May 26, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Taliban After Mullah Mansour
• On May 25, the Taliban publicly confirmed the death of leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, and announced his successor
• The announcement of hardline cleric Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada as the Taliban’s new leader will not reunite the movement, nor will it stem defections to the Islamic State
• The challenge the Islamic State poses to the Taliban is real, though it is more of a slow burn than a raging fire; Al-Qaeda also faces a quandary over declaring loyalty to the new Taliban leader, but may do so nonetheless
• The reshuffle of senior Taliban leadership will not improve the prospects for peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
On May 25, the Taliban announced that it had chosen Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada as the movement’s new leader following the May 21 death of his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in a U.S. drone strike. Mansour was reportedly on his way back from Iran, where his family is based, when he was killed. The speed with which the Taliban acknowledged Mansour’s death and appointed Akhundzada to succeed him was in sharp contrast to the previous change of leadership. Mansour did not tell the movement that its founder and first leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had been dead for over two years, and his own succession was a drawn out affair marked by discord and defections.
Akhundzada is hardly a breath of fresh air for the Taliban; he has been a member of the group for decades, and is considered a hardliner with little imagination. His background and involvement in the group has been that of a cleric rather than a fighter. His two deputies are Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the infamous Haqqani network, and Mullah Yaqoub, the son of Mullah Omar. Both possess separate spheres of influence within the Taliban, and their appointments are likely an effort to hold the movement together. Sirajuddin also served as a deputy under Mansour—who was forced to resort to buying off Yaqoub and his uncle, Mullah Omar’s brother, in order to overcome their opposition to his rule. Akhundzada does not appear to have made any effort to bring back into the fold the dissident faction led by Mullah Mohammad Akhund, which broke away last August in protest at Mansour’s appointment.
Apart from existing divisions within the movement, which had required almost all of Mansour’s time to heal, a further and growing challenge exists in the form of the so-called Islamic State. The Islamic State has established a foothold in eastern Afghanistan, and there have been fierce clashes between Taliban and Islamic State fighters, as well as defections both ways. The Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) has said that younger Taliban members in particular are leaving to join the Islamic State, which is determined to expand its reach into areas currently under Taliban control.
Despite having established a firm base, the Islamic State will not find it easy to expand its influence in the short term, as it is unlikely to attract the sort of popular support that the Taliban has achieved. It is seen as a foreign group, and its objectives are no more popular with Afghans than they are with the local populations in other areas where it is present. Nonetheless, the Islamic State in Afghanistan presents a growing challenge to the Taliban and a further headache for the Afghan government. Although local recruits may be few, the NDS has noted a pattern of the Islamic State recruiting individuals from Central Asia, who then transit Iran to join the group in Afghanistan. The Afghan government is seeking more effective cooperation from its neighbors to stem this flow.
A further problem alleged by the Afghan government is that Iran and Russia are supporting the Taliban as a way to undermine the Islamic State. Although both countries deny this, it is easy to see why each country might pursue such a strategy—pitting two unwelcome movements against one another in an effort to cancel both out. It is more likely, however, that each group will consolidate its hold over separate parts of the country and fight where they meet. In the meantime, groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which declared allegiance to the Islamic State in September 2014 and again a year later, will likely continue to cooperate with whoever controls the territory around its bases.
Al-Qaeda is also reported to be resurgent in Afghanistan, with the Taliban seeking its help against the Islamic State. Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, will presumably pledge allegiance to the new Taliban chief in due course, as he did to his predecessor. However, as Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, again considers announcing the formation of a local Emirate, a pledge of loyalty by al-Qaeda to a benighted Mullah in a far-off country will not do much to encourage new recruits or defections from the Islamic State.
In the meantime, Akhundzada will attempt to establish his control over the Taliban in the standard way adopted by all other new leaders of violent groups: by launching more attacks and causing further misery. He is unlikely to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table anytime soon. As the Afghan government faces waning interest from the U.S. and other Western supporters in continuing current levels of military and financial commitment, Pakistan will face increasing international pressure to exert whatever influence it can over Taliban policy. An imminent peace deal between the Afghan government and the most untrustworthy warlord in Afghanistan’s recent history, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, will be a small achievement in an otherwise grim situation.
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