HANOI: US President Barack Obama on Monday confirmed the death of the Afghan Taliban leader in a very rare US drone strike in Balochistan, warning that 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 in a statement a day after Afghan and American officials confirmed Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the successor of Mullah Omar, was killed in a US drone strike in Naushki district.
Saturday’s bombing raid, the first known American assault on a top Afghan Taliban leader on Pakistani soil, marks a major blow to the insurgent group, which saw a new resurgence under Mansoor.
“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,” said Obama, who is on a three day visit to Vietnam.
Senior Taliban sources have also confirmed Mansoor’s killing to AFP, adding that the Rahbari Shura (leadership council) is under way to select a new leader.
Islamabad has yet to confirm Mansoor’s death, but security sources told The Express Tribune the man killed in the Naushki strike ‘resembles’ with the Taliban chief. “He [Mansoor] is probably gone, but we need to cross-check more facts before official confirmation,” a security source revealed.
Obama said Mansoor 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”.
The US president insisted there was no change in American tactics and that troops, who were withdrawn from combat duty in Afghanistan in 2015, would not be going back into the fray.
“On the other hand...it is my responsibility as commander in chief not to stand by, but to make sure we send a strong signal to the Taliban and others that we’re going to protect our people. And that’s exactly the message that has been sent.”
He called on the Taliban’s remaining leadership to engage in peace talks as the ‘only real path’ to ending the attritional conflict.
Mansoor was elevated to the Taliban leadership in July 2015 following the revelation that the group’s founder Mullah Omar had died two years earlier.
It was believed to be the first time the United States had targeted a senior Taliban figure in Pakistan. Islamabad, 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.
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.
In background interviews with The Express Tribune officials suggested that Pakistan was furious over the US decision to take out Mansoor. “Would the Taliban now ever come to the negotiating table after this incident,” one official said.
He claimed that the United States ‘deceived’ Pakistan, as according to him, there was an understanding among the countries involved in the peace process that Taliban leaders, including Mansoor, were allowed to travel between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“The US was telling us they will not target Taliban leaders while efforts are on to bring them to the negotiating table,” the official added.
The US has carried out hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan, mainly in the country’s 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 Balochistan to remain off-limits.
The meeting of the Taliban’s Supreme Council continued into its second day on 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 Rahbari Shura meeting is continuing at an undisclosed location, they keep on moving due to the fear of a US drone strike,” the source told AFP.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 24th, 2016.
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