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U.S. Drone Strike Targets Taliban Leader

May 21, 2016

WASHINGTON — An American drone strike targeted the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan, United States officials said on Saturday, in the most significant American incursion inside Pakistan since Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, the Qaeda leader, in 2011.

In a statement issued on Saturday, Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, said the military was still assessing whether Mullah Mansour was killed in the strike, which was carried out by an unmanned drone.

Mr. Cook said Mullah Mansour was “actively involved” in planning attacks in Kabul and across Afghanistan, and had 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.”

A United States official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the military operation, said that the strike occurred around 6 a.m. Eastern time on Saturday, and that Mullah Mansour and a second adult male fighter traveling with him in a vehicle were probably killed. Even so, officials offered caution because early assessments of the deaths of militant and terrorist leaders in American strikes have proved inaccurate in the past.

The drone strike, authorized by President Obama, took place in a remote area of Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan, southwest of the town of Ahmad Wal. The strike was carried out by several unmanned aircraft operated by United States Special Operations forces, the official said.

News of the strike came as Gen. Joseph Votel, head of the United States Central Command, was completing a secret trip to northern Syria, where he visited American Special Operations forces and met with local fighters being trained by the United States in the battle against the Islamic State. General Votel is the highest-ranking American military official to travel to Syria during the war.

But the strike against Mullah Mansour served as a reminder that even as the Obama administration has talked of an end of combat operations in Afghanistan and has focused on fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the fighting in Afghanistan — and the risk of rising militancy there — has continued.

“Since the death of Mullah Omar and Mansour’s assumption of leadership, the Taliban have conducted many attacks that have resulted in the death of tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and Afghan security forces as well as numerous U.S. and coalition personnel,” Mr. Cook said in a statement announcing the airstrike.

Mullah Mansour had long remained a mystery to American policy makers and the United States military. In the 1990s, he was the Taliban government’s chief of aviation while Afghanistan had few planes; he also oversaw the tourism department when there were few tourists.

But in the years after the Taliban leadership was driven into exile in Pakistan in 2001, Mullah Mansour became central to the group’s reincarnation as a powerful insurgency. After the death of the Taliban’s founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, Mullah Mansour became the group’s supreme leader and the architect of the most recent insurgent assault that swept across northern Afghanistan.

Yet even as he was acting leader of the Taliban, he kept secret the fact that Mullah Omar had been dead since 2013.

And unlike Mullah Omar, Mullah Mansour did not live in hiding. Some of the time he lived in a southern neighborhood of Quetta, Pakistan, in an enclave where he and other Taliban leaders from the same Pashtun tribe, the Ishaqzai, had built homes. And although he is on the United Nations no-fly list, Mullah Mansour has repeatedly taken flights in and out of Pakistan, Afghanistan officials said, to Dubai, where he has a house and several investments.

Even as the Taliban operating inside Afghanistan remains a formidable and violent force, Mullah Mansour has had difficulties uniting his ranks after months of infighting. In April, for example, a Taliban spokesman said the new leader had appointed the brother and son of Mullah Omar, the movement’s deceased founder, to senior leadership posts.

Mullah Mansour has faced criticism and even rebellion from field commanders who distrusted his ties to Pakistan and his handling of the succession. He brutally quashed breakaway groups and sought to buy the support of other skeptical commanders, all while maintaining a publicity campaign that has portrayed him atop a united command.

After his confirmation as the new leader of the insurgency, when large gatherings of Taliban were held in Quetta, Mullah Mansour had limited his movements in recent months, Afghan officials say. While the reason given to his subordinates was security — he narrowly missed an attempt on his life, blamed on dissidents within Taliban ranks, in December — keeping the leader at a distance from the commanders follows a pattern that became routine under Mullah Omar.

Mullah Mansour’s deputies, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is largely running battlefield operations, continue to move freely in Pakistan.

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.