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Taliban Get A New Leader, Who's Just As Violent As The Old One

Afghan protesters in Kabul demonstrate against Taliban killings and kidnappings on June 2.

When Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan on May 21, many wondered whether his death might help open a window to peace in Afghanistan.

"A new opportunity presents itself to those Taliban who are willing to end war and bloodshed," Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted a day after Mansour's death.

"The Taliban should seize the opportunity to pursue the only real path for ending this long conflict," President Obama said, "joining the Afghan government in a reconciliation process that leads to lasting peace and stability."

But Mansour's successor, the new Taliban leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, quickly blew up any hopes that the Taliban under his leadership might be more receptive to reconciliation or a peace process.

"The Taliban will never bow their heads and will not agree to peace talks," an audio message attributed to him said, shortly after he was named the Afghan Taliban's new leader last month.

Meanwhile, deadly violence has continued apace since Akhundzada took control of the Taliban less than two weeks ago.

The news of his ascension coincided with a Kabul suicide attack that killed 11. A week later, another Taliban attack in northern Afghanistan killed 16. More than 50 Afghan police died on May 30 when Taliban fighters overran their checkpoints. On Sunday, a courthouse attack in Logar Province left seven dead; then a bomb blast killed a member of Afghanistan's parliament in Kabul.

On the same day, NPR photographer David Gilkey and Afghan journalist Zabihullah Tamanna were killed in an ambush while traveling with the Afghan military in the southern province of Helmand. Ghani, the Afghan president, has blamed their deaths on "Taliban brutality."

No Progress On The Political Front

Ghani entered office in 2014 embracing a politically unpopular effort to improve relations with neighboring Pakistan, where the Taliban have long enjoyed safe haven. But his government has struggled to remain unified, relations with Pakistan are still strained and the Taliban have been gaining ground.

Afghanistan's Taliban leadership is based in the Pakistani city of Quetta, which is where Mansour was heading when he was killed last month after returning from Iran, where he'd traveled under an assumed name with a Pakistani passport. After the drone strike, Pakistan complained that its sovereignty had been violated and warned that it could affect prospects for peace.

The U.S. has backed a reconciliation process — brokered by Pakistan, in which China and the U.S. are observers — that's aimed at fostering direct peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Those talks seem increasingly unlikely now.

"I don't believe that we will see peace talks anytime in the short term with Mullah Haibatullah [Akhundzada]," U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, the military spokesman in Afghanistan, told reporters last week.

Part of the Taliban's resistance to talks, writes Borhan Osman of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, is this: "The Taliban have consistently considered the U.S. as their main opponent in the conflict and refused to take Afghan government offers of talks seriously."

Actions like the U.S. drone strike that killed Mansour only buttress the Taliban's belief that their real enemy — and potential interlocutor — is in Washington, not Kabul.

The new Taliban leader comes from the traditional Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan. He's best known as a cleric and jurist, "passionate about Islamic justice," responsible for issuing fatwas — many of them justifying the Taliban's past violent acts.

"Not really a military guy and really not a money guy," said Gen. Cleveland. But, he warned, "We shouldn't underestimate this guy."

Akhundzada has been with the Taliban from the beginning, in the 1990s, and was a trusted comrade of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the group's original leader, who died in 2013, though his death was only disclosed last summer.

He inherits a Taliban organization that is "thought to control more territory today than at any point in time since 2001," writes Bill Roggio of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Taliban Strike Widely

The State Department's annual report on global terrorism, released last Friday, shows that the Taliban committed 1,093 attacks, more than any other group last year. The attacks claimed more than 4,400 lives and injured some 4,600. Afghan civilian casualties were at the highest level ever recorded in 2015; the U.N. documented 11,002 (thought not all of these came at Taliban hands).

The U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan officially ended in 2014, but there are still nearly 10,000 military personnel in the country. Americans serve primarily in advisory and training roles, though, as NPR's Tom Bowman recently reported, they are providing air cover for some Afghan missions.

"We do believe that the [Afghan military] has performed better this year than they were performing last year, and based on that, we are cautiously optimistic about the coming months because overall, we do believe that they have some momentum right now," Cleveland said. But questions remain about how far that momentum can go.

Meanwhile, progress toward an Afghan government peace agreement with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the country's most notorious former mujahedin leaders, is raising questions of its own.

Hekmatyar, who has lived outside Afghanistan in recent years and whose forces were responsible for much of Kabul's destruction during Afghanistan's civil war of the 1990s, has been offered a deal that would include amnesty.

"The government and some of its international allies also seem to hope that the agreement could serve as a possible blueprint for a desired peace accord with the Taliban," write Thomas Ruttig and Martine van Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. "But this seems overly optimistic."

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