The Cable

Afghanistan: Taliban Chief Killed in U.S. Strike

Mansour’s death comes as the Taliban expand attacks in Key Afghan districts

In this photograph taken on November 3, 2015, Afghan Taliban fighters look on as they listen to Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund (unseen), the newly appointed leader of a breakaway faction of the Taliban, at Bakwah in the western province of Farah.  A breakaway faction of the Taliban has appointed its own leader in the first formal split in the Afghan militant movement under new head Mullah Mansour, posing a fresh hurdle to potential peace talks. Mullah Rasool was named the leader of the faction in a mass gathering of dissident fighters this week in the remote southwestern province of Farah, according to an AFP reporter who attended the meeting. AFP PHOTO / Javed Tanveer        (Photo credit should read JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photograph taken on November 3, 2015, Afghan Taliban fighters look on as they listen to Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund (unseen), the newly appointed leader of a breakaway faction of the Taliban, at Bakwah in the western province of Farah. A breakaway faction of the Taliban has appointed its own leader in the first formal split in the Afghan militant movement under new head Mullah Mansour, posing a fresh hurdle to potential peace talks. Mullah Rasool was named the leader of the faction in a mass gathering of dissident fighters this week in the remote southwestern province of Farah, according to an AFP reporter who attended the meeting. AFP PHOTO / Javed Tanveer (Photo credit should read JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States targeted Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in an airstrike Saturday in a remote region in northwest Pakistan, with American and Afghan officials saying that they had killed the militant in what would be Washington’s biggest battlefield win against the militant group in years.

A U.S. defense official told Foreign Policy that because the raid “took place outside of Afghanistan, it required authorization by the president.” The official would not specify where the strike took place, but the Afghan Taliban has long thrived in northwest Pakistan.

The Afghan government confirmed Mansour’s death Sunday, with its National Directorate of Security saying in a statement that the militant was killed in the Baluchistan region of Pakistan. Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah was more specific, saying Mansour died in a drone strike on his car in the city Quetta, long a Taliban stronghold.

Either way, the militant’s death would be a major boost for the Kabul government, which has lost hundreds of soldiers and security personnel in recent fighting with the resurgent Taliban. The armed group itself, which maintains an active presence on social media, has so far not confirmed Mansour’s death or made any other comment about the strike.

Mansour had publicly taken control of the Taliban last August, when the group announced that its charismatic founder, Mullah Omar, died in secret in April 2013. The revelation led to an internal struggle which resulted in some groups unhappy with Mansour’s elevation breaking off from main Taliban. Notably, Omar is thought to have died of natural causes despite a more than decade-long U.S. effort to find and kill him.

The strike comes as the Taliban continue to seize territory across Afghanistan while showing an increasing ability to carry out strikes inside Kabul.

The Taliban’s expanding operations in Afghanistan’s south — capturing several key districts in Helmand province — has posed a vexing strategic problem for President Barack Obama, who promised to end America’s longest war when taking office. The continued strength of the Taliban, paired with the uneven performance of the Afghan army, leaves the White House with a hard choice: Keep the relatively strict rules limiting the numbers of strikes in place and risk seeing the militants move around at will, or allow American pilots to bomb a broader array of targets at the risk of deepening Washington’s role in Afghanistan and causing more civilian casualties on the ground.

Speaking to FP‘s Dan De Luce earlier this month, Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed concern over the Afghan government’s ability to defend itself without continued U.S. and NATO help. “I think we owe the president options to ensure that the Afghan forces are successful in 2016 and beyond,” he said. Dunford declined to say explicitly whether he favored giving U.S. commanders more freedom to target the Taliban from the air, but said, “I recognize aviation is a gap. And we’re going take a look at it.”

The strike on Mansour is another signal that the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan isn’t remotely close to ending, despite the NATO military mission there having formally ended in January 2015. American drones and aircraft have launched dozens of airstrikes a month on al Qaeda and Islamic State targets since then, but have largely been restricted from targeting the Taliban, which lacks the global ambitions of the other two groups.

The exception to this has been when Afghan troops or their American advisors have been under direct assault by the Taliban.

That was the case when U.S. jets pounded Taliban fighters in January after U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Matthew McClintock was killed when his Green Beret advisory team was ambushed by Taliban fighters in Helmand province. American fighter planes launched more than 20 airstrikes on Taliban fighters while the Americans waited to be pulled out of the fight. American Green Berets also ordered an AC-130 gunship to open fire on suspected Taliban positions in Kunduz in October. That strike mistakenly killed 42 civilians at a Doctors Without Borders hospital. Sixteen U.S. service members were disciplined for the strike, though no criminal charges were filed.

Still, there has been growing pressure on the Obama administration to expand the list of targets U.S. forces can hit in Afghanistan. When Gen. John Nicholson took over command of U.S. and NATO forces in March, he promised to conduct a 90-day review before making recommendations to the White House.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed Friday, retired Gen. David Petraeus and Michael O’Hanlon from the Brookings Institution wrote that Washington needs to “take the gloves off” in allowing U.S. aircraft to hit the Taliban. “Simply waging the Afghanistan air-power campaign with the vigor we are employing in Iraq and Syria — even dropping bombs at a fraction of the pace at which we are conducting attacks in those Arab states — will very likely make much of the difference between some version of victory and defeat,” they wrote.

The strike against Mansour was carried out under the existing, limited, rules of engagement.

The defense official told FP that the strike was “conducted under self-defense authorities,” since Mansour was “engaged in actions that directly threatened U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.”

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Saturday that 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.”

Other U.S. military officials have recently stressed that the Taliban and al Qaeda have increased ties since Mansour took control of the group. During a briefing at the Pentagon earlier this month, spokesman for the U.S. military command in Kabul, Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, said that the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda remains “somewhat opaque,” since “at times, we see all of these organizations working together,” while other times they act alone.

Photo credit: JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images

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