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Taliban leader Mullah Mansour believed killed in US drone strike in Pakistan

By W.J. Hennigan and Shashank Bengali, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The mercurial leader of the Taliban was likely killed in a drone strike Saturday, U.S. officials said, delivering a crucial blow to the resurgent militant group that has launched high-profile attacks across Afghanistan in recent months in a bid to topple the country’s floundering government.

The airstrike, authorized by President Barack Obama, hit Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour with missiles launched from drones overhead as he traveled in a vehicle around 3 p.m. local time with another man along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, southwest of the remote town of Ahmad Wal in western Pakistan.

U.S. military and intelligence officers were assessing the results of the strike, but early evidence suggested Mansour had been killed, officials said. He has emerged as the leader of a resurgent Taliban that has mounted a powerful insurgency against the Afghan government with a string of attacks that have killed civilians, Afghan forces and U.S. military personnel.

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“Mansour has been an obstacle to peace and reconciliation between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, prohibiting Taliban leaders from participating in peace talks with the Afghan government that could lead to an end to the conflict,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement.

Few details have been released about the operation. The drone strike in Pakistan’s Baluchistan region is rare for the U.S. and raises questions about the Pakistani government’s involvement or approval of the operation. U.S. air strikes are usually concentrated to the east, in Waziristan.

But Mansour had been in the U.S. military’s crosshairs for years.

Mansour, shown in photos as a portly man with a long, dark beard, was appointed “amir-al-mumineen,” or “leader of the faithful,” last summer after the Taliban acknowledged that its reclusive leader and founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had died.

Omar had not been heard from in nearly a decade, and Afghan officials said he had died two years earlier in Pakistan. His death set off a power struggle inside the organization, with Mansour eventually selected to succeed him because he had been running the Taliban’s day-to-day operations in Omar’s absence, the group said.

Mansour was initially said to have endorsed a U.S.-backed effort to launch peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, but months of meetings among diplomats from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the U.S. and China had failed to bring Taliban leaders to the table.

About a month after Mansour’s ascension, the Taliban hoisted its white flag in the center of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, the first urban area it had captured since the U.S.-led invasion after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban in 14 years of insurgency.

Even as Taliban and allied militants gained ground against Afghan government forces in late 2015, a power struggle developed inside the group’s Pakistan-based leadership. A dissident faction led by Mullah Muhammad Rasool, a rival to Mansour, announced a split from the group last fall and the two factions occasionally battled each other for territory inside Afghanistan.

The internal disputes blew into the open last December, when some Afghan government officials said they believed Mansour had been killed in a shooting at a meeting of Taliban leaders near the Pakistani city of Quetta, in Baluchistan. Taliban officials denied the report, and Mansour’s death was never confirmed.

In recent months, Taliban fighters seized additional territory in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz and the southern province of Helmand. The Taliban has kept up the fight, striking a U.S. military vehicle Saturday morning in a suicide bombing near Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan. No one else was reported wounded.

The Taliban controls more territory now than at any time since the war began, according to a report released Jan. 30 by the Pentagon’s independent inspector general. Battles with the Taliban last year also revealed glaring weaknesses in Afghan security forces, which suffered 5,500 deaths in combat last year.

At the same time, the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based militant group believed to be responsible for some of the deadliest attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was gaining greater influence inside the Taliban’s leadership.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network insurgent faction, reportedly became deputy leader of the Taliban. According to some Afghan officials, the move was spearheaded by Pakistan’s security establishment, which has long had a relationship with Haqqani and wanted to protect him in case peace talks began.

If Mansour’s death is confirmed, Haqqani, because of his reputation for military prowess and support from Pakistan, would emerge as the most likely next leader of the Taliban. Haqqani’s hard-core anti-American views would appear to make peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government even less likely.

Mansour’s death comes at a critical time for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., who took over U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan in March, is trying to determine whether the Obama administration should maintain its current deployment of 9,800 U.S. troops.

Nicholson promised to prepare a detailed assessment within 90 days of taking the job. Obama has signaled he wants to cut the number in half by the time he leaves office, but the renewed violence has key lawmakers demanding the numbers stay put.

(Hennigan of the Tribune Washington Bureau reported from Washington and Bengali of the Los Angeles Times from Cairo.)

(c)2016 Tribune Co.

Visit Tribune Co. at www.latimes.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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