Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansur was confirmed killed by a US drone strike in Pakistan's Baluchistan province yesterday. Unlike his predecessor, Mullah Omar (who ruled the Taliban for at least two decades), Mullah Mansur's reign was short and controversial.
A coffin believed to contain the body of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansur is inspected in Balochistan Province, Pakistan 22 May.
Though he officially only ruled for a year, Mullah Mansur likely ran the Taliban unofficially for several years prior, given that it was confirmed in 2015 that Mullah Omar had been dead for at least two years. And this suggests that perhaps his death is not the success that many proclaim.
First, the Taliban movement (or self-proclaimed 'Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan') has been gaining strength since the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force handed over all security responsibilities to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in 2014, ending 13 years of foreign intervention in Afghanistan. The Taliban's most recent spring offensive — Operation Omari (named in honour of Mullah Omar) — has been a bloody and forceful one. The movement has managed to pound the ANSF, exposing its weaknesses and increasing the Taliban's territorial spread.
Secondly, the Taliban has long been known as a network of networks: centralised, with a leader at the top, but quite able to fight as a decentralised entity with independent regional fighting forces (called mahaz or fronts), often with leaders from the area in question. This has long allowed entrepreneurs of violence to rule and move up in the Taliban's ranks or the various shuras that command each region.
The prime example is the Haqqani network, which is strongest in Afghanistan's southeast and, unlike the overarching Taliban movement, has been branded a terrorist network by the US. It has also long been seen as one of the 'henchmen' of Pakistan's intelligence service. Its leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, became deputy leader of the Taliban about a year ago and ostensibly brought some fierce and brutal military tactics, as well as sophisticated fundraising, to the larger group. Whether Haqqani can become the new Taliban leader is questionable. According to Afghan expert Thomas Ruttig, the fact that Haqqani comes from Afghanistan's southeast, not the south, which is the traditional Taliban heartland, makes this unlikely.
Third, there are already several splinter groups in operation. Some of the moderates already split off in 2010 when Agha Jan Mutasem, leader of the Taliban's finance commission and a rival of Mansur, was ousted. The next public split came in 2015 when Mullah Rasul Akhund disagreed with the choice of Mansur as the new Taliban leader. He went on to form the alternative High Council of Afghanistan Islamic Emirate. Then there is the group that emerged out of former allies of the Mullah Dadullah Front, Fidai Mahaz, who feel that Mullah Omar was killed by Mansur and are fiercely opposed to peace talks with the Afghan Government. Thomas Ruttig even argues that splitting the Taliban to make it more amendable to peace talks has been the express strategy of the Afghan Government.
Fourth, we should not forget that there is also the armed wing of Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, which has many members already in the Afghan Government, but which is also still fighting in some areas of Afghanistan (though usually not with, and at times against, the Taliban). Of all the fighting forces, they have been closest to coming to a peace agreement with the government.
Fifth, there have been many smaller groups in operation which have fought with (or against) the Taliban at odd occasions. One of these is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which recently pledged allegiance to ISIS (or Islamic State Khorasan Provinces) in Afghanistan. Though strongest in Afghanistan's eastern province of Nangarhar, they have been sighted throughout the country. But again much of this has been fickle, with some more senior leaders shifting back to the Taliban in April of this year.
Lastly, will this really be a 'major blow to the Taliban' and help along the stalled peace process in Afghanistan, as US sources would like us to believe? Not necessarily, if one considers the impact of the death of Osama bin Laden on al Qaeda and international terrorism. The Taliban movement has long managed to replenish its leaders with new blood. When the main aim is to continue the insurgency, not broker peace, good fighters and not 'wise statesmen' are wanted. And for now, the Taliban has shown it is quite resilient.
That said, it will be interesting to see who emerges as the new figurehead of the Taliban. The silence of the main Taliban spokesperson on Twitter, and the fact that the main Taliban website is currently 'offline', might be an indication that there are internal negotiations on how to handle Mansur's death and leadership succession. The Taliban propaganda machine has never been shy to publicly announce its achievements; less so its losses.
What is more interesting perhaps is how Mullah Mansur was killed — by a US drone strike deep into Pakistani territory, considered 'off-limits for the remote-controlled aircraft'. This suggests that the US is taking the Taliban threat to Afghanistan more seriously again, especially since it withdrew most of its forces over a year ago. It also suggests that either Pakistan was consulted on this (they were notified, but it's unclear when) or the US finally decided to put some pressure on the country, long known to harbor the Afghan Taliban.
If we have learned anything from Afghanistan's long history of war, nothing is ever so easy defeating an entire movement by killing a single leader. The battlefield has simply been too fluid for too long, and many of the groups have fought more or less independently for some time. Unless some of the underlying problems of poor governance, poverty, land ownership and poor economic prospects are addressed in Afghanistan, insurgency will continue to fester in Afghanistan.
Photo by Mazhar Chandio/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images