WASHINGTON: The US State Department has said that the new Taliban leader Mawlawi Haibatullah is not on its list of designated terrorists and urged him to opt for peace, not war.

“No, he’s not. You asked if he was on the designated terrorist (list), he’s not,” the department’s deputy spokesman Mark Toner told a news briefing.

On Saturday, a US drone killed Mawlawi Haibatullah’s predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in a remote area of Balochistan and on Monday the Taliban elected him as their new chief.

When a journalist reminded Mr Toner that like his predecessor, Mawlawi Haibatullah had also rejected the peace process, he said: “We would hope that he would seize the opportunity. He does have an opportunity in front of him to choose peace and to work towards a negotiated solution. We hope that he makes that choice now.”

Asked if the new Taliban chief would be the next target for a US drone attack if he rejects the peace process, the State Department official said: “I’m not going to predict who we might target in the national security interests of the United States.”

In a statement issued by his office on Monday, US President Barack Obama said that Mullah Mansour was killed because he had rejected efforts to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that took the lives of countless Afghan men, women and children.

Mr Obama said that Mullah Mansour’s death had created an opportunity for peace and “the Taliban should seize the opportunity to pursue the only real path for ending this long conflict – joining the Afghan government in a reconciliation process that leads to lasting peace and stability”.

The Pentagon in a statement on Saturday also noted that Mansour was not only an obstacle to reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban but was also prohibiting other Taliban leaders from participating in peace talks.

The two statements indicate a strong US desire to push forward the peace process, even if it requires to eliminate those who oppose it.

“The reminder that he (Haibatullah) was not on their list of designated terrorists could also be interpreted as saying, ‘you are someone we can deal with,’” said a diplomatic observer.

The US media, while rep­orting Mawlawi Haibat­ullah’s selection, noted that he was a religious scholar, not a warlord, and had served as Afghanistan’s chief justice in the Taliban government.

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2016

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