PESHAWAR: Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour is believed to have been killed in a drone strike in Balochistan’s Dalbandin district, causing a huge setback to the puritanical militia that was still recovering from the death of its supreme leader Mullah Muhammad Omar confirmed nearly a year ago.
“Mullah Akhtar Mansour is dead,” sources told Dawn. The Taliban leader was killed along with a driver when their vehicle came under a missile attack from a US drone near the Iranian border, they said.
A photo on a Pakistani passport found at the scene showed a man ‘closely’ resembling Mullah Mansour, albeit without a turban and heavy beard and moustache.
The passport No AB67946229 identified him as Wali Muhammad, son of Shah Muhammad, a resident of Qila Abdullah in Balochistan. The passport was issued on Oct 11, 2011.
A Pakistani Computerised National Identity Card, also found at the scene, showed him a resident of Karachi. The permanent address is of Qila Abdullah and the temporary address is given as Bismillah Terrace plot, FL 03, Flat No B-016, Karachi East. Date of issue of the card is Sept 10, 2012.
The two documents would be verified by the national database for their authenticity on Monday when offices re-open after the weekend but sources said the documents could be fake.
The other man in the vehicle was identified as a driver named Azam, a resident of Qila Abdullah, according to media reports.
“What he was doing near the Iranian border and where he was coming from will be the subject of investigation,” an official said.
But Mansour’s death, coming nearly a year after the Taliban grudgingly accepted the death of their supreme leader Mullah Muhammad Omar in July 2015, is a huge setback to the movement that has stepped up attacks on the beleaguered government in Afghanistan and spurned overtures and pressure to join the peace process.
“They believe that time is on their side,” Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz told this reporter earlier this month.
Mullah Mansour’s death in a drone strike inside Pakistan is also a matter of embarrassment for Islamabad, which has long been accused of sheltering the Afghan Taliban leadership.
Mullah Omar was also believed to have died in a hospital in Karachi in 2013 after a protracted illness, though Pakistani officials and the Taliban insisted he had died in Afghanistan.
Pakistan, which had vehemently denied the presence of Taliban leadership in the country in the past, took a policy U-turn in March this year when Mr Aziz acknowledged they were in Pakistan.
“We have some influence over them because their leadership is in Pakistan,” he told the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington. “And they get some medical facilities, their families are here,” he said. “We can use those levers to pressurise them to say ‘come to the table’.”
But the Americans believe that Mullah Mansour was the major impediment to peace talks between the government of President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban.
After joining the peace process in Murree in July 2015, the Taliban refused to return to the negotiating table when it emerged that Mullah Omar had been long dead.
Security officials, however, believe that Mansour was not averse to peace talks but was in the process of consolidating his position in order to convince the rank and file to resume negotiations.
“Eighty per cent of his people were against the talks. Only 20pc favoured the peace process,” one official said. “He was trying to consolidate to neutralise his opponents and prevail upon them to hold talks,” he said, adding “there was a lot of division within the Taliban leadership on the peace process”.
A Taliban delegation, the official said, was already in Pakistan to discuss the prospects and terms and conditions for talks. “Things would have been much clearer in July,” he noted. “But now it seems that the peace process has been pushed away by another six months to a year. Bad timing.”
Mansour’s death is likely to reignite leadership struggle within the Taliban who are still reeling from the effects of Mullah Omar’s death.
Officials believe that leader of the Haqqani network Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was nominated by Mansour as one of his two deputies and leader of the military council, could be a likely successor.
“But this would depend on the shura,” the official said. “It will have to be seen how many of the shura members give their oath of allegiance to him.”
“There can be challengers, the likes of Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir,” the official noted. “Others, like Mullah Omar’s son, who was co-opted by Mansour, may also make a run for the leadership. This means fraction and division within the ranks. Who are you going to talk to?” he asked.
“He [Sirajuddin] enjoys tremendous respect among the Taliban and his exploits in the Afghan insurgency has won him huge admiration from the rank and file,” the official said. “But he is more of a spiritual figure rather than a military field commander. This is his downside”, the official noted.
But this would mean trouble for the United States which declared him an especially global designated terrorist in 2008 offering a reward of up to $10 million and declared his Haqqani network ‘foreign terrorist organisation’ in September 2012.
The US identifies the Al Qaeda-linked HQN (Haqqani network) as the most lethal and deadliest insurgent group, responsible for the death of hundreds of American and thousands of Afghan security forces.
It believes that HQN is operating from Pakistan’s tribal region. The military launched operation in the Haqqani redoubt of North Waziristan in June 2014 and insists that the group is now operating from its bases in Khost, Paktia and Paktika.
But Haqqani’s ascension as the new emir, if confirmed by the Taliban shura, will also put a lot of pressure on Pakistan, long accused by Washington of providing sanctuary and logistic support to the insurgent groups.
“The Haqqani network, for one, acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency,” Admiral Mike Mullen, the then top military commander, had told the US Senate Armed Services Committee in September 2011.
“This is going to further complicate matters and may further strain relations between Islamabad and Washington,” said the official.
Ali M. Latifi adds from Kabul: Meanwhile, the Afghan government confirmed the Taliban leader’s death.
The first official claim came from the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence service.
According to the NDS statement, Mansour was killed in a vehicle while travelling through the Dalbandin area on Saturday afternoon.
The NDS statement was quickly followed by a confirmation from Abdullah Abdullah, the Chief Executive of national unity government in Kabul.
In a televised statement during a council of ministers meeting, Abdullah labelled Mansour as “the main figure preventing the Taliban from joining in the peace process.”
He went on to say to say that Mansour had “intensified violence against ordinary citizens, especially in Afghanistan”.
Abdullah’s statements were followed by yet another announcement of Mansour’s death from the ministry of defence.
At a press conference, defence ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri called on the Taliban leadership to return to Kabul and form a political party through which they could engage the Afghan public directly.
Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2016