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Mullah Mansour “probably” killed in airstrike

May 22, 2016

Summary: It seems very possible that the Taliban leader, Mullah Mansour, has been killed in Pakistan by a US drone strike.  Does this lead to fragmentation of the Taliban and peace talks or an intensification of the summer fighting season under a new (and perhaps more popular) Taliban leadership?

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, Taliban militants' new leader, is seen in this undated handout photograph

Ex-Taliban leader? Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour

Update, 23 May – US confirm that Mansour is dead

The media is awash with reports of the death of the current Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, reportedly by a US drone strike while he was travelling in a vehicle in Pakistan.  The previous leader, Mullah Omar reportedly died in 2013 from natural causes after some twenty years at the helm.  Mansour, effectively second in command, had apparently been running the show from 2013 until news of Omar’s death finally leaked out in 2015.  In a controversial move, Mansour was made official leader, causing internal and violence between Taliban factions.  It seemed as if Mansour was slowly tightening his grip on the leader, boosted by the brief Taliban

seizure, in September last year, of the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan.

mansourmap1 - CopyWords like “probably” are being used: it is, as usual in such situations, hard to sift through and gain an accurate sense at present of the likely outcome.  Mullah Mansour was reported killed in an inter-Taliban shoot-out at the end of last year.  Media reporting around Mansour’s supposed death last year was a lot less extensive and conclusive.  This current flow of media reporting – including Afghan government and informed commentators – seems much more confident that, this time,  Mansour is dead.  But, of course, this is no reliable guide.  US analysts will be scrutinising all available signals, human and imagery intelligence – the sight of the strike itself, but particularly any “chatter” amongst Taliban networks – before they “go firm” with an assessment, which will likely arrive in the next few days .

There is no word from the Taliban as yet, although, judging by precedent, we should expect a period of denial, denouncement and deflection: this is what they normally do following Taliban leadership deaths.  But they cannot keep doing this and maintain credibility and morale.  The official English-language Taliban website appears to be off-line (and has been since at least several days before this story broke).

If he is alive…

If Mansour is not dead, this will emerge in the days and weeks to come, probably from a recording of Mansour’s voice.  The story will highlight the ongoing intelligence/drone strike nature of the search for Taliban commanders – both inside Afghanistan and in their, perhaps increasingly less “safe”, haven of Pakistan.  The incident will demonstrate the pressures that senior Taliban members are always under and the challenges to their command and control.  If a near miss, the Taliban leadership will start taking even more personal security measures.  This may serve to slow Taliban command and control as they seek to evade similar strikes, hampering their conduct of operations and activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan and possibly disrupting some of their summer fighting season.

If he is dead…

If dead, Mansour would have been de facto Taliban leader for less than a year.

The Taliban face a range of unpalatable issues to address if Mansour is dead:

  • Another difficult leadership contest at a time when the fall-out has not really settled from the last one.  This is a high possibility of splintering factions and internal violence.   Possible leadership contenders: Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoob: Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani Network, senior Taliban leader, Mullah Zakir.
  • Taliban fragmentation – arguments over leadership, arguments over whether to engage in talks.
  • Could this lead to more support and opportunities for the Afghanistan Islamic State presence in Eastern Afghanistan?
  • How, when and even whether to confirm the death? This will be a considerable blow to the morale of the foot-soldiers.  This might be exacerbated if the rumours fly and Mansour’s death remains unconfirmed by the leadership. If the death is judged to be too damaging and destabilising at such a delicate stage, it might even be possible that the Taliban could seek to “delay” news of the death for months, even years, by continuing to issue statements in Mansour’s name until they had a plausible succession plan lined up.  This is what they did when Mullah Omar died.
  • Security measures for all leadership will need to be stepped up: this could well hampered command and control of this summer fighting season.

It is difficult to see any  of this being turned into positives for the Taliban.  But if the leadership succession were to be resolved quickly (there were stark lessons from the last leadership change-over), around someone that most Taliban could agree to rally round (a Mullah Omar relative might provide the important symbolism), there is no reason for the summer fighting season to be unduly disrupted.

Such a blow to the leadership may well cause some factions of the organisation to attempt to seek peace with the government on their own: perhaps emulating the reported reconciliation of insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

But Taliban fragmentation is not automatically good news for the Afghan government and the international community: who do you talk to for a lasting peace?  Fragmented chunks of insurgent groups could continue a violent insurgency indefinitely and even open up the way to more extreme groups, such as Islamic State.

Maybe Hekmatyar came in at just the right time…

Breaking news – suggesting the Taliban are already confirming Mansour’s death:

BREAKING: Senior Taliban commander confirms death of leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in US drone strike.

 

 

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