantly reduced number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the cost of angering Pakistan has also gone down. However, Pakistan’s fundamental position remains unchanged. Pakistan prefers a stable Afghanistan with an ally in Kabul—or, at the very least, allies along the border. To get there, however, may require that Pakistan supports militant groups like the Taliban.
- For now, Pakistan understands that the Taliban is unlikely to win on the battlefield, but it is also unwilling to end its support. The shakiness of the current government in Kabul—which recently faced massive civil demonstrations that forced security services to close down much of the city—does little to convince Pakistan that the Taliban is a losing horse.
- Historically, neither hard nor soft lines towards Pakistan have greatly affected Islamabad’s behavior or persuaded it to alter its political calculus. The leadership change in the Taliban will not significantly affect the prospects for peace talks—at least not before the end of the summer fighting season--while the Taliban feels it has momentum, and where the only thing likely to halt that momentum is the debate about a peace process. This means that for the United States, the action must swing back to Afghanistan itself. Kabul will welcome a harder line towards Pakistan. The United States should use this leverage to compel the National Unity government in Kabul to deliver on its promised reforms. At the same time, the administration should change its narrative from one of withdrawal to one of long-term support at sustainable troop numbers.
On the Horizon
- The two-year “term” originally agreed upon by Ghani and Abdullah after the 2014 election stalemate will come to a close this September. The administration has taken the approach, as communicated through Secretary Kerry’s recent visit to Kabul, that the “term” was only a goal and not set in stone. The administration (as well as Ghani and Abdullah) realize that codifying powers in a Constitutional Loya Jirga will only serve to unleash spoilers such as former President Karzai and other detractors leaving the current government arrangement (even with its paralysis) as the least bad option.
- The Taliban will likely continue to consolidate its gains in the rural provinces and once again attempt to seize a major city like its attack on Kunduz in 2015. They will also stage spectacular attacks on Kabul. The fall of a major city coupled with mass attacks on Kabul will continue to demonstrate the incompetence of the Unity government and amplify calls for a Loya Jirga—over which the U.S. and international community will have little control.
- The administration should quickly approve General Nicholson, the newest coalition commander in Afghanistan, to more aggressively target the Taliban and Haqqani leadership in Afghanistan ahead of the fighting season (the current rules of engagement only allow for offensive targeting of al-Qaeda and ISIS).
- The administration should also allow American advisors down to the brigade and battalion levels with the Afghan army to: 1) make the air power more effective; and 2) give greater visibility to the performance of the Army and warn against strategic failure.
- Take advantage of the Mansour strike by doubling down U.S. intelligence collection against senior Taliban and Haqqani Network leadership in Pakistan’s tribal areas and approve targeted strikes against these select individuals. This would cause profound disarray in the insurgency during the peak of the fighting season and cause leadership to go underground, impeding their command and control of the insurgency. It would also serve as leverage to drive both the Taliban and Pakistani government to the bargaining table.