Source: AFP via Getty Images

Afghan Peace Still Far Away After U.S. Kills Taliban Leader

  • Drone strike gives ‘new opportunity’ to Taliban: Afghan leader
  • Pakistan to face more pressure to help support peace efforts

The U.S. drone strike that it says killed the Taliban’s leader on Saturday removed a major obstacle to peace in Afghanistan. Now comes the hard part: Reaching a lasting truce with his successor.

An unmanned aerial vehicle killed Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in a remote border region of Pakistan, Afghanistan’s top intelligence agency confirmed on Sunday. It was the most significant targeted assassination in the 15-year war since U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.

Mullah Mansour

Photographer: Rahmat Gul/AP Photo

“Today marks an important milestone in our longstanding effort to bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan," President Barack Obama said in a statement on Monday in which he confirmed Mansour’s death. He called for the Taliban to “seize the opportunity to pursue the only real path for ending this long conflict -- joining the Afghan government in a reconciliation process that leads to lasting peace and stability."

The U.S. had failed to make headway on peace talks with the Taliban since Mansour took control of the group last year, forcing Obama to alter plans for removing most American troops from Afghanistan by the end of his term. Mansour’s reported death gives hope that more moderate Taliban commanders will be able to reach a deal to end a conflict that has cost the U.S. almost $700 billion and killed more than 2,200 American troops.

Obstacles Ahead

Yet significant obstacles remain. The Taliban is notoriously splintered, and a succession battle could lead to even more attacks in the near term. Once the dust settles, it’s unclear if the group’s new leader would speak for most fighters at the negotiating table. And Pakistan would have to fully back any agreement -- a big question mark given its history of supporting the Taliban and hosting militant leaders for strategic reasons.

"There will be tremendous pressure on Pakistan to really push the Taliban to come to the negotiation table or go after them," said Rahimullah Yousafzai, a veteran Pakistan journalist who has covered the Taliban since its formation in the 1990s. "This death will demoralize the Taliban initially but it’ll spark more violence as the Taliban take revenge for the killing of their leader."

Pakistan Protest

A spokesman for the Taliban didn’t immediately answer calls to his mobile phone on Sunday. The group, which runs a website and regularly issues press releases, has made no official public statement referring to the drone strike. Emran Khalil, a member of the Taliban press team, said on Twitter that reports about Mansour’s death were “completely wrong and baseless.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told reporters in London his government hasn’t confirmed that Mansour died in the airstrike, which he called a violation of the nation’s sovereignty. Authorities are investigating the attack, Sharif said in comments broadcast Sunday by state-run Pakistan Television.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Mansour’s killing presents "a new opportunity" to “those Taliban who are willing to end war and bloodshed." The death would be a “big blow” to the Taliban and many militants will join the peace process, Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, who shares power with Ghani, said in a televised broadcast.

Succession Fight

Mullah Mansour was formerly aviation minister during the Taliban regime that held power from 1996 until the U.S. invasion in 2001. After taking over as Taliban leader last year, he struggled to unify commanders who were angry that he kept predecessor Mullah Omar’s death a secret for two years.

Of late, however, he had begun to mend fences while stepping up a campaign of violence against Afghan forces. Mansour offered senior posts to Mullah Omar’s son and brother, and made hardliners in the Haqqani Network -- a U.S.-designated terrorist organization -- his deputies.

While it’s hard to tell who will emerge as the Taliban’s next leader, the rank-and-file is likely to back Mullah Omar’s son, according to Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistan-based author who wrote a book on the Taliban.

‘Push Peace’

"It will certainly help to push peace process," Rashid said of Mansour’s reported death. "There will be fragmentation and more possibility that moderates come forward and take over from hardliners."

That would be a welcome development for the U.S., which pays about 75 percent of Afghanistan’s military budget. Last week the fifth round of peace talks between representatives from the U.S., China, Afghanistan and Pakistan ended again with no prospect of Taliban participation.

Just a day before the strike, Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s de facto foreign minister, rebuffed accusations that his nation wasn’t doing enough to foster peace.

"Vested interests have often tried to create a perception that Pakistan actually controls the Taliban," Aziz said on Friday. "Such an impression breeds unrealistic expectations from Pakistan."

Mansour’s killing was intended to remove a roadblock to peace and also show other militants that a political settlement is the only way forward, according to Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to Canada and France.

The prospect for long-term peace, he said, "will depend on who will succeed Mansour, to what extent will his death cause more splinters, and how much international pressure will be brought on Pakistan to dismantle Taliban sanctuaries and force them to the negotiating table."

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