Taliban chief’s death may improve peace prospects

Kathy Gannon
Associated Press

Islamabad — Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansour’s brief rule, which ended with his death in a drone strike, was marked by mistrust and strife.

Mansour, who was believed to be in his mid-50s, was reported killed by an airstrike in southwestern Pakistan on Saturday, according to U.S. and Afghan officials. However a senior Taliban commander told The Associated Press that he was killed Friday night.

Since taking over the movement after the announcement last year of founder Mullah Mohammed Omar’s death, Mansour had battled other Taliban commanders. He eventually enlisted the powerful semi-independent faction known as the Haqqani network to cajole important commanders back into the fold and promised positions on the leadership council to entice Mullah Omar’s family to his side.

So divisive was Mansour’s rise to the leadership of the Taliban that at the meeting announcing his ascendance, several of the movement’s top commanders stormed out, according to one Taliban official familiar with the proceedings, but who didn’t want to be identified because of orders not to speak independently to the media.

Tayyab Aga, a close ally of Omar’s and a former peace negotiator on behalf of the Taliban, refused to swear allegiance to Mansour. In a statement following the announcement that Omar had died two years earlier, Aga accused Mansour of hiding the founder’s death in order to secure his power at the helm.

Meanwhile Mansour set about trying to buttress his position, appointing as his main deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the Haqqani network, which is considered by both Afghanistan and the United States as the strength behind the Taliban. Bringing in the Haqqanis added both manpower and military sophistication to the Taliban operations.

Mansour also gave Mullah Omar’s son and brother positions on the leadership council.

It took several months and bloody battles inside Afghanistan between warring Taliban factions before a semblance of unity was brought to the movement. Under the guiding hand of Haqqani, several key commanders agreed to support Mansour, but some also made their support conditional — demanding Mansour reveal the circumstances around Mullah Omar’s death.

Mansour was a member of Afghanistan’s powerful Ishaqzai tribe in Kandahar, the spiritual headquarters of the Taliban. His tribal affiliation speaks to his significance as an ethnic Pashtun, whose members comprise the backbone of the Taliban.

Critics of Mansour also accused him of being close to Pakistan’s intelligence agency, known by its acronym ISI.

His death has some hoping that the new Taliban leadership will be more open to peace overtures from the Kabul government. Under Mansour, the Taliban refused to negotiate directly with Kabul and largely ignored a four-country effort — involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States — to bring peace to Afghanistan.

“Peace is what we want. Mansour was a threat to that effort,” U.S. Secretary of State Jon Kerry said Sunday during a visit to Myanmar. “It is time for Afghans to stop fighting and to start building a real future together.”

Gen. Joseph Votel, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said Sunday during a visit to Amman, Jordan, the Taliban are on “the horns of a dilemma” as they determine their post-Mansour leadership and direction.