Editor in Chief: Moh. Reza Huwaida Wednesday, April 25th, 2018

Will the Taliban Change Direction?

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Will the Taliban Change Direction?

The Taliban managed to promptly resolve the group’s leadership succession by choosing Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada as the replacement to Mullah Mansoor who was killed in a US drone strike in Pakisan. A Taliban statement said that the decision to choose Akhundzada as the group’s new leader have been made unanimously by Taliban senior leaders. Mullah Yaqoub, the elder son of the Taliban’s founder is appointed as deputy to the new leader along with Sirajuddin Haqqani who has already been a deputy to Taliban’s demised leader. In the statement, the Taliban statement has praised Mullah Mansoor for leading the group in a difficult situation and resisting the calls for joining peace talks with the government of Afghanistan. With announcing a new leader, Taliban leaders have once again stressed on continuation of the war against foreign forces and the government of Afghanistan.
What was particular in the Taliban leadership succession is that was carried out so rapidly and only within days after the death of Mullah Mansoor. The smooth transition caught many by surprise as they expected a power struggle ensuing after Mansoor’s killing over who should assume the group’s leadership. Shortly after the news about Mansoor’s killing spread and while the Taliban were yet to formally confirm death of their leaders, the group’s senior members came together in a secret meeting to consult the situation and discuss the leadership succession for the group. Taliban’s prompt decision over the group’s new leadership show that the process has gone largely through consensus and without serious differences of opinions among senior members of the Quetta Shura and senior field commanders.
The announcement of the new leader by the Taliban showed that the expectations of emergence of possible divisions among the Taliban over the group’s leadership succession were wrong and miscalculated. The prompt succession indicate the surprising resiliency of the Taliban senior leadership in difficult times and over crucial issues that need collective decision makings by the group’s senior leaders. The Taliban have had an established decision-making procedure through the group’s council of senior leaders which have been residing in Quetta during past fifteen years of the conflict in Afghanistan. This has enabled the group’s senior leadership to perform highly effectively and seek consensus over leadership issues and the group’s policies that can be potentially divisive in absence of an efficient decision-making mechanism. In hindsight, Mullah Mansoor’s assumption of Taliban leadership now seems to be an exception: he bypassed a consensus over his leadership by the Taliban leadership council as he effectively assumed the role of leadership while hiding the death of Mullah Omar.
This provides the group a long-term capability to survive deaths of its leaders. The Taliban now seem to be back on the routine by refocusing on waging war and offensives across Afghanistan despite that the group’s leader was killed in a crucial juncture of time for the insurgency and the war efforts in Afghanistan. This is in turn a potential drawback for the efforts of the Afghan government and the United States to weaken the Taliban by targeting the group’s senior leadership. With the new leader on his job to lead the insurgency, the Taliban may have managed to remain intact and easily survive the killing of their leader. Under the new leader, the Taliban may further become unified and grow stronger as the new leader is believed to less controversial than his predecessor to other senior members of the group who play key roles in day-to-day leadership of the group.
However, the new leader of the Taliban is not believed to have neither the power and influence nor the leadership skills of Mullah Mansoor over the ranks of files of the Taliban and the organization of the group’s war efforts. The new leader is said to be more of a spiritual figure rather than a military commander. He may lack the skills of his predecessor which can emerge as a point of weakness for the new leadership. However, this could be compensated by the skills and experiences of his deputy Sirajuddin Haqqani who is famed for his brutality and warfare skills. Anyway, what is potentially worrying is that the Taliban have surprising resiliency in cases of losing their leaders in attacks by the Afghan government and the United States. This provides the insurgency the crucial capability to survive deaths of leaders and continue the war without being weakened by losing its key leaders.
Afghan officials and the United States have called on the new leader of the Taliban to learn from the fate of his predecessor and come to peace talks to resolve the conflict; otherwise he will face the destiny of his predecessor. It is unlikely, though, that the new leader of the Taliban be willing or have the authority and power to open a window for peace negotiations with the government of Afghanistan. He is described as a hard-line figure who will be expected to continue to lead the insurgency aimed at military gains on the battlefield. Under the new leadership, it is even less likely than past for the Taliban to change direction of the insurgency and join the peace efforts of the Afghan government and other powers. The killing of Mullah Mansoor could also be an incentive for the new leadership of the Taliban to seek avenge.
The killing of the Taliban leader would bring no difference if the Taliban persist on refusing peace offers and escalate violence. This is while many expected the death of Mullah Mansoor would bring a more moderate Taliban leader willing for entering the peace talks with the government of Afghanistan. Presently, there are no signs from the Taliban suggesting change in direction after Mullah Mansoor. The Taliban’s behavior in the upcoming months will be a test for the Afghan government’s four-way peace initiative. Taliban’s continued refusal to peace talks will be the end of the four-nation peace initiative backed by Pakistan, China and the United States.

Abdul Ahad Bahrami is the permanent writer of the Daily Outlook Afghanistan. He can be reached at ahad.bahrami@gmail.com

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