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Afghan peace still distant after US attack on Taliban head

Monday, May 23, 2016 - 06:50
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The US drone strike that purportedly killed the Taliban's leader on Saturday removed a major obstacle to peace in Afghanistan.

[KABUL] The US drone strike that purportedly killed the Taliban's leader on Saturday removed a major obstacle to peace in Afghanistan. Now comes the hard part: Reaching a lasting truce with his successor.

An unmanned aerial vehicle killed Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in a remote border region of Pakistan, Afghanistan's top intelligence agency confirmed on Sunday. It was the most significant targeted assassination in the 15-year war since US forces killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.

"A new opportunity presents itself to those Taliban who are willing to end war and bloodshed," Afghan president Ashraf Ghani said in a statement. "Mullah Akhtar Mansour obstructed development and progress in Afghanistan and obstinately insisted on continuing the war."

A spokesman for the Taliban didn't immediately answer calls to his mobile phone on Sunday. The group, which runs a website and regularly issues press releases, has made no official public statement referring to the drone strike.

Emran Khalil, a member of the Taliban press team, said on Twitter that reports about Mr Mansour's death were "completely wrong and baseless."

The US had failed to make headway on peace talks with the Taliban since Mr Mansour took control of the group last year, forcing President Barack Obama to alter plans for removing most American troops from Afghanistan by the end of his term.

Mr Mansour's reported death gives hope that more moderate Taliban commanders will be able to reach a deal to end a conflict that has cost the US almost US$700 billion and killed more than 2,200 American troops.

Yet significant obstacles remain. The Taliban is notoriously splintered, and a succession battle could lead to even more attacks in the near term. Once the dust settles, it's unclear if the group's new leader would speak for most fighters at the negotiating table.

And Pakistan would have to fully back any agreement - a big question mark given its history of supporting the Taliban and hosting militant leaders for strategic reasons.

"There will be tremendous pressure on Pakistan to really push the Taliban to come to the negotiation table or go after them," said Rahimullah Yousafzai, a veteran Pakistan journalist who has covered the Taliban since its formation in the 1990s.

"This death will demoralize the Taliban initially but it'll spark more violence as the Taliban take revenge for the killing of their leader."

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told reporters in London his government hasn't confirmed that Mansour died in the airstrike, which he called a violation of the nation's sovereignty. Authorities are investigating the attack, Mr Sharif said in comments broadcast Sunday by state-run Pakistan Television. He's in London for a medical checkup, the state TV said.

Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the attack on Mansour on Sunday, saying he posed an imminent threat to US forces and Afghan personnel.

"Peace is what we want - Mansour was a threat to that effort," Mr Kerry said during a visit to Myanmar on Sunday. "It is time for Afghans to stop fighting and to start building a real future together." The US Pentagon announced an airstrike targeting Mr Mansour late Saturday and said it was assessing the results of the operation.

The death would be a "big blow" to the Taliban and many militants will join the peace process, Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, who shares power with Mr Ghani, said in a televised broadcast.

Mr Mansour was formerly aviation minister during the Taliban regime that held power from 1996 until the US invasion in 2001. After taking over as Taliban leader last year, he struggled to unify commanders who were angry that he kept predecessor Mullah Omar's death a secret for two years.

Of late, however, he had begun to mend fences while stepping up a campaign of violence against Afghan forces. Mr Mansour offered senior posts to Mullah Omar's son and brother, and made hardliners Sirajuddin Haqqani and Maulavi Haibatullah Akhunzada - members of the Haqqani Network, a US-designated terrorist organization - his deputies.

While it's hard to tell who will emerge as the Taliban's next leader, the rank-and-file is likely to back Mullah Omar's son, according to Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistan-based author who wrote a book on the Taliban.

"It will certainly help to push peace process," Mr Rashid said of Mr Mansour's reported death. "There will be fragmentation and more possibility that moderates come forward and take over from hardliners."

That would be a welcome development for the US, which pays about 75 per cent of Afghanistan's military budget.

Last week the fifth round of peace talks between representatives from the US, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan ended again with no prospect of Taliban participation.

Just a day before the strike, Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan's de facto foreign minister, rebuffed accusations that his nation wasn't doing enough to foster peace.

"Vested interests have often tried to create a perception that Pakistan actually controls the Taliban," Mr Aziz said on Friday. "Such an impression breeds unrealistic expectations from Pakistan."

Mr Mansour's killing was intended to remove an roadblock to peace and also show other militants that a political settlement is the only way forward, according to Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to Canada and France.

The prospect for long-term peace, he said, "will depend on who will succeed Mansour, to what extent will his death cause more splinters, and how much international pressure will be brought on Pakistan to dismantle Taliban sanctuaries and force them to the negotiating table."

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