The Longest War Gets Longer

A few days ago, the United States killed the leader of a militant group it does not consider to be a terrorist organization, with which it is attempting to engage in peace talks, as part of the longest war it has ever been engaged in.

So far the justifications offered for the killing of Taliban leader Mullah Mansour only reveal the myopic mindset and desperation which must have led to the decision to authorize the killing.

Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook informed the world that Mansour had “disrupted U.S.-backed ­efforts to broker a political solution to Afghanistan’s long conflict.” Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated the government’s view, telling a news conference that Mansour was “directly opposed to the peace negotiation and to the reconciliation process.”

The top US commander in Afghanistan, General John W. Nicholson, took Mansour’s death as an opportunity to predict the future and ended up offering the most unlikely prospect: “good negotiations between the government and the Taliban.”

President Obama himself called Mansour’s death “an important milestone.” The Taliban leader, said Obama, “rejected efforts by the Afghan government to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that has taken the lives of countless innocent Afghan men, women and children.” After taking out their leader, President Obama politely asked the Taliban to join the Afghan government “in a reconciliation process that leads to lasting peace and stability.”

Much to our President’s likely dismay, the Taliban are unlikely to heed this advice and not only because the United States has just killed their leader (although that does make matters worse).

The United States is invested in an Afghan peace process because it now understands, 14 years too late, that the war cannot be won militarily. Pentagon spokesperson Navy Captain Jeff Davis admitted as much last November, when he said in a news briefing that the US “actually view[s] the Taliban as being an important partner in a peaceful Afghan-led reconciliation process” and is not “actively targeting the Taliban.”

Fourteen years after the US-led invasion, the Taliban were once again making territorial gains and, according to United Nations data, had “spread through more of Afghanistan than at any point since 2001.” The Obama administration had already delayed the withdrawal of American troops from the country and the outgoing commander of coalition forces, John Campbell, was promising that troops were “here to stay.”

Reconciliation seemed like the only option which would stop Taliban advances and allow the US to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan.

But the Taliban would not go along, and for good reason. Any rational Taliban leader will attempt to take advantage of favorable conditions on the battlefield to strengthen the organization’s leverage in future negotiations. This, in all likelihood, is what the Taliban under Mullah Mansour was doing, since it also had the additional benefits of unifying his deeply fragmented group and solidifying his position as leader.

The United States relied on Pakistan to deliver the Taliban to peace talks. Mansour was Pakistan’s favored candidate for the Taliban leadership and Pakistan once enjoyed considerable influence over the group. This, however, was no longer the case.

As Pakistan’s advisor for Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, confessed a few months ago in an unusually candid statement: “We have some influence over them because their leadership is in Pakistan and they get some medical facilities. Their families are here. We can use those levers to pressurize them to say, ‘Come to the table’. But we can’t negotiate on behalf of the Afghan government because we cannot offer them what the Afghan government can offer them.” There is some indication that the Taliban had rejected Pakistani pressure to join peace talks.

The advances made by the Taliban within Afghanistan allowed the group to operate more independently of Pakistani support. It no longer needed Pakistani sanctuaries as much as it once did, it could access weapons and ammunition in Afghanistan itself, as well as raise funds there. Pakistan is no longer capable of pushing the Taliban to participate in peace talks.

In fact, Mullah Mansour may just have been the best hope for peace talks in the near future. The newly appointed Maulvi Haibatullah is a hardliner, opposed to peace talks. As a senior Taliban member told journalist Sami Yousufzai, “He is more uncompromising, complicated. Going forward toward peace talks [with the Afghan government] would be very surprising from Haibatullah.”

It took President Obama a few days to realize the implications of killing Mullah Mansour. Today, he told reporters, that he anticipates “the Taliban will continue an agenda of violence” and doubts they will engage in peace talks “anytime soon.”

“My hope, although not my expectation,” continued Obama, “is that there comes a point where the Taliban realize what they need to be doing…”

But if events of the past year tell us anything, it is that the Taliban know exactly what they are doing. It is the United States that is oblivious.