KABUL, Afghanistan — American and Afghan officials heralded new prospects for peace after the Taliban's leader died in an airstrike — but signs suggest strife in the region is bound to get worse.
In wake of Mullah Akhtar Mansour's death on May 21, Secretary of State John Kerry said: "Peace is what we want. Mansour was a threat to that effort.”
Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s chief executive, said Mansour's death presented an opportunity “to those Taliban who are willing to end the war and bloodshed … and join the Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process.”
Intermittent efforts to negotiated peace foundered under Mansour's leadership.
The Taliban's swift naming of a new leader — powerful and deeply conservative cleric Haibatullah Akhundzada — plus the intensifying drumbeat of attacks since Mansour’s death suggest the militancy’s leadership doesn't plan on going to the negotiating table any time soon.
The killing of Mansour may have delivered a stern message to Pakistan — which has long been accused of sheltering and supporting the Afghan Taliban — but he was not the most “effective target,” according to Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank.
“By killing Mansour, the more vicious factions of the Taliban … were strengthened. They are even less likely to negotiate and they will have a greater proclivity toward unrestrained violence,” said Felbab-Brown, the author of “Aspiration and Ambivalence: Strategies and Realities of Counterinsurgency and State Building in Afghanistan.”
It also probably ensured that the Taliban will be more set on revenge than peace making, according to Borhan Osman, a researcher with Afghanistan Analyst Network in Kabul.
Nothing in new leader Akhundzada’s background indicates he will be more likely than his predecessor to negotiate.
“There is no reason to believe the fighting will de-escalate with the new leadership,” he wrote in a May 27 report. "On the contrary, there are clues in [Akhundzada’s] background and views, that he would push for a military victory.”
Afghanistan already has gotten a troubling taste of what might be to come under the Taliban's new direction.
Starting on May 28, the Taliban overran several police posts during a huge, three-day offensive in the southern province of Helmand. While there was official word on how many Afghan police and soldiers were killed in the attacks, some local reports put the number of those who died at around 100.
On May 31, the Taliban kidnapped some 180 bus passengers in northeastern Kunduz province. Security forces managed to free all but 10, who were killed.
Four Taliban suicide bombers driving a car packed with explosives stormed a court in the central city of Ghazni on May 1, killing one police officer and four civilians.
On Sunday, a National Public Radio photojournalist and his Afghan translator were killed when their vehicle was attacked, again in Helmand.
And on Thursday, 17 passengers were kidnapped on a road in northern Sare-e Pol province and three aid workers were killed in Parwan to the north of the Afghan capital Kabul.
The attacks come against the backdrop of ongoing clashes between the Taliban and government forces across the country — which kill security forces on an almost daily basis and which, according to Afghan authorities, also leave dozens of militants dead.
Mansour's death came as the Taliban was close to to agreeing to formal peace negotiations, said one senior Taliban commander.
"It was a difficult task as most of our field commanders were against sitting with Americans and the puppet rulers of Afghanistan," he said. "But Pakistan had clearly told us to either leave Pakistan or hold peace talks with Kabul. And thus Mullah Mansour and his close men started convincing his field commanders."
By contrast, the new leader — Akhundzada — might take a lot more convincing.
He served as a judge during the Taliban regime and then shadow chief justice after the group was toppled in the U.S. invasion in 2001 and has issued religious edicts — or "fatwas" — justifying terrorist attacks against U.S. troops, senior Taliban members told NBC News.
Akhundzada also has steadfastly opposed peace talks with the government and the U.S., another senior Taliban member told NBC News.
“[Akhundzada] is the true follower of Islam and never compromises on principles. He is as rigid as Mullah Omar used to be," the commander said, referring to the group's late longtime leader. The commander, like other senior Taliban figures, spoke on condition of anonymity.
The militants around Akhundzada, too, don't seem inclined to take a gentler approach.
Akhundzada is flanked by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of an especially violent branch of the militancy, and Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob, the son of the Mullah Omar.
One senior Afghan government intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity maintained that the strike that killed Mansour had weakened the Taliban. Nonetheless, he warned that Haqqani's growing power within the group also undercut the prospects for peace.
“With Saraj [Haqqani] running the operations now, unfortunately their tactics will become more brutal,” he added, reflecting a common opinion that Akhundzada would act mainly as a figurehead while his deputy ran the group day-to-day.
The Haqqanis, which one Western diplomat dubbed "the Kennedys of the Taliban movement," have been behind some of the most ferocious attacks against U.S. troops and civilians in Afghanistan.
Haqqani also brings with him the baggage of his alleged ties with al Qaeda. Links between Afghan militants and the international jihadi movement founded by Osama bin Laden go back years.
Relations frayed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. and the subsequent U.S. invasion that drove the Taliban from power and sent al Qaeda, including bin Laden, on the run.
Even before Mansour’s death, al Qaeda in Afghanistan was “evolving” and “changing” in the region and their relationship with the Taliban was growing stronger, the spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan told NBC News.
“The growing relationship between Al-Qaeda and Taliban is something new, and we think that something new in the al Qaeda equation," Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland said. "What we do see is al Qaeda is working more with the Taliban and that certainly has the ability to make the Taliban better.”
That also provides al Qaeda with more space to regroup and become a bigger threat, Cleveland added.
His assessment comes as the U.S. prepares to draw down their forces to 5,500 in Afghanistan by the end of the year — though the plans could still change.
But whatever the U.S. and the Afghan governments do next, it doesn't appear the leadership of the Taliban will be leaning towards peace.
"It will take time Taliban fighters to forget what had happened to their supreme leader," one Taliban commander said. "No Taliban member can discuss the issue of peace talks in our inside meetings. It's like someone wants to commit suicide if he asks Taliban commanders to hold peace talks these days."