How to Take Advantage of a Taliban Leader's Death

After the airstrike.

Photographer: Banaras Khan/AFP/Getty Images

The death of Afghan Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in a U.S. drone strike could provide an opening for progress toward peace -- if Afghan government leaders use the opportunity wisely.

The Taliban itself cannot be expected to sue for peace, especially given its recent battlefield gains. On the contrary, in the immediate aftermath of Mansour’s death, infighting may only lead to more conflict as local commanders seek to expand their turf. The government’s chances of finding a single interlocutor who can speak for the entire movement -- and is willing to talk about peace -- are close to nil. 

But while the Taliban focuses inward, the Afghan government can use the time to solve its own problems and present the people with a credible, unified alternative. Interminable jockeying between President Ashraf Ghani and his deputy Abdullah Abdullah has cost the government legitimacy and focus. Efforts to combat corruption have suffered; top ministerial posts have been given over to caretakers for months or left unfilled.

In coming months, the two sides need to agree on much-delayed reforms to the voting process, hold parliamentary elections and amend the constitution to institutionalize the current power-sharing agreement. Meanwhile, the government would be smart to clarify the relationships it’s building with local warlords, so as not to engender the kind of free-for-all civil war that engulfed the country after the Soviet withdrawal.

Outside countries can help, beginning with the U.S. As early as next week, American military commanders are expected to recommend keeping some 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, rather than cutting that number by half as planned late last year. It’s the right move, because the troops are critical to training and -- if their rules of engagement are widened -- providing air and logistical support for the Afghan army. With Barack Obama’s presidency coming to an end, it’s also important to signal that the next commander in chief will enter office with options.

Pakistan, for its part, could use this moment to reconsider its role in prolonging the Afghan insurgency. By any measure, that policy has failed; it has alienated potential friends in Kabul and Washington without visibly improving Pakistan’s strategic position or economic prospects. Mansour, despite his reported ties to the Pakistani military, repeatedly balked at pressure to engage in talks with Afghan leaders. Rather than seek to promote a more amenable successor, Pakistan should finally close down the safe havens it has long provided to Taliban factions.

China, Pakistan’s biggest benefactor, is in a good position to drive this point home: Stability in the region would benefit Pakistan far more than continued conflict can. There’s an opening now for everyone to start working toward peace.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.