Obama hails Taliban leader's killing as insurgents seek successor
HANOI, Vietnam (UPDATED) – US President Barack Obama on Monday, May 23, hailed the killing of Taliban chief Mullah Mansour Akhtar as an "important milestone" in efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan, as the rattled insurgent group held emergency meetings to pick his successor.
Saturday's drone strike, the first known American assault on a top Afghan Taliban leader on Pakistani soil, sent a shockwave through the rebel group, which had seen a new resurgence under Mansour.
"We have removed the leader of an organization that has continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and Coalition forces, to wage war against the Afghan people, and align itself with extremist groups like Al-Qaeda," the US president said in a statement.
The Pentagon on Monday said Mansour represented a "specific imminent threat" to US and coalition forces in Afghanistan, and that the strike was not a sign that the United States was re-engaging the group militarily following the end of its combat mission in 2015.
Obama, who is on a 3-day visit to Vietnam, said Mansour had rejected efforts "to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that has taken the lives of countless innocent Afghan men, women, and children."
He called on the Taliban's remaining leadership to engage in peace talks as the "only real path" to ending the attritional conflict.
By late Monday, multiple Taliban sources told AFP the two frontrunners for the job were the Taliban founder's son, Mullah Yakoub, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, an implacable foe of US forces whose selection could signal the militants' desire to intensify fighting.
Mansour was elevated to the Taliban leadership in July 2015 following the revelation that the group's founder Mullah Omar had died two years earlier.
Mansour was killed on Saturday, May 21, near the town of Ahmad Lal, in Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan province, when missiles fired from a drone struck the car he was traveling in.
Pakistan, which says it is hosting the Afghan Taliban's top leadership in order to exert influence over them, has lambasted the United States over the drone attack, calling it a violation of its sovereignty.
In his statement, Obama said American forces would continue to go after threats on Pakistani soil.
"We will work on shared objectives with Pakistan, where terrorists that threaten all our nations must be denied safe haven," he said.
But the strike could signal a fresh blow for US-Pakistan ties, which have improved markedly in recent years since the killing of Al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden in 2011.
Pakistan's foreign affairs ministry said it had summoned the US ambassador Monday to express concern over the weekend bombing.
A statement said the prime minister's special assistant on foreign affairs Tariq Fatemi had told David Hale that such actions could "adversely impact" the ongoing efforts to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The US has carried out hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan, mainly in the country's border tribal regions with Afghanistan, with leaked documents showing Islamabad had quietly consented, despite publicly protesting.
This time, however, both sides insist Pakistan was informed only after the fact.
A meeting of the Taliban's Supreme Council, which was convened following Mansour's death, continued into its second day Monday, according to senior militant sources, though the group has yet to release an official statement.
A senior Taliban source told AFP many of the leadership were lying low in Pakistan while some had fled across the border to Afghanistan.
"The shura (council) meeting is continuing at an undisclosed location, they keep on moving due to the fear of US drone strikes," he said.
Little is known about Mullah Yakoub, Mullah Omar's twenty-something son, who was passed over for the leadership role in 2015.
But analysts say the appointment of Sirajuddin Haqqani – leader of the feared Taliban-allied Haqqani network with a $10 million US bounty on his head – could further intensify the conflict. – Jérôme Cartillier, AFP / Rappler.com