CATF Reports May 31, 2016, 11:41am


After the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and the rise of Mullah Mansour, the question of peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban became a non-starter. Now that Mansour is dead, after being the target of a U.S. drone-strike, the government expresses hope that peace talks will begin anew. But was reconciliation really ever on the table? Or have peace talks become a red herring used to portend an unlikely end to the war in Afghanistan?

In September 2015, a break-away faction of the Afghan Taliban met with the new Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in an effort to solve the dispute over who should succeed Mullah Omar. Mansour had taken control of the Taliban in 2013, after Mullah Omar died, having failed to announce the death of the Taliban leader for two years. The meeting was meant to address Taliban member concerns over what they saw as Mansour’s unsanctioned power-grab.

While Mansour claimed that he was appointed leader by the Supreme Council, his cover up regarding the death of the beloved Mullah Omar, along with his rush to assume power, made many members of the Taliban suspicious. The meeting between Mansour and the rebel faction did little to assuage their concerns.

The rebels demanded that Mansour step down and allow a council of religious scholars to appoint the successor to Omar through consensus, but Mansour refused. The dissident militants supported Omar’s son or brother - Mullah Yaqoub and Mullah Manan - for the office of leadership. But both men eventually united behind Mansour’s leadership in exchange for financial incentives. The entire ordeal caused the Taliban to formally split. A newer smaller faction united under new governance with a number of senior leaders and several hundred fighters opposed to Mansour.

The split resulted in numerous problems both in and outside the Taliban. But, according to the international community, the worst of these issues was the fact that a lack of unification amongst members of the Taliban would make peace talks with the Afghan government impossible. However, this concern assumes that a united Taliban, under Mansour, would even be interested in peace talks.

Peace talks were initiated under Mullah Omar, and perished shortly after the news spread that he died. Under Omar, a group of representatives from the Taliban moved to Qatar, with the support of the U.S. and Afghan governments, to open an office in Doha in an effort to initiate peace talks in a neutral environment. While there were many issues that led to the closing of the office, it soon became clear that Omar’s death would insure that the office remained closed, and that peace talks would never take place in Doha.

After Omar died, and Mansour named himself supreme leader, the leader of the Taliban in Qatar, Syed Mohammad Tayab Agha resigned, citing disunity in the party under Mansour’s leadership. Many journalists understood this to mean that what mattered most to reconciliation was Taliban unity. However, Agha’s departure from Qatar was also the first sign that Mansour’s leadership would not result in peace. Regardless of whether the Taliban were unified or not, from the beginning of his power-grab, Mansour was against peace talks. From the beginning of his leadership until the day he died, Mansour made it clear that he was not interested in sharing power with the Afghan government.

After the news of Mansour’s death, Obama admitted that Mansour was against peace talks, and even used this fact to justify his murder: “Mansour rejected efforts made 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.”  Peace talks, as an endgame, have become the straw man for every single action of the U.S. government either in support of or against the Taliban since 2010 when Mullah Omar agreed to open an office in Qatar. Every effort made to foster peace talks has resulted in enormous failure leading to the question of whether or not peace is possible.

Many analysts now want to claim that Mansour’s death will result in a re-unification of the Taliban and the potential for peace talks, but this too is a red herring designed to distract from the fact that there is no end in sight to the Taliban’s claim on territory in Afghanistan. Indeed, under Mansour’s leadership, the Taliban has nearly doubled its territory. Why would the Taliban want to cede their power when they are winning?  

There is much disagreement regarding whether such unification is possible and whether or not the death of Mansour will help or hurt the peace talks. Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Pakistan’s interior minister, asserts that killing Mansour destroys any chance for peace in the future: “You cannot expect them to come to talks after killing their leader.” Unfortunately, Khan is right that peace talks will not occur, but not only for the reason he cites.

In an effort to forestall the infighting that occurred after the announcement of Omar’s death in 2015, the Taliban Shura Council rushed to name a new leader. The new Mullah, Haibatullah Akhundzada, is said to be “very respected,” “a stone age mullah,” “the second deputy of Mullah Mansour” and “very close to Mullah Omar.” Regardless of Akhundzada’s personal thoughts on reconciliation, the question of peace is forestalled by the council’s naming of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the most feared and deadly of all Taliban leaders, as Akhundzada’s deputy. Indeed, this move, along with the rumor that Haqqani was the initial top choice for supreme leader, portends the violence to come in the wake of Mansour’s demise. While the naming of Omar’s son, Mohammad Yaqoob as co-deputy, is certainly an effort made by the council to re-unify the Taliban, it is a weak, conciliatory move that will not likely draw rebel factions back to the group.

A voice recording, claiming to be from the new leader Mullah Akhundzada, asserts that there will be no peace talks: “Taliban will never bow their heads and not agree to peace talks. People thought we will lay down our arms after Mullah Mansour’s death but we will continue fighting till the end.” It does not really matter whether or not the voice on this recording is that of Mullah Akhundzada. No matter how much the Obama administration may try to force an end to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, the idea that Mansour’s death will be the impetus for peace is more than a little doubtful.

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