Washington: After months of failed Pakistani efforts to broker peace talks with the Taliban, a US drone strike against the leader of the Afghan militants signaled a major break with precedent as the United States circumvented Pakistan in an effort to disrupt the strengthening insurgency, officials said on Sunday.
The Afghan intelligence agency said Sunday that the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansour, had been killed in the strike in the restive Pakistani province of Baluchistan. The United States announced the strike Saturday but could not confirm that Mansour had been killed.
Although there was still no official reaction from the main Taliban spokesman, some Taliban commanders on Sunday denied the reports, saying their leader was not in the area of the strike.
Even if Mansour was not killed, the attack was significant, as it is believed to be the first US drone strike in Baluchistan, the de facto headquarters of the Afghan Taliban, after years of such attacks in other Pakistani and Afghan areas.
The death of Mansour, who was consolidating his authority over a fracturing Taliban as the militants made major gains on the battlefield, would throw the insurgency into its second leadership crisis within a year. Still, it was unclear whether it could create any significant breathing space for the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, which has struggled to bring the insurgency into negotiations.
Even with no clear successor to Mansour, the issue of peace talks has long been seen as deeply unpopular among the Taliban’s most senior leadership.
The strike in Baluchistan was also seen as a signal that the Obama administration was growing less patient with Pakistan’s failure to move strongly against the Taliban insurgency. While Pakistan’s powerful military establishment has quietly cooperated with the CIA’s campaign of drone strikes against al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban in the northwestern tribal areas, it has refused past requests from the spy agency to expand the drone flights into Baluchistan, former US officials said.
The United States and the Afghan government have long pointed at the Taliban sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan, particularly in Baluchistan, as the main reason for the resilience of the insurgents despite a campaign against them that, at its peak, involved nearly 150,000 international troops. But until the strike against Mansour on Saturday, consecutive administrations in Washington had resisted the temptation of going after Taliban sanctuaries out of fear of angering Pakistan. Instead, US officials focused on pressuring the Pakistani military to force the Taliban’s leadership into joining peace talks with the Afghan government.
Pakistani officials were alerted to the attack against Mansour only after the strike, said a senior US official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential operational details.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry issued a statement Sunday denouncing the attack as a violation of the country’s sovereignty . The stance echoed Pakistan’s anger over the US raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Then, too, the United States informed Pakistan of the raid only after the fact.
The Foreign Ministry said in the statement that a man carrying a Pakistani passport with the name Wali Muhammad, who entered from Iran on Saturday, had been targeted in the strike, along with his driver. It was not immediately clear if either was Mansour.
US officials say President Barack Obama authorized a strike against Mansour weeks ago as it became clear that the new leader of the Taliban had little interest in peace talks. Months of efforts involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States to initiate face-to-face talks led nowhere, with Mansour only intensifying his attacks.
The opportunity on Saturday, after a closer surveillance of his movements was activated, presented itself relatively quickly, in a matter of hours, and the military acted using the earlier White House authorization.
It took the Afghan government until noon on Sunday to confirm Mansour’s death. The Taliban brushed it aside as propaganda along the lines of similar claims in December. The Afghan government, at that time, said Mansour had been killed in fighting between rival Taliban factions, also in Baluchistan.
“Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the leader of the Taliban group, was killed around 3:45pm yesterday as a result of an airstrike in Dalbandin area of Baluchistan province in Pakistan,” the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, said in a statement. “He had been under close surveillance for a while, until his vehicle was struck and destroyed on the main road in the Dalbandin area.”
Mullah Hameedi, a top Taliban military commander in southern Afghanistan, confirmed a strike in the border area but denied that Mansour had been there. “We are going to persuade Mullah Mansour to publish his audio record to confirm he is alive,” he said.
The United States did not offer confirmation of its own.
“We are confident, but at this point we do not have indisputable facts that he is dead,” said Brig Gen Charles H Cleveland, a spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan, said on Sunday.
Secretary of state John Kerry, speaking on Sunday in Naypyitaw, the capital of Myanmar, was the first senior official to talk about the attack. He repeatedly referred to Mansour in the past tense.
Asked if Pakistan had been kept in the dark about the operation until it was complete, Kerry would not say “when we communicated.” But he indicated that he talked with Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani prime minister, on Sunday morning, after the strike was announced.
“We have long said that Mansour posed an imminent threat to us and to Afghan civilians,” he said. “This action sends a clear message to the world that we will continue to work with our Afghan partners.”
Pakistan’s relatively muted reaction, similar to its standard protests against drone strikes by US forces, might be due to the fact that, according to Taliban commanders in recent months, Mansour had repeatedly resisted Pakistani officials’ pressure on him to join negotiations.
“Mansour has not been cooperative in making progress on peace settlement discussions with Afghanistan,” said Seth Jones, an expert on Afghanistan at the RAND Corp. “One red line for Pakistan has historically been a failure by Taliban operatives to accede to Pakistani priorities.”
Mansour rose to the Taliban leadership after the death of Mullah Mohammad Omar in 2013 was revealed last summer. A former aviation minister lacking battlefield expertise, he ascended through the ranks of the insurgents gradually but was seen as a crucial figure in the Taliban’s regrouping after an initial defeat following the US-led invasion in 2001. Once he rose to the movement’s No. 2 position, he began a campaign of sidelining rivals and creating a monopoly over resources and decision-making.
After a very public leadership confirmation last summer in front of large gatherings of Taliban in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, Mansour had limited his movements, Afghan officials said. While the reason given to his subordinates was security — he narrowly missed an attempt on his life, attributed to dissidents within the Taliban ranks, in December — keeping the leader at a distance from the commanders followed a pattern that became routine under Omar.
A persistent question over whether Mansour would strike a peace deal with the Afghan government was his deep involvement in narcotics, a trade that has prospered in insecurity. The United Nations, as well as the Afghan government, has described Mansour as resembling the leader of a cartel rather than an insurgency that has relied on religious justification for its long war.
“Mullah Mansour was involved in smuggling and the mafia besides the leadership responsibility he had, which is why he was in favor of continuing the war to better run his businesses,” said Jawid Kohistani, an Afghan security and intelligence analyst. “That is why he wouldn’t cooperate for the calls for peace talks.”
When Omar’s death two years ago was revealed last summer, Mansour was a strong, though not unanimous, candidate for the job. But even as the Taliban under his leadership remained a formidable and violent force, Mansour struggled to unite the ranks. He quashed breakaway groups and sought to buy the support of other skeptical commanders, all while maintaining a publicity campaign that portrayed him as the head of a united command.
Much remains unclear about the succession if Mansour is dead.
One leading candidate would be Sirajuddin Haqqani, one of Mansour’s most feared deputies, who has largely been running battlefield operations in recent months. While closely linked to Pakistan’s spy agency, Haqqani would struggle to gain the support of the wider Taliban as his small but lethal network has only in recent months fully integrated into the larger insurgency.
Whether or not Mansour resurfaces as he did the last time he was reported killed, the United States’ expansion of its drone campaign into Baluchistan suggests “that the US is losing patience with the promises of Pakistan,” said Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington.
“The Taliban insurgency will probably continue, but Pakistan has another chance to dissociate itself from backing the greatest threat to Afghan stability,” Husain Haqqani said.