May 23, 2016
The US drone strike that killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in Pakistan over the weekend should send a clear signal that the United States will no longer tolerate terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan, said the Atlantic Council’s James B. Cunningham.

“I hope that this is the beginning of a message that we will not tolerate any more the strategic challenge that is posed by the leadership of the Taliban being in Pakistan and having a safe haven there,” Cunningham, a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and former US ambassador to Afghanistan, said in an interview.

“To really get to a peace discussion [in Afghanistan], the Taliban have to come to the conclusion that the option of military force and terror will not get them back to the establishment of the emirate, which is what they want,” he said. “In order for that to happen, the status quo needs to be disrupted and that means we need to find a way to impact the safe havens in Pakistan."

Mansour was killed while traveling in a car in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province near the border with Afghanistan on May 21.

US President Barack Obama confirmed Mansour’s death on May 23 noting that it “marks an important milestone in our longstanding effort to bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan.”

“Mansur rejected efforts by the Afghan government to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that has taken the lives of countless innocent Afghan men, women and children,” Obama said, adding that the Taliban should “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 drone strike is the first time that the United States has targeted a Taliban leader outside Pakistan's tribal border region. In 2011, US Special Forces conducted an operation that resulted in the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad. That operation precipitated a crisis in the United States’ relationship with Pakistan. While Pakistan’s foreign ministry said the drone strike that killed Mansour was a violation of Pakistani sovereignty, Cunningham didn’t expect a similar diplomatic crisis to erupt.

US officials have for long maintained that Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus provide safe havens for a mélange of terrorist groups, including the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, that attack US interests and troops in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s top leadership is, in fact, based in the northwestern Pakistani city of Quetta.

Obama, in his statement, said that the United States will “work on shared objectives with Pakistan, where terrorists that threaten all our nations must be denied safe haven.”

Prospects for peace?

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s efforts to make peace with the Taliban were derailed last summer when news broke that the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar, had been dead for two years. Mansour, Omar’s right-hand man, formally assumed the Taliban mantle but only after a bitter struggle that created deep rifts in the group. Besides Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, and China have also been involved in the fruitless peace effort.

Mansour’s death could mark a turning point.

“It has become increasingly clear that if the status quo remains it will be exceedingly difficult to make progress, both in terms of the security situation and in terms of actually getting the Taliban leadership to a serious negotiation,” said Cunningham. “It is not enough just to get [the Taliban] to sit at a table, it is necessary to get them engaged in a political process.”

Mansour’s death, which comes during the Taliban’s spring offensive, is also expected to set off a leadership tussle between Omar’s eldest son, Mohammad Yaqub, and Mansour’s deputies—Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network and Maulvi Haibatullah Akhunzada. The senior Taliban leadership met on May 23 to pick a new leader.

“Mansour had done a pretty good job of bringing disaffected Taliban leaders into his camp,” said Cunningham, adding that his death will likely reopen rifts.

Unlike Omar’s death, which Mansour kept secret from the Taliban rank and file for two years while he established his own leadership, Mansour’s death is a “sudden dislocation,” said Cunningham. “This is a very sudden change and we will all be watching very carefully to see how it evolves,” he added.

James B. Cunningham spoke in a phone interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: What are the likely implications of Mansour’s death on the US-Pakistan relationship?

Cunningham: I don’t think it will necessarily provoke a crisis in the relationship. The reaction [from Pakistan] has been relatively muted so far. But there is an important factor here, which is that it is the first such operation since Bin Laden [was killed in Pakistan].

It is rumored that senior parts of the ISI [Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency] may have been involved in setting Mansour up. The official account is that we informed Pakistan of the strike after it took place. In places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, conspiracy rumors will circulate for some time. But I hope that this is the beginning of a message that we will not tolerate any more the strategic challenge that is posed by the leadership of the Taliban being in Pakistan and having a safe haven there. I hope that this is the beginning of a new phase in the effort to bring the Taliban into a political discussion. 

Q: Besides this one strike, is a more concerted US military effort required to take out senior Taliban and Haqqani Network leadership in Pakistan?

Cunningham: The Afghans have been trying to advance the proposition that Pakistan should engage the [Taliban] leadership in Pakistan. That was the premise of [Afghan President Ashraf] Ghani’s attempt to open a dialogue with the Pakistani leadership: that the Pakistanis would either bring the Taliban to the table for negotiations or that they would take action against them. We now need to see how that plays out.

It has become increasingly clear that if the status quo remains it will be exceedingly difficult to make progress, both in terms of the security situation and in terms of actually getting the Taliban leadership to a serious negotiation. It is not enough just to get [the Taliban] to sit at a table, it is necessary to get them engaged in a political process. There was no sign whatsoever that Mansour was willing to come to the table seriously. If that is the case, we collectively, all of us who are interested in stability in that part of the world, need to find a way to change the dynamic and the status quo.

Q: Do you expect Pakistan to rethink the wisdom of providing safe havens for Taliban leaders in light of the costs?

Cunningham: I would hope so. I have seen some commentary from some Pakistani observers that this may encourage a rethinking of the policy that the ISI has been pursuing. That is what is necessary. That’s what we, the United States, have been arguing for for years; that’s what we need to find a way to accomplish.

We have a core strategic objective here, which is to bring the conflict to an end. In order to do that we need to make clear to the Taliban leaders that they will not prevail by terror and by military means. And we, the international community, need to make clear to the ISI that we are no longer going to tolerate the kind of policy that they have been pursuing.

Q: Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif himself is struggling politically. What impact is the strike that killed Mansour—and complaints about a violation of Pakistani sovereignty—likely to have on his government?

Cunningham: It is too soon to tell, but I hope that it will lead to a serious discussion within the Pakistani civilian and military leadership about what the best path is for Pakistan going forward. We know, and they know, where the Taliban are in Pakistan. We have long felt, and I continue to believe, that together we have a shared interest in dealing with the Taliban and the Taliban leadership. I hope that the strike on Mansour shows that the United States is willing to take action if there is no action coming from the Pakistani side.

Q: Do you expect Mansour’s death to exacerbate infighting in the Taliban?

Cunningham: It will certainly reopen the debate about who should hold the chair of the Taliban leadership. Mansour had done a pretty good job of bringing disaffected Taliban leaders into his camp. With his death I assume that there will be a renewed debate.

Q: Whom do you expect will be Mansour’s likely successor?

Cunningham: There are a lot of contenders for the leadership, including some who openly still hadn’t reconciled with Mansour. This is a very sudden dislocation. Remember, Mansour knew that [the Taliban’s late leader Mullah] Omar was dead for two years and so he had a chance to prepare for the time when it became clear that Omar was dead. This is a very sudden change and we will all be watching very carefully to see how it evolves.

Q: Are the prospects of peace less likely with a fractured Taliban?

Cunningham: There has long been a debate about what the best way is to encourage prospects for peace. Eventually, one hopes the Afghan government will have a Taliban interlocutor who is authoritative and interested in a political outcome, but that is not the case now.

My own view is that this does not make the prospects for peace more difficult because I don’t think those prospects are there. I don’t think it is reasonable to assume that the Taliban are interested in negotiated a peace on anything other than their own terms when they believe that they are gaining ground.

To really get to a peace discussion, the Taliban have to come to the conclusion that the option of military force and terror will not get them back to the establishment of the emirate, which is what they want. In order for that to happen, the status quo needs to be disrupted and that means we need to find a way to impact the safe havens in Pakistan.

Ashish Kumar Sen is Deputy Director, Editorial, at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.

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