WASHINGTON: The United States offered an olive branch to the new Taliban leader when it asked him to join the Afghan reconciliation process, says the US State Department.

“Our olive branch would be simply that we have long said that we support an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process and reconciliation process, and we would welcome any efforts by the new Taliban leadership to engage,” said a State Department spokesman, Mark Toner.

Asked if the United States would offer the new Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah an olive branch to encourage him to join the peace process, Mr Toner said the elimination of his predecessor last Saturday has created an opportunity for Mullah Haibatullah to quit violence.

US official refused to offer an assurance that American drones would not target the new leader if he chose to join negotiations

But the US official once again refused to offer an assurance that American drones would not target the new Taliban leader if he chose to join negotiations.

“I’m just not going to — and I said this yesterday — ever preview any operational activities we may take with regard to targeting any individual.”

Mr Toner, however, explained that the strike against Mullah Mansour was based on both his previous actions and his intent to carry out additional strikes not only against Afghan forces, but also against United States military forces on the ground in Afghanistan.

“The fact that he was not playing a productive role or any role in leading us towards negotiations or peace talks,” also contributed to this decision, he said.

“The new leadership — they have an opportunity here to engage — re-engage on peace talks, and it’s our hope that they make that choice,” Mr Toner added.

Asked why he thought the new Taliban leadership would want to engage in talks when the United States had just killed its leader, the US official said: “First and foremost, our action against Mansour was predicated on the fact that we believed he was going to carry out lethal attacks on US servicemen and women in the field as well as against Afghan forces.”

The United States was addressing a “clear and pressing, imminent threat by removing him from the battlefield.

But we also hope that it sent a clear signal to the Taliban that really peace and reconciliation is their only option,” he said.

The United States reserved the right to act when its national security interests were threatened, said Mr Toner when asked if the drone attack that killed Mullah Mansour was legal.

The US official disagreed with the suggestion that the US administration was now presenting Mullah Mansour as an imminent threat to justify the drone strike that killed him.

“I can assure that these decisions are not made lightly nor are they made blindly without a knowledge that our forces or those forces that we support are in imminent danger,” he said.

“No one can say that, obviously … (the risk) may double down, but when given the opportunity to remove a bad actor from the battlefield, we took it,” said Mr Toner when asked how could he say that the strike had reduced the risk the Taliban posed to US troops in Afghanistan.

He asked Pakistan to bring to justice the perpetrators of the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai when a journalist asked why the United States was not equally keen to avenge the deaths of those killed in that attack.

“Well, we continue to urge the Pakistani government to cooperate with the Indian authorities to fully investigate these attacks. It was a terrible tragedy; you’re absolutely right. We want to see justice done and we continue to urge Pakistani cooperation,” he said.

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2016



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