- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The U.S. drone strike that killed a top Taliban leader this week may be providing an opening for the Haqqani network, the al Qaeda-affiliated Pakistani terrorist group known for its highly coordinated and vicious attacks inside Afghanistan, to remold the Afghan insurgency in its own more violent and hard-line image.

U.S. and Afghan officials say senior Taliban leaders are meeting to determine who will replace the group’s slain leader, Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansour.

In an attack that brought protests from top Pakistani officials, Mansour and another top Taliban commander were killed Sunday when their convoy was struck by U.S. drones in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.

The White House, along with U.S. commanders in Kabul, heralded the strike as a much-needed breakthrough toward ending what has become the longest war in American history.

“I hope that the Taliban leadership will realize it is time to lay down their weapons and join the peace efforts so the people of Afghanistan can enjoy peace and prosperity in the future,” Gen. John W. Nicholson, the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said during a visit Monday to the northern province of Kunduz.

Eliminating Mansour, an implacable opponent of the four-nation meetings with Pakistan, China and the U.S., was seen by many in Kabul and Washington as one of the last barriers to bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.

But U.S. and Afghan-led efforts to kick-start negotiations with the Afghan Islamist movement could falter or backfire if Taliban leaders pick Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the feared militant network that bears his name, as the Taliban’s new chieftain.

Haqqani is on the short list to replace Mansour, along with Mullah Mohammad Yaqub, the son of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar, according to recent reports, although many in the traditional Taliban leadership are said to be deeply suspicious of him.

Haqqani’s feared reputation has many worried that the drone strike could elevate him to the top position.

“There will be hell to pay” if Haqqani replaces Mansour, Zamir Kabulov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special representative on Afghanistan, told the Interfax news service.

Mansour named Haqqani as one of his top deputies in one of his first acts as the Taliban leader in mid-2015. The move was an early attempt to quell internal fissures over Mansour’s selection as Mullah Omar’s replacement. He took the helm of the Afghan terrorist group shortly after Taliban leaders revealed last spring that Mullah Omar had died more than two years earlier.

The looming succession battle could determine whether the U.S. drone strike targeting Mansour put Afghanistan closer to or farther away than ever from a political settlement, said Moeed Yusuf, associate vice president of the Asia Center at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace.

“If the next Taliban leader is someone palatable to the Pakistani security services or open to negotiations with the Afghan government, it would signal the degree to which this strike may have prompted Pakistan to reconsider its stance or the extent to which Pakistan may have been on board with the idea of targeting Mansour,” said Mr. Yusuf. “A hard-liner opposed to negotiations or independent of Pakistani control would pose greater strains on the U.S.-Pakistan relationship going forward.”

Feared fighters

Operating from safe havens in northwest Pakistan’s remote North Waziristan region, the Haqqani network earned a reputation throughout the war for its well-calculated and savage attacks against American, Afghan and allied troops, operating mainly in eastern and central Afghanistan.

“The Haqqani network is responsible for some of the highest-profile attacks of the Afghan war,” the National Counterterrorism Center said. Among those attacks: the June 2011 assault on the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel and a brazen attack just over two years later on the highly secured diplomatic quarter in Kabul, home to the U.S. Embassy, the Afghan presidential palace and the main military headquarters for American and NATO forces.

Haqqani network operatives were suspected of carrying out a devastating suicide attack in April that killed at least 28 people and wounded more than 300 others in the heart of Kabul.

Aside from its own operations, the group’s ties to al Qaeda have also raised concern among U.S. military officials over Haqqani’s possible ascension to the top of the Taliban hierarchy.

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri publicly endorsed Mansour as the Taliban’s chieftain, pledging the group’s allegiance shortly after Mansour assumed control of the group in July 2015.

Roughly 100 to 300 al Qaeda members are believed to be active in the country, concentrated in the eastern Afghan provinces of Kunar and Ghazni and in Kandahar province in the south, said Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, deputy chief of staff for communications for Operation Resolute Support, the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Cooperation between al Qaeda operatives and the Taliban began to spike last spring shortly after Mansour named Haqqani as the group’s second in command, Gen. Cleveland said during an April briefing from Kabul.

“Al Qaeda, beginning to work more with Taliban, they can present a bit of an accelerant for the Taliban,” Gen. Cleveland said.

“I think as we’ve all seen before, although they have been significantly diminished, [al Qaeda] does have the ability to regenerate very quickly, and they still do have the ability to pose a threat,” he said.

Gen. Nicholson told Reuters in April that a renewed alliance between the Taliban and resurgent al Qaeda terrorist cells in Afghanistan could delay the Obama administration’s plan for drawing down remaining U.S. forces in the nation.

Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Monday that Gen. Nicholson’s recommendations for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan will be complete within weeks.

Capt. Davis declined to speculate on the recommendations, but reports suggest the Mansour strike may open the door for U.S. forces to restart unilateral airstrikes against Taliban and other insurgent targets in Afghanistan, which would signal a tacit return to combat operations by U.S. forces in the country for the first time since December.

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