Last weekend, a U.S. military drone killed Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, as he drove home from Iran to Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. This was a bold action, marking the first time an American drone strike had been ordered in the Taliban’s home base, rather than in Pakistan’s tribal areas that border Afghanistan. It may not signal yet another new U.S. strategy for the war in Afghanistan, but it is a significant tactical and political shift, recognition that as the Obama administration winds down, trends in the country are not good. As Dan De Luce and John Hudson wrote in Foreign Policy, a frustrated President Barack Obama “rolled the dice.”
No one thinks that killing Mansour will defeat the Taliban, but it might alter the trajectory of the conflict at least a bit. The peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which the Obama administration considered vital for American extrication from the conflict, were going nowhere. While Mansour seems to have supported negotiations at one point, he had become, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry put it, a “threat to that effort.” Killing him won’t automatically resuscitate the negotiations, but it might degrade the Taliban’s cohesion and exacerbate its internal struggles. If the group won’t negotiate, it can be weakened and punished more than it already is.
In the broad sense, killing Mansour was a good way to send a message. To the extremists themselves, the drone strike showed that even while the United States continues to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and avoid direct combat, it has an escalation capability. The leaders of both the Taliban and the other violent extremists that Pakistan hosts now know that they cannot count on living, traveling and meeting in safety. This won’t make them give up, but it might make it harder for them to plan attacks, communicate with their followers, and recruit new members.