Q&A: What does the US airstrike on the Taliban mean?

This photo taken by freelance photographer Abdul Salam Khan purports to show the destroyed vehicle in which Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansour was in. Photo / AP
This photo taken by freelance photographer Abdul Salam Khan purports to show the destroyed vehicle in which Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansour was in. Photo / AP

What is the significance?

The airstrike thought to have killed Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour at the weekend represents another escalation in US involvement in the war in Afghanistan by trying to cripple an insurgent group that has for years found refuge on Pakistani soil. It marks the most aggressive US military action in Pakistan since the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Is Mansour's death confirmed?

US officials were awaiting final confirmation of Mansour's death. Pakistan's foreign office said it was unable to confirm whether Mansour was dead. Some Taliban supporters deny he was killed.

How is the US justifying the airstrike?

US officials said it was justified because Mansour refused to negotiate with Afghan leaders and had been plotting to attack US forces in Afghanistan.

"This action sends a clear message to the world that we will continue to stand with our Afghan partners as they work to build a more stable, united, secure, and prosperous Afghanistan," Secretary of State John Kerry said.

Where and how did it happen?

The Pentagon said several unmanned US aircraft struck a vehicle in which Mansour was travelling in western Pakistan's Baluchistan province. The strike, authorised by President Barack Obama, is believed to have been the first US drone strike in that part of Pakistan, which includes the base of the Afghan Taliban insurgency. Most previous US drone strikes in Pakistan were carried out by the CIA in the northwestern tribal belt. Local officials in Baluchistan said they recovered a charred vehicle and two bodies. The passenger, suspected of being Mansour, had a Pakistani passport registered to an address in Karachi. The other man was apparently a taxi driver, local officials said.

How have Pakistan and Afghanistan responded?

Unlike the bin Laden raid, which prompted outrage in Pakistan, the reported airstrike on Mansour provoked a fairly muted reaction from Pakistani government and military leaders, even as Afghan officials cheered and described the attack as proof of the Afghan Taliban's deep presence in Pakistan. "While further investigations are being carried out, Pakistan wishes to once again state that the drone attack was a violation of its sovereignty," the country's foreign office said.

People stand near a coffin carrying a body one of the victims in the US drone strike. Photo / AP
People stand near a coffin carrying a body one of the victims in the US drone strike. Photo / AP

What impact could it have on the Taliban?

It is believed to be the first time that the US military has directly targeted the top leader of the Afghan Taliban, a potentially destabilising action that could leave the group violently lashing out as it seeks to find a new leader. "This is an unprecedented move to decapitate the Taliban leadership in its safe haven of Pakistan," said Bruce Riedel, a South Asia expert of the Brookings Institution. "It exposes Pakistan's role in promoting and protecting the Taliban, and will provoke a crisis in US-Pakistan relations." The strike will pose even more turmoil for an insurgency movement that was already showing signs of fraying, despite continued success on the battlefield.

Who is likely to succeed Mansour?

When Mansour officially took over last year after the death of former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar was announced, he had already effectively been running the group for two years, said Wahid Mozhda, a former Taliban diplomat who is now a political analyst in Kabul. Appointing a successor now may be more challenging, with Omar's eldest son, Mohammad Yaqob, and top deputies Serajuddin Haqqani and Moulavi Habatullah Akhunzada likely vying for control. "It is very hard to anticipate who would be Akhtar Mansour's successor among these three men," Mozhda said. Yaqob is seen by analysts as having the upper hand in a leadership struggle. Adbul Qayoum Zakir, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee and member of the Taliban executive council, could be a dark-horse candidate.

How much was Mansour in control of the group?

Although Mansour, working through proxies, succeeded in quelling several insurrections against his leadership, he was also apparently a man on the run. Mansour was not in direct contact with senior Taliban leaders, who received directives from him by emails issued by close aides or through audio tapes, said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a journalist and longtime Taliban observer from Peshawar . "He had adopted the policy of living life as a phantom." Pakistan's Foreign Office also seemed to suggest Mansour had been looking over his shoulder. The statement said officials had recovered the body of a man named Wali Muhammad. That man, believed to Mansour's alias, had been in Iran and only entered Pakistan on Sunday, the same day as the drone strike. "His passport was bearing a valid Iranian visa," the statement said.

What does it mean for the conflict?

Despite Mansour's possible absence from the battlefield, the Taliban has still been carrying out daily operations throughout Afghanistan, some of which involved amassing dozens of militants for days-long battles against Afghan security forces. For Taliban leaders, a key question is whether the drone strike will be followed up by additional US military actions in southwestern Pakistan. Saad Muhammad, a retired Pakistani general who was Pakistan's defence attache to Kabul from 2003 to 2006, said the Taliban will now face "a very difficult choice". He added: "If they remain in Quetta, in their comfort zone, they will have to deal with some Pakistani pressure to leave. But if they go out, they will have to deal with attacks that could be life-threatening."

What does it mean for the US in Afghanistan?

With just 9800 American troops on the ground, Obama has been trying for months to transition the US military out of direct offensive action in Afghanistan. About 6600 troops are based in Afghanistan as part of the Nato mission to train Afghan security forces. The remaining U.S. troops are stationed there for counter-terrorism missions targeting al-Qaeda and Isis (Islamic State). The US does not officially designate the Afghan Taliban as a terrorist group. But under their rules of engagement, US forces are allowed to take defensive action when threatened by the Taliban.

What does it mean for Pakistan?

Some Pakistani analysts wondered whether Pakistan's military could have secretly sanctioned the airstrike. Muhammad, the retired Pakistani general, said he doubts Pakistan wanted Mansour killed. "Obviously, they want a Taliban group that remains united because, if fragmented, it becomes much more difficult to control," said Muhammad, who still maintains contact with some elements of the Taliban leadership. "This will create a very difficult situation for Pakistan, especially due to expectations Pakistan should bring them to the peace table."

What about Mansour's links to the Haqqani network?

Some Afghan analysts believe that Haqqani, known for employing especially brutal tactics against coalition forces and foreigners, is now well positioned to assume full control over the Taliban. Mansour brought the leadership of the Haqqani network, a somewhat independent offshoot of the Taliban that the US considers a terrorist group, into his command structure. Coalition commanders have said that Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was named Mansour's top deputy, is taking a leading role in planning battlefield strategy. Muhammad noted that most senior Taliban commanders come from southern Afghanistan and would seek to install a leader from that same region. Haqqani is from eastern Afghanistan.

- Washington Post

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