Senior Taliban Figure: Death of Leader Could Unify Group

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)
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. He was killed in a U.S. drone strike. (AP Photo/Abdul Salam Khan)

A senior Afghan Taliban figure says the death of their leader in a U.S. drone strike last week could make the movement stronger and unify their ranks.

Mullah Mohammad Ghous, a foreign minister during the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule of Afghanistan, says Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s death clears the way for those who left after he became leader to return to the insurgency.

Mansour was killed Saturday in the strike in southwestern Pakistan. His death has been confirmed by some senior Taliban members, as well as Washington and Kabul.

Mansour had led the Taliban since last summer, when the death of founder Mullah Mohammad Omar became public. When he took over, some detractors formed rival factions and fought Mansour’s men for land, mostly in the southern Taliban heartland.

On Monday, the Pentagon said that Mansour was killed because he was engaged in plotting that posed “specific, imminent threats” to U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.

The drone attack against Mansour just inside Pakistan on Saturday was carried out under U.S. rules of engagement that allow U.S. forces to conduct defensive strikes against people engaged in activity threatening U.S. and coalition personnel, said Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

Davis told reporters it was the first time he was aware of, that the U.S. military had conducted an attack inside Pakistan under the Pentagon’s rules of engagement governing defensive strikes.

Other strikes inside Pakistan, including one that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in 2011, have been based on rules authorizing counterterrorism operations, a Pentagon official said.

“This was considered a defensive strike and given the location (Pakistan) required a higher level of approval,” Davis told a briefing. Pakistan has called the strike a violation of its sovereignty.

“(Mansour) was an individual who was specifically targeting U.S. and coalition personnel and had specifically engaged in operations in the past that resulted in U.S. and coalition personnel being killed,” Davis said.

Pressed on whether Mansour had simply been engaged in general plotting or if there was something more specific in the works, Davis said the Taliban chief had been plotting “specific actions, specific things … in real time.”

Asked if the threats were imminent, he said: “Yes, specific imminent threats to U.S. and coalition personnel … in Afghanistan.”

The White House has interpreted the law passed after the 2001 attacks as granting the military the legal authority it needs to conduct air strikes against the Taliban and other groups under certain conditions.

Davis avoided saying whether Washington had notified Pakistan before the attack, but he said the two sides have an ongoing dialogue and had discussed Mansour in the past.

“We have ongoing discussions with them about people we’re targeting, to include this individual, and we’ve had conversations with them both before and after,” Davis said.

Davis said the military can carry out defensive strikes against anyone directly threatening U.S. or coalition personnel. They also can carry out so-called “in extremis” strikes to prevent attackers from overrunning Afghan forces or capturing key terrain, he said. And U.S. forces have the authority to strike al-Qaida and its remnants in Afghanistan in what are deemed counterterrorism operations.