Taliban Official Confirms: Group Leader Killed in Drone Strike

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP/Reuters) -
This photo taken by a freelance photographer Abdul Salam Khan using his smart phone on Sunday, May 22, 2016, purports to show the destroyed vehicle in which  Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansour was traveling in the Ahmad Wal area in Baluchistan province of Pakistan, near Afghanistan's border. A senior commander of the Afghan Taliban confirmed on Sunday that the extremist group's leader,  Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansour, has been killed in a U.S. drone strike. (AP Photo/Abdul Salam Khan)
This photo taken by a freelance photographer on Sunday purports to show the destroyed vehicle in which Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansour was traveling in the Ahmad Wal area in Baluchistan province of Pakistan, near Afghanistan’s border. (AP Photo/Abdul Salam Khan)

A senior commander with the Afghan Taliban says the terror group’s leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour has been killed in a U.S. drone strike.

Mullah Abdul Rauf told The Associated Press Sunday that Mansour died in the strike late Friday night.

He says the strike took place “in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.”

The office of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani confirmed the strike but could not confirm Mansour’s death.

Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, however, says that Mansour is “more than likely” dead.

Mansour formally led the Taliban after the death of the movement’s founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was announced last summer.

Mansour, Mullah Omar’s deputy, concealed Mullah Omar’s death for more than two years, and ran the Taliban in his name until the death was revealed by the Afghan government.

The death of Mullah Akhtar Mansour may open up a battle for succession and deepen fractures that emerged after the death of Mullah Mohammad Omar.

The latest mission, which U.S. officials said was authorized by President Barack Obama and included multiple drones, showed the United States was prepared to go after the Taliban leadership in Pakistan, which the Western-backed government in Kabul has repeatedly accused of sheltering the terrorists.

It also underscored the belief among U.S. commanders that under Mansour’s leadership, the Taliban have grown increasingly close to militant groups like al-Qaida, posing a direct threat to U.S. security.

Attention in the Taliban has immediately focused on Mansour’s deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of a notorious network blamed for most of the recent high profile suicide attacks in Kabul.

“Based purely on matters of hierarchy, he would be the favorite to succeed Mansour,” said Michael Kugelman, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

“But when it comes to the Taliban, nothing is clear cut and meritocracy is never the norm,” he said.

Haqqani, appointed as number two after Mansour assumed control of the Taliban leadership last year, has generally been seen as an opponent of negotiations and if he does take over, prospects of negotiations are likely to recede further.

Efforts to broker a new series of talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban had already stalled following a suicide attack in Kabul last month that killed 64 people and prompted President Ashraf Ghani to prioritize military operations over negotiations.

But many questions remain, including how much the Pakistan government knew and when it was informed.

The U.S. drones targeted Mansour and another combatant as they rode in a vehicle in a remote area of Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, southwest of the town of Ahmad Wal, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Pakistani military did not respond to requests for comment but an intelligence official who declined to be identified said there had been a strike in the area but he did not know the target and it happened on the Afghan side of the border.

Cook called Mansour “an obstacle to peace and reconciliation between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban” and said he was involved in planning attacks that threatened U.S., Afghan and allied forces.

A U.S. intelligence analyst said 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 U.S. official cautioned against concluding that the shakeup might diminish the Taliban’s broader sense of strength, given political tension in Kabul and the uneven performance of U.S.-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.

The new U.S. commander in Afghanistan is reviewing U.S. strategy, including whether broader powers are needed to target terrorists and whether to proceed with plans to reduce the number of U.S. forces.