The United States missile that is believed to have extinguished the life of Taliban chief Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor this weekend will, without doubt, be a turning point in the history of a troubled nation which has known far too many turning points. Formally appointed chief of the Taliban in July 2015 — though he had, for all practical purposes, led the organisation since the death of its supremo, Mohammad Omar, in 2013 — Mansoor had acquired a reputation for extraordinary savagery inside just a few months. His leadership saw the Taliban stage offensive operations of unprecedented success, aided by logistical support from Pakistan’s intelligence services and a disorganised Afghan state — but also by Western policies that appeared to signal a willingness to cede power to the Islamist insurgency. Mansoor’s key partners, the Haqqani Network, demonstrated their power to civil society with a series of barbaric urban bombings, in which civilians were indiscriminately targeted. Though Mansoor had been hailed, in Pakistan and the West, as a client of the Inter-Services Intelligence who would lead the Taliban into peace talks, he instead demonstrated a commitment to secure as much of a military advantage as possible. His dogged resistance to join negotiations with the Afghan government eventually cost him his life.
Few in Afghanistan, judging from the media reaction in that country, are mourning his passing. Not many in India will do so either. Last year, this newspaper had revealed Mansoor had overseen ground operations at Kandahar during the hijacking of Indian Airlines IC814, ensuring the aircraft could not be stormed by Indian commandos, and personally escorting Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar to safety.
Mansoor’s death is almost certain to see a savage power struggle between the ISI’s favoured client, Sirajuddin Haqqani, Mullah Omar’s son Mohammad Yakoob, and other contenders like the shadowy Mohammad Rasool. The stakes are not only political. The Taliban’s ground units in Helmand now control the multi-billion dollar opium trade, and profit from protection rackets targeting everything from trucking to electronics smuggling. Local ground units of the Taliban have little to gain from joining in a peace process that will see them having to cede some of the complete power they now enjoy over their little empires — and thus, have no interest in backing a leadership committed to peacemaking. President Ashraf Ghani’s government on the other hand, knows there is little Western appetite for an endless, expensive war — and that resources, therefore, are unlikely to become available for a decisive military campaign. This turning point will lead, as each turning point has done before, to a long, gruelling and indecisive war.