United States President Barack Obama on Monday confirmed that Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a US air strike in Pakistan, hailing his death as an "important milestone" in efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan.
Saturday's bombing raid, the first known American assault on a top Afghan Taliban leader on Pakistan soil, marks a major blow to the militant movement, which saw a new resurgence under Mansour. "We have removed the leader of an organisation that has continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and Coalition forces, to wage war against the Afghan people, and align itself with extremist groups like Al-Qaeda," the US president said in a statement.
Senior Taliban sources have also confirmed the killing to AFP, adding that a shura (council) is under way to select a new leader.
Obama said Mansour had rejected efforts "to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that has taken the lives of countless innocent Afghan men, women and children." He called on the Taliban's remaining leadership to engage in peace talks as the "only real path" to ending the attritional conflict.
Mansour was elevated to the leadership of the Taliban in July 2015 following the revelation that the group's founder Mullah Omar had died two years earlier. He was killed on Saturday near the town of Ahmad Lal in Pakistan's south western Balochistan province, when missiles fired from a drone struck the car he was travelling in.
Pakistan, which says it is hosting the Afghan Taliban's top leadership in order to exert influence over them, has lambasted the United States over the drone attack, calling it a violation of its sovereignty.
In his statement, Obama said American forces would continue to go after threats on Pakistani soil. "We will work on shared objectives with Pakistan, where terrorists that threaten all our nations must be denied safe haven," he said.
It was believed to be the first time the United States has targeted a senior Taliban figure in Pakistan.
A man of war, not peace talks
Mansour took over as head of the insurgent movement last July following the revelation that the group's founder Mullah Omar had been dead for two years. He was initially thought to favour peace talks with the government, but after becoming leader he repeatedly refused partake in negotiations.
For some, Mansour was the obvious choice to succeed Mullah Omar, the one-eyed warrior-cleric who led the Taliban from its rise in the chaos of the Afghan civil war of the 1990s. Born in the same southern province, Kandahar, some time in the early 1960s, Mansour was part of the movement from the start and effectively in charge since 2013, according to Taliban sources. Mansour spent part of his life in Pakistan, like millions of Afghans who fled the Soviet occupation.
There he reportedly developed links with the country's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, which nurtured the Taliban in the 1990s and even now is regularly accused of fuelling the insurgency. He served as civil aviation minister in the Taliban government which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until it was ousted by the US-led invasion in 2001, when he fled again to Pakistan.
He repeatedly showed a canny ability to navigate between different currents in the Taliban movement, from the Quetta Shura to the "political office" in Qatar to commanders on the ground in Afghanistan. To take the leadership he out manoeuvred Mullah Yakoub, Omar's son who was favoured by some commanders as the new leader but judged to be too young and inexperienced at 26.
But his leadership got off to a rocky start.
Some Taliban members were unhappy at the thought that Mansour may have deceived them for over a year about Omar's death and others accused him of riding roughshod over the process to appoint a successor. While Mansour was close to his predecessor, he wasn't known for having Omar's aura of religious authority though the Taliban did confer upon him the title "leader of the faithful", by which the old chief was known.
Mansour initially faced a huge challenge in trying to unite a movement that was already showing signs of fragmenting and questions about his legitimacy at the highest echelon of the Taliban did not bolster his position. But analysts say Mansour quickly set out to consolidate his authority, rooting out opposition to his leadership by buying the support of rebellious commanders, quashing renegade groups and luring dissidents with leadership positions.
Who will succeed him?
Mansour was widely blamed for leading the cover-up and the roster of candidates to succeed him will include many of the same names who entered the fray last year.
These include Omar's son Mullah Yakoub, who was favoured by some commanders as new leader but at the time judged too young and inexperienced, and Omar's brother Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund. Mansour gave both of them senior positions on the group's leadership council and both are seen as favourites to take over.
Other possible successors are Mansour's deputies — influential religious leader Haibatullah Akhundzada and Sirajuddin Haqqani — leader of the feared Taliban-allied Haqqani network responsible for some of the worst attacks on Afghan and US targets. "This could be the time Haqqanis will try to take over the whole movement," said Pakistani security analyst Amir Rana.
Will this further splinter the Taliban?
Almost certainly yes. Mansour had been particularly effective at subduing dissidents and eliminating rivals. Mullah Dadullah, a prominent dissident commander, was killed last year in a gunfight with Mansour loyalists. And Mullah Rassoul, who formed a Taliban breakaway faction, had reportedly been detained by the Pakistani military — though his followers continue to fight on in his name.
Analysts believe differences are once again likely to surface within the militants.
How would this impact the security situation?
"This could help the peace process — if it allows the moderate faction to come to the surface," said Ahmed Rashid, author of the book Descent into Chaos. While infighting could buy some breathing space for beleaguered Afghan forces, the strategy of "divide and rule" may also backfire. "First Mullah Omar and now Mansour — once you take the core out of a movement it could begin to unravel," said Imtiaz Gul, director of the Islamabad based Centre for Research and Security Studies.
"On the other hand, peacemaking will become even more difficult if you are dealing with so many leaders. This has been the strategy for several years — to splinter them and make deals — but whether that works, we don't know." According to Rana, Mansour's death could also pave the way for groups like the Islamic State and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, long in the Taliban's shadow, to emerge stronger than before.
What does the drone attack mean for Pakistan?
Pakistan was one of the Taliban's main allies during their 1996-2001 rule of Afghanistan, and has continued to exert influence over their insurgency. In March, Pakistan's top foreign affairs official Sartaj Aziz admitted openly what many had suspected for years — that the Afghan Taliban's top leadership were sheltering inside the country.
But with peace efforts stalled despite the formation in January of a four-country group — the United States, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan — designed to kickstart the efforts, US patience could have been growing thin.
The fact that the strike took place deep inside Pakistani territory, and not in the border tribal regions where all but one previous such attack occurred, will raise speculation however that Islamabad acquiesced. The last round of four-way talks took place in Islamabad Wednesday. At that stage, the US was ostensibly still willing to talk to the Taliban and their leader. Mansour's intransigence may have been his downfall. "There was an agreement that if Taliban refuse to come to the table then Pakistan will cooperate with operations against the Taliban. They had a commitment," said analyst Rana.
There was speculation about Mansour's fate last summer following reports he was critically wounded in a firefight with his own commanders in Pakistan shortly after he assumed the mantle of leadership.
The Taliban subsequently released an audio message purportedly from Mansour, vehemently rejecting reports of any shootout as "enemy propaganda".
The group of hardliners have seen a resurgence under Mansour's leadership, leaving Afghan forces struggling to rein in the expanding insurgency. They briefly captured the strategic northern city of Kunduz in September in their most spectacular victory in 14 years. The militants have also claimed a series of high-profile attacks over the past year on embassies, media as well as the UN and Nato properties in and near the diplomatic quarter in Kabul.
In a recent message posted online, Mansour told his followers to prepare for "decisive strikes" during the Taliban's annual spring offensive. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a US official on Saturday said Mansour was targeted and "likely killed" in a US drone strike in a remote area of Pakistan along the Afghan border.
Blow to US-Pakistan ties?
The strike could signal a fresh blow for US-Pakistan ties, which have improved markedly in recent years since the killing of Al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden in 2011.
The US has carried out hundreds of drone strikes in the Pakistan, mainly in the country's border tribal regions with Afghanistan, with leaked documents showing Islamabad had quietly consented, despite publicly protesting. This time, however, both sides insist Pakistan was informed only after the fact. Leaked diplomatic cables from 2010 had indicated that Islamabad wanted the southwestern province of Balochistan, home to a separatist insurgency, to remain off-limits.
The meeting of the Taliban's Supreme Council continued into its second day Monday, according to senior militant sources, though the group has yet to release an official statement. A senior Taliban source told AFP the killing had sent shockwaves through the leadership and many were laying low in Pakistan while some had fled across the border to Afghanistan.
"The shura meeting is continuing at an undisclosed location, they keep on moving due to the fear of US drone strike," the source told AFP.
With inputs from agencies.
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Updated Date: May 23, 2016 14:53:29 IST