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Afghan Taliban leader ‘likely killed’ in US drone strike

AFP

A US drone strike targeted and "likely killed" Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a remote area of Pakistan over the weekend in a mission authorised by US President Barack Obama, according to US officials.

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The strike also killed a second adult male combatant as the pair traveled in a vehicle southwest of the town of Ahmad Wal near the Afghan border, a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the AFP.

"Mansour was the target and was likely killed" by the strikes, which were carried out by multiple unmanned aircraft operated by US Special Operations Forces, the US official told the AFP.

In a statement released late Saturday, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook confirmed the US had targeted Mansour “in a remote area of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region”. The statement however noted that the US was “still assessing the results of the strike”.

The United States informed both Pakistan and Afghanistan shortly after the strike, a senior White House official said.

Afghan authorities have said they were notified about the strike, but were still awaiting confirmation of Mansour’s death.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani confirmed the US drone attack on Mansour in a Twitter post Sunday that read: “In the event of Mullah Mansour’s killing, a new opportunity presents itself to those Taliban who are willing to end war & bloodshed.”

Meanwhile a Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman said the government was “seeking clarification” about the attack.

"I have seen the reports. We are seeking clarification," Nafees Zakaria said in a statement. He added that Pakistan wanted the Taliban to return to the negotiating table to end the long war in Afghanistan, noting that, “military action is not a solution."

Contradictory responses from Taliban commanders

There were contradictory responses from the Taliban, with an unnamed Taliban commander telling Reuters the reports were “baseless”.

But another senior Afghan Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Rauf, told The Associated Press Sunday the Taliban leader had been killed in a US strike late Friday “in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area”.

The militant Islamist group has a history of secrecy and opacity surrounding their leadership. Mansour’s predecessor, Mullah Omar, was rarely seen in public and his 2013 death was kept secret for two years.

Following Omar’s death, there were deep divisions within the Taliban, with rival groups selecting their own leaders. But Mansour managed to gradually tighten his grip on the Islamist movement ahead of a deadly spring offensive launched earlier this year.

Implications for Taliban and US-Pakistan relations

Mansour’s death has serious implications not just for the Taliban, but also for an attempted peace process that has yielded little results over the past few years.

In his statement announcing the US strike targeting Mansour, Cook said the Taliban chief “has been an obstacle to peace and reconciliation between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, prohibiting Taliban leaders from participating in peace talks with the Afghan government that could lead to an end to the conflict”.

The Afghan government has been desperately trying to bring the insurgent group back to the negotiating table to end their conflict which began in 2001.

Buoyed by a series of victories on the battlefield, the fighters have so far refused to talk until their conditions are met, including the departure of all foreign soldiers from Afghanistan.

Pakistan on Wednesday hosted a fresh four-nation meeting aimed at reviving the long-stalled direct peace talks.

But Michael O'Hanlon of the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution said Mansour's death may only "modestly" help the US effort in Afghanistan.

"The war has been going on for so long, the Taliban has so many leaders and so much ability to function at the local level even without strong central guidance, that we would be well advised to keep expectations in check," said O'Hanlon in an interview with the AFP.

Bruce Riedel, another Afghanistan expert at the Brookings Institution, described the US operation in Pakistan as an unprecedented move but cautioned about possible fallout with Pakistan, where Taliban leadership has long been said to have safe haven.

Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, predicted strained ties between the US and Pakistani militaries and said it would put Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency on alert.

"It is also a signal to the ISI that the US is losing patience with promises of Pakistan facilitating talks with the Taliban and is finally willing to strike at the Afghan Taliban leadership in Pakistan," Haqqani told Reuters.

Insurgency looks set to continue

If the reports of his death are confirmed, it’s unclear who Mansour's successor might be. Riedel said his death could create a crisis for the Taliban.

A US intelligence analyst, who declined to be named, told Reuters that Mansour had been in a power struggle with Mullah Mohammad Rasoul, whose deputy, Mullah Dadullah, was killed late last year in what officials think was a fight with Mansour's more hard-line faction.

But the US official cautioned against concluding that the shakeup might diminish the Taliban's broader sense of strength, given political tensions in Kabul and the uneven performance of US-backed Afghan forces in recent months.

"The Taliban have made considerable progress in Helmand [Province] and elsewhere so it's hard to see much incentive for them to start compromising now, with the fighting just heating up again," the official said.

NATO ended its combat mission in Afghanistan in December 2014, pulling out the bulk of its troops, although a 13,000-strong residual force remains for training and counterterrorism operations.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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