- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2016

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 Wednesday.

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 Wednesday 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 400-plus districts, according to recent reports. Gen. Cleveland declined to comment on the amount of territory the group currently holds in country.

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