The US drone killing of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in Baluchistan, Pakistan, in May 2016 was a significant break with US policy: For the first time, the United States struck a top Taliban leader enjoying shelter and a comfortable life in core parts of Pakistan.
The hope is that in the long term, taking out the leadership will cause the Taliban to fragment, weakening its capacity to sustain an insurgency and ultimately motivating it to negotiate a peace settlement with the Afghan government.
But the idea that the Taliban’s fragmentation and internal weakness will drive it to the negotiating table or to military defeat is far from guaranteed. In fact, internal divisions may actually cause the Taliban to become more aggressive on the battlefield and less likely to come to the negotiating table.
Even more important, though, deep and potentially debilitating political problems in Afghanistan persist. And unless they are fixed, any reconciliation that future negotiations with the Taliban may eventually bring will still not produce a lasting peace in Afghanistan.
Taliban fragmentation may make peace negotiations less likely, not more
Even with the death of Mullah Mansour and a possible further fragmentation of the Taliban, the prospect is one of prolonged, years-long fighting at best.
In response to the killing of Mansour, the Taliban swiftly announced Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada as its new leader. By choosing a conservative cleric who used to be the Taliban’s minister of "justice" in the 1990s, and by the speed of the announcement, the Taliban sought to avoid the legitimacy problems and internal struggles that surrounded last year’s appointment of Mansour — which came after the Taliban finally revealed that the founder of the group, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had actually been dead for several years.
The succession struggle following that announcement in July 2015 resulted in the first fragmentation of the Taliban. Several groups split off, some relabeling themselves the Islamic State in Khorasan to capitalize on ISIS’s success in the Middle East and to indulge in brutality greater than those purveyed by the Taliban. Others claimed to represent the true Taliban and challenged Mansour’s authority.
Infighting between Mansour’s Taliban and the splinter broke out in several parts of Afghanistan. Nonetheless, Mansour was ultimately able to either co-opt or neuter his various rivals for the leadership and defeat many of the splinter groups.
But despite the Taliban’s internal difficulties over the past year, its military energy showed no signs of fizzling out. In fact, the Taliban was able to score important tactical and even strategic victories over the past year, despite the fragmentation. Insecurity increased significantly throughout the country, and civilian deaths shot up. Significant portions of Afghanistan’s territory fell (at least temporarily) to the Taliban.
Those trends have not changed in 2016. Many areas are under serious Taliban pressure. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are taking large, and potentially unsustainable, casualties. Meanwhile, other ANSF deficiencies, including problems with retention and performing basic support functions — such as logistics, intelligence and reconnaissance, and medical evacuation, to name a few — persist.
Moreover, the Taliban defections and fragmentation have, at least in the short term, actually inhibited peace negotiations. In order to shore up his leadership credentials, Mansour had to demonstrate his military prowess and suspend the Taliban’s participation in negotiations. And the Taliban’s successes on the battlefield last year strengthened those within the group who believe a military victory may be feasible.
Thus, Mansour’s death will likely delay and complicate the peace negotiations process further. Even when the negotiations do get underway in earnest, they are likely to take years to produce an outcome.
But deep governance problems will still plague Afghanistan regardless
Whatever the state of (non)negotiations with the Taliban, governance in Afghanistan cannot persist in the condition of paralysis of the past two years or the rapacious, predatory, and self-interested behavior of Afghan power brokers going back to the era of former President Hamid Karzai.
Starting to deliver governance improvements is crucial for the sustainability of the Afghan state and the basic post-2001 political order of contested elections, division of power among three branches of the government, at least constitutional protection of human rights, and a goal to modernize the economy and attain economic growth.
Better governance buys time, opens up political space for the negotiations, and strengthens the government’s hand in them. It also boosts the capacity of ANSF on the battlefield, ultimately helping drive the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Yet instead of coming together at a time of great fragility and uncertainty, the Afghan political elite remains fractious and polarized. The National Unity Government (NUG) of President Ashraf Ghani and his chief executive officer and rival Abdullah Abdullah, which was created in the wake of the highly contested presidential elections of 2014, has never really found its feet. Fundamental structural problems of the government remain unaddressed.
Some Afghan politicians, including Karzai, even claim that the mandate of the NUG expires in September 2016. They demand either new elections or a constitutional assembly, such a gathering of traditional Afghan tribal leaders, to anoint a new government or give it a new mandate. The Afghan government rejects both ideas.
Even if neither materializes, Afghanistan’s leadership will face potentially debilitating crises of legitimacy that waste time and energy at a point when the focus should be on the insurgency and on improving local security provision, as well as job creation, the availability of justice and dispute resolution mechanisms, and the delivery of basic small- and large-scale infrastructure, including roads and electricity.
While Afghan politicians may not wish a return to a civil war, their reckless and selfish actions continually nudge the country in that direction.
In addition to restraining their political and monetary ambitions and their various power plays in Kabul, they need to recognize that years of abusive, discriminatory, exclusionary governance; extensive corruption; and individual and ethnic patronage and nepotism are the roots of Afghanistan’s predicament. These have corroded the Afghan army and permeate the Afghan police and anti-Taliban militias.
Instead of blaming Pakistan for all of the country's ills, even though Pakistan clearly continues to enable Taliban and Haqqani operations from Pakistan, Afghan politicians and power brokers need to take a hard look at their own behavior in recent years and realize they have much to do to clean their own house to avoid disastrous outcomes for Afghanistan.
Not all corruption or nepotism can or will disappear. But unless outright rapacious, exclusionary, and deeply predatory governance is mitigated, the root causes of the insurgency will remain unaddressed and the state-building project will have disappeared into fiefdoms and lasting conflict. At that point, even negotiations with the Taliban, if and when they materialize, will not bring peace.
Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, and author of Aspiration and Ambivalence: Strategies and Realities of Counterinsurgency and State-Building in Afghanistan.