U.S. skep­ti­cal of Afghan peace with new Tal­iban leader

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY CARLO MUNOZ

The Tal­iban’s se­lec­tion of lit­tle-known cleric Mul­lah Haibat­ul­lah Akhundzada as its new leader has es­sen­tially ended any hopes of peace talks with the Afghan mil­i­tant group for the fore­see­able fu­ture, U.S. of­fi­cials said.

It was the stark­est as­sess­ment of the new com­man­der since the hard-line re­li­gious scholar emerged as the lat­est leader for the mil­i­tant Is­lamist group.

“I don’t be­lieve that we will see peace talks any­time in the short term” with the Tal­iban as long as Mul­lah Akhundzada re­mains in charge of the Afghan mil­i­tant group, said Brig. Gen. Charles Cleve­land, deputy chief of staff for com­mu­ni­ca­tions for Op­er­a­tion Res­o­lute Sup­port, the NATO mis­sion in Afghanistan.

Lit­tle was known about Mul­lah Akhundzada out­side of Afghanistan when he was ap­pointed the Tal­iban’s new chief­tain, af­ter for­mer leader Mul­lah Mo­hammed Akhtar Man­sour and an aide were killed late last month when their con­voy was struck by U.S. drones in Pak­istan’s Baluchis­tan prov­ince.

Tal­iban lead­ers bucked con­ven­tional wis­dom by choos­ing Mul­lah Akhundzada over Si­ra­jud­din Haqqani, head of the feared Pak­istani-based mil­i­tant net­work that bears his name and who was the ter­ror group’s sec­ond in com­mand at the time of Man­sour’s death.

The pos­si­bil­ity of a Haqqani-led Tal­iban stoked fears in Wash­ing­ton and Kabul that the al Qaeda-af­fil­i­ated Pak­istani ter­ror­ist group known for its highly co­or­di­nated and vi­cious at­tacks in­side Afghanistan would shut down any ef­forts at peace talks while re­cast­ing the Afghan in­sur­gency in its own more vi­o­lent and hard-line image.

De­spite his rel­a­tively low pro­file out­side the Tal­iban, be­hind the scenes Mul­lah Akhundzada was re­spon­si­ble for pro­vid­ing the re­li­gious jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the group’s at­tacks against U.S., Afghan and NATO forces as one of the group’s se­nior the­o­log­i­cal lead­ers.

“We shouldn’t un­der­es­ti­mate this guy,” Gen. Cleve­land warned. “This guy does have blood on his hands.”

A more mil­i­tant in­sur­gency

Mul­lah Akhundzada’s fer­vent op­po­si­tion to Afghanistan’s unity gov­ern­ment could usher in the more mil­i­tant and bru­tal Tal­iban that Amer­i­can and Afghan lead­ers were hop­ing to avoid with Mr. Haqqani.

Now U.S. and NATO strate­gists are look­ing to turn dis­trict-level Tal­iban lead­ers to­ward peace talks in the hopes that enough of the lower-level com­man­ders will sign on to ne­go­ti­a­tions and cre­ate pres­sure to over­rule Mul­lah Akhundzada’s op­po­si­tion to those talks.

“Our real hope right now is … at the dis­trict level, where you’ve got Tal­iban lead­er­ship who maybe has 30, 50, 100 Tal­iban work­ing for them in ei­ther a prov­ince or a dis­trict,” Gen. Cleve­land said. “They see that Mul­lah Man­soor has been killed in a very pre­cise strike. And then they can also look over and they see … the very real fact that they may be in­te­grated back into this coun­try.”

How­ever, Pres­i­dent Obama grimly pre­dicted late last month that the new Tal­iban regime un­der Akhundzada would only re­sult in “an agenda of vi­o­lence and blow­ing up in­no­cent peo­ple” in their fight to re­gain con­trol of Afghanistan.

With peace talks now off the ta­ble for at least this year’s sea­son of fight­ing, the White House and Pen­tagon face the task of draft­ing bat­tle plans for an­other year in what is now the long­est war in U.S. his­tory.

U.S. Army Gen. John Ni­chol­son, the com­man­der of all NATO forces in Afghanistan, is ex­pected to wrap up his rec­om­men­da­tions for fu­ture U.S. troop lev­els in the coun­try within the next sev­eral days.

Gen. Cleve­land said the re­view was nearly com­plete and Gen. Ni­chol­son would brief U.S. and NATO com­man­ders on his as­sess­ment within the week.

The 9,800-strong U.S. force cur­rently in Afghanistan is slated to drop down to 5,500 by 2017, ac­cord­ing to the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plan.

But the Tal­iban’s vi­o­lent resur­gence last year, cul­mi­nat­ing in the group briefly re­tak­ing the north­ern Afghanistan city of Kun­duz last Septem­ber, prompted Gen. Ni­chol­son’s pre­de­ces­sor, Gen. John Camp­bell, to re­tain the 9,800-sol­dier U.S. force in coun­try through 2017.

In April, Gen. Ni­chol­son told Reuters that U.S. and NATO ef­forts to bol­ster Afghanistan’s nascent mil­i­tary forces were well be­hind sched­ule due to the in­crease in vi­o­lence.

The Tal­iban presently con­trol or strongly con­tests more than 80 of Afghanistan’s 400plus dis­tricts, ac­cord­ing to re­cent re­ports. Gen. Cleve­land de­clined to comment on the amount of ter­ri­tory the group cur­rently holds in coun­try.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

Af­ter a U.S. airstrike killed Mul­lah Mo­ham­mad Akhtar Man­sour in Pak­istan, Mul­lah Haibat­ul­lah Akhundzada as­sumed the reins of the Tal­iban.

Akhundzada

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