National Security & Defense

Is the Obama Administration Changing Its Strategy in Afghanistan?

Prepping a Reaper drone at Kandahar Airfield, April 2016. (Josh Smith/Reuters)
Political Warfare in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Akhtar Mansour, the leader of the Taliban, is dead. As he was returning from Iran, his car was hit by a missile fired from an American military drone in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. The U.S. had not previously conducted drone strikes outside of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, but the White House has emphasized that President Obama personally authorized the attack, justifying it on the basis of self-defense under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Secretary of State John Kerry stressed that Mansour posed “a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. personnel.”

Since our combat mission in Afghanistan is ostensibly over, our rules of engagement require that Taliban have to be posing a direct threat to U.S. or coalition forces to be subject to direct action. Targeting Taliban leaders inside Afghanistan has been discouraged in order to facilitate the reconciliation process among Afghans — so we killed a man in Pakistan that we could not have killed in the country where we are at war.

The Afghan government commended the strike; Pakistan predictably (but mildly) protested this violation of their sovereignty. The New York Times’s reporting suggests that Pakistan had known for weeks we were targeting Mansour and even provided some help. It is possible Pakistan’s domestic-terrorism fight has better aligned our interests in Afghanistan. Perhaps the Pakistanis even agreed Mansour was a danger to us all. More likely is that Pakistan’s intelligence services had chosen a preferred successor to Mansour in order to increase their influence in Afghanistan.

RELATED: Afghanistan’s ‘Evil Omens’

Meanwhile, the Afghan government has been chipping away at Taliban unity, incentivizing those who would splinter off from the main Taliban. President Ashraf Ghani has apparently had some success in reducing what in counterinsurgency doctrine are called “irreconcilables.” In theory, you distinguish those fighters who are amenable to peaceful outcomes, and work with them to isolate and kill the others. Mansour was certainly irreconcilable, and — perhaps with the complicity of both Pakistan and Afghanistan — we killed him.

It would be a positive sign if the Mansour strike illustrated a better-integrated use of our diplomatic and military forces.

The Obama administration is trying mightily to suggest that the strike was part of a fused politicalmilitary strategy intended to advance reconciliation negotiations in Afghanistan. Secretary Kerry said that “peace is what we want. Mansour was a threat to that effort.” President Obama has urged the Taliban to “seize this opportunity to pursue the only real path for ending this long conflict — joining the Afghan government in a reconciliation process.”

It would be a positive sign if, instead of simply being a target of opportunity, the Mansour strike illustrated a better-integrated use of our diplomatic and military forces: underwriting negotiations with force — something that has not been a hallmark of Obama’s foreign policy. That is clearly what the White House is attempting to convey: We are no longer just training and equipping Afghan forces, we are aggressively moving to deny the enemy the sanctuaries inside Pakistan that have long impeded our war effort. In doing so, we hope to persuade the Taliban to cease fighting.

#share#The problem with this argument is that all of the potential successors to Akhtar Mansour look to be equally murderous and equally opposed to reconciliation — which is not to object to killing Mansour, but to question whether it opens a path for a more moderate leader. And why would the Taliban sue for peace anyway? Fifteen years of pretty effective military attacks on Taliban leadership have not noticeably increased their support for reconciliation. President Obama’s obdurate insistence on an arbitrary timeline for ending American participation in the country is encouraging the Taliban to keep fighting: They now control 40 percent of Afghanistan.

EDITORIAL: In Afghanistan, Obama Starts to Face Reality

President Obama emphasized that the strike does not constitute a change in strategy. Mansour’s killing may simply reflect that the Obama administration is attempting to accelerate the pace of the negotiations that will occur while the president is in office. President Obama’s petulance with regards to what he considers undeserving allies has been much telegraphed lately, but if revealing Pakistan’s complicity was the message we were trying to send, why would we have told them we were targeting Mansour? Maybe a fragmented Taliban is the solution President Obama is going for in his final year in office. And maybe that would be good enough to protect the United States. But it is deeply doubtful that killing Mansour will bring the Taliban to the negotiating table or make Afghanistan any less violent.

#related#To the contrary, it’s likely to ignite violence as the disparate factions compete for organizational control and leadership positions. Infighting among Taliban factions for money, recruits, and territory will be a scourge to the people of Afghanistan. But a durable political solution in Afghanistan will not materialize until the Taliban believe we are committed to their destruction unless they conform to a new political reality in Afghanistan. Despite the symbolism of the Mansour strike, we still do not have a strategy that conveys that message.

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