Obama's Taliban Airstrikes Are Part of a Failing Strategy

Mullah Mansour’s death in Pakistan will usher in more violence in Afghanistan.

Once again, Pakistan faces the ignominy of having a major terrorist group leader killed on its soil in a unilateral U.S. attack. The CIA has conducted over four hundred drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004. But Saturday’s attack, which targeted and is said to have killed Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the Afghan Taliban leader, was unprecedented and shame-inducing for Pakistan, à la the bin Laden raid. It took place in Pakistan’s Balochistan province—an area previously off limits to U.S. combat drones. And it was conducted by the U.S. military, not the CIA. In other words, there was no attempt by the United States at providing itself deniability.

Indeed, President Barack Obama quickly hailed Mansour’s death as “an important milestone” toward bringing peace to Afghanistan. But the president, who has only seen conflict theaters emerge or worsen in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen under his tenure, has little credibility on the issue of securing peace, despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize. With the exception of the Iran deal, President Obama has played a critical role in making the Middle East and South Asia a much more violent region.

The killing of Mullah Mansour is, unfortunately, more likely to extend the conflict in Afghanistan than hasten its end. To maintain its unity and momentum, the Afghan Taliban is likely to seek a consensus on a successor to Mansour (who would also probably have to be acceptable to the Pakistani military). And to consolidate control over the group, Mansour’s successor will likely have to make formidable demonstrations of violence, much like Mansour had done—bringing great bloodshed to Afghanistan.

Mansour pulled the Afghan Taliban away from the Quadrilateral Coordination Group with Beijing, Islamabad, Kabul and Washington, despite apparent Pakistani pressure on him. The same compulsions—consolidating control and demonstrating power—will likely prevent his successor from pursuing a meaningful negotiation process with the Kabul government this year. It will be nearly impossible for the leader of a unified Afghan Taliban or a splinter group to consolidate power quickly and move his group toward a pause in or cessation of hostilities, as the insurgency gains in momentum vis-à-vis a dysfunctional state.

Only a severely weakened or constrained Afghan Taliban would come to the negotiation table in the near term. But sufficiently weakening the group would require a sustained targeted killing campaign against its senior leaders, irrespective of their location. The use of lethal and nonlethal tools of influence by the Pakistani military would also be necessary. It cannot be done by America alone. A U.S.-Pakistan convergence is necessary. But the two countries are moving toward a strategic divergence, especially as Washington tightens its embrace of New Delhi and assumes a harder posture toward Beijing. In Washington, the consensus is that Pakistan is at best a non-ally—hence Congress’s tightening of military aid to Islamabad.

The New York Times, citing unnamed U.S. officials, claims that Pakistani officials provided “general information” on Mansour’s “location and activities” ahead of Saturday’s attack, but it fell short of specifics, and the Pakistanis, most importantly, were not informed of the drone strike until after it took place. Given that Mansour spent some time in Iran, it is worth speculating whether Obama’s newfound friends in Tehran—whose relations with Islamabad have soured since March since Pakistan’s arrest of an Indian spy operating near its border with Iran—helped Washington track Mansour. However, the insurgent group leader’s alleged use of a machine-readable passport and cell phone, if confirmed, would mean that he effectively served himself on a platter to the United States.

The normally active spokesman of the Pakistan Army, Lt. Gen. Asim Bajwa, has been silent on Saturday’s drone attack. Only mid-level members of the ruling party, which has minimal control over national security policy, have been sent to face the wolves on the country’s talk news channels.

As usual, the people of Pakistan are the last to be told the truth of what is happening in their country by their own leaders. It may be the case that the Pakistani military decided that the irreconcilable Mansour was a liability, especially after Congress denied Pakistan a subsidized purchase of eight F-16s, and Washington agreed in principle to a landmark logistics deal with New Delhi.