New Taliban leader: Least bad option?

(CNN)Editor's note: Michael Kugelman is senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

Just days after the death of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mansour, the group has appointed a new leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada. The announcement comes as a surprise -- not just because of the man selected, a relatively obscure cleric, but also because of how quickly the decision was made.
Given the Taliban's infighting, many expected a drawn-out and even bloody succession process -- and especially because Mansour's death came so suddenly, giving the Taliban leadership little time to plan out a transition.
Michael Kugelman
By acting with alacrity and purpose, the Taliban clearly wanted to convey a sense of unity and purpose that has long been lacking within the organization.
    There's no such thing as a desirable Taliban leader, but Akhundzada may just be the least bad option. Significantly, he's not a member of the Haqqani network -- the fierce, battle-hardened Taliban faction responsible for many of the major attacks in Afghanistan in recent years, and a group that U.S. military officials have long singled out as a top threat to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
    Sirajuddin Haqqani, a top Haqqani network leader, had been a key Mansour deputy and a top choice to succeed him. Instead, he'll remain a deputy in the new Taliban administration.

    Washington disappointed

    It's too early to tell what kind of leader Akhundzada will be. Though he's an obscure figure within the broader Taliban hierarchy, he has been close to the group's most prominent players, including Mansour and Mansour's predecessor Mullah Omar. Akhundzada is a cleric, not a commander, and the Taliban likely hopes his religious background can help him unite the organization. Helpful in this regard is that he is from Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace, which embeds him in the organization's founding identity.
    Foremost on the minds of many will be how Akhundzada views the prospect of long-elusive peace talks with the Afghan government. Washington has suggested that one of its main motivations for droning Mansoor was to bring to power a Taliban leader more receptive to negotiations. Yet if Washington hopes that killing Mansour will bring peace talks to life, then it's likely to be sorely disappointed.
    Peace and reconciliation are remote prospects for the foreseeable future, and that's true regardless of who's leading the Taliban. Despite the sudden and demoralizing death of its supreme leader, the favorable ground realities for the Taliban have not changed. It still has the ability to inflict damage on beleaguered Afghan security forces and to take over significant swaths of territory.
    While the attack on Mansour has made the Taliban leadership in Pakistan feel vulnerable, by no means are the walls closing in. A single attack won't prompt the Taliban to throw in the towel and meekly agree to negotiations. For the Taliban to agree to peace talks, its incentive structure would need to change -- and that can only happen if the United States were to stage additional strikes in Pakistan against Taliban leaders. Given that Washington does not want its ties with Islamabad to be ruptured, such a scenario is unlikely.
    So the calculus remains the same: The Taliban is achieving battlefield victories and has little incentive to join negotiations. In effect, why quit when you're ahead?

    Potential horror show

    Akhundzada will likely authorize a flurry of urban-based attacks and several new offensives in rural areas where the Taliban has made inroads, such as Helmand province. Ramping up these activities would have two notable effects. It would telegraph a powerful message that the Taliban remains a fearsome fighting force despite the death of its supreme leader. It would also underscore Akhundzada's authority and proverbial street cred in the eyes of the Taliban rank-and-file.
    Particularly worrisome thing about Akhundzada is his legal background. He served as a hard-line judge under Mullah Omar, which means he gave his imprimatur to the horrible practices that took place during Taliban rule. There's reason to fear the Taliban could impose the harshest forms of Islamic law in areas of Afghanistan that it controls. The Taliban may also end its (halfhearted) efforts to cast itself as a more moderate alternative to the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). In recent years, it has condemned the TTP's assaults on polio vaccination workers and attacks on civilians on the whole (nonetheless, the Taliban has relentlessly targeted civilians). Akhundzada's appointment suggests that for the Taliban, the days of presenting even the façade of moderation are over.
    Furthermore, in the unlikely event of reconciliation talks, the Taliban would likely push back hard against demands by Kabul that, if the Taliban were to join some type of political dispensation, it guarantee rights for Afghan women.
    Akhundzada's appointment may not be a nightmare scenario come true, but it's still a potential horror show. Washington has killed one bad man, but another one has promptly replaced him.