The United States killed the leader of the Afghan Taliban in an airstrike in a remote border area just inside Pakistan, intelligence officials in Afghanistan said on Sunday, but the militant group has not issued an official statement to confirm or deny that he is actually dead.
The death of Mullah Akhtar Mansour could trigger a succession battle and deepen fractures that emerged in the insurgent movement after the death of its founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was confirmed in 2015. The Taliban kept Mullah Omar's death secret for more than two years, and, while Afghan officials appear confident that Monsour is dead, the lack of confirmation leaves a troubling question mark.
The US has not confirmed Mansour's death but Afghan government chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, and the country's top intelligence agency, said the attack had been successful.
"Taliban leader Akhtar Mansour was killed in a drone strike… His car was attacked in Dahl Bandin," Abdullah said in a post on Twitter, referring to a district in Pakistan's Baluchistan province just over the border with Afghanistan.
Drones targeted Mansour and another combatant in a vehicle southwest of the town of Ahmad Wal, a US official in Washington said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Taliban have made no official statement, but sources close to the group led by Mansour's deputy Sirajuddin Haqqani said that an emergency meeting of the Rahbari Shura, or leadership council had been called.
"There is still complete silence over reports about the killing of Mullah Mansour," one senior Taliban member said, adding that the meeting would try to establish what had really happened and what the next steps should be.
"And if he is dead, then how should the shura react and announce his killing? Then there is another important task and that's how to choose his successor for the time being," he said.
One of the Taliban commanders who dismissed the report of Mansour's killing said it had nevertheless spread alarm.
"This rumor has created panic among our followers across Afghanistan and Pakistan," the senior Taliban member said by phone, adding he was telling his comrades to ignore the report.
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In December, Mansour was reportedly wounded and possibly killed in a shootout at the house of an insurgent leader in Pakistan. The Taliban eventually released an audio recording, purportedly from Mansour, to dispel the reports.
The strike, which US officials said was authorized by President Barack Obama and included multiple drones, showed the United States was prepared to go after the Taliban leadership in Pakistan, which the government in Kabul has repeatedly accused of sheltering the insurgents.
With the report of Mansour's death, attention has focused on his deputy, Haqqani, leader of a notorious network blamed for most big suicide attacks in Kabul. He is widely seen as hostile to a negotiated settlement with the Western-backed government.
"Based purely on matters of hierarchy, he would be the favorite to succeed Mansour," said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson Institute, a think-tank in Washington, DC.
But he added that it was completely unclear how the Taliban would react and whether Haqqani, appointed as number two after Mansour assumed control of the Taliban last year but who is not from the traditional Taliban heartlands in southern Afghanistan, would be chosen.
"It's too early to comment if Sirajuddin Haqqani would be willing to replace Mullah Mansour," a senior Taliban member said.
During a news conference on a visit to Myanmar, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Mansour posed a "continuing, imminent threat" to US personnel and Afghans.
"If people want to stand in the way of peace and continue to threaten and kill and blow people up, we have no recourse but to respond and I think we responded appropriately," Kerry said.
Efforts to broker talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban had already stalled after a suicide attack in Kabul last month that killed 64 people and prompted President Ashraf Ghani to prioritize military operations over negotiations.
However Ghani's office said on Sunday that the removal of Mansour could open the door to talks, and said Taliban who wanted to end bloodshed should return from "alien soil" and join peace efforts.
As reaction to the operation trickled out, many details remained unexplained. Kerry said the leaders of both Pakistan and Afghanistan were notified of the Saturday airstrike, but he declined to say if they were told before or after it had been carried out. He said he had spoken to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by phone.
In a statement issued on Sunday, Pakistan said that the US didn't notify its prime minister or army chief of staff about the drone strike until after it had occurred.
Pakistan identified the driver of the vehicle as Muhammad Azam, and said his body has been collected by his relatives. "The identity of the second body is being verified on the basis of evidence found at the site of the incident and other relevant information," the Pakistani statement said.
Pakistan also said the vehicle hit by the drone strike was rented near the Iranian border by a man named Wali Muhammad or Shah Muhammad, who was carrying a Pakistani passport and ID card. Muhammad had reportedly entered the country on Saturday from Iran, but his current whereabouts are unknown.
"While further investigations are being carried out, Pakistan wishes to once again state that the drone attack was a violation of its sovereignty, an issue which has been raised with the United States in the past as well," the statement said.
A US intelligence analyst said Mansour had been in a power struggle with another commander whose deputy was killed last year in what officials think was a fight with Mansour's faction.
But the US official cautioned against concluding that a shakeup might diminish the Taliban's broader sense of strength, given recent gains they had made.
"It's hard to see much incentive for them to start compromising now, with the fighting just heating up again," the official said.
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