U.S. Strike on Taliban Leader Is Seen as a Message to Pakistan
Early on Saturday, a middle-aged Pashtun man used forged documents to cross from Iran into Pakistan. A few hours later, on a lonely stretch of highway, he was incinerated by an American drone.
It is not exactly clear how the Americans tracked Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, leader of the Afghan Taliban, to a white sedan rattling across the arid expanse of Baluchistan Province. The United States picked up a mix of phone intercepts and tips from sources, American and European officials said, and there were reports that Pakistan also provided intelligence. President Obama described Mullah Mansour’s death on Monday as an “important milestone” — but the strike was also an illustration of the tangled relationship between Washington and Islamabad.
Not since Mr. Obama ordered Navy SEALs to hunt down Osama bin Laden in May 2011 has he authorized a military incursion in Pakistan as audacious as this one. The White House did not inform the Pakistanis in advance of the operation, which occurred outside the frontier region near Afghanistan, the one place where Pakistan has tolerated American drone strikes in the past.
By using the military’s Joint Special Operations Command rather than the C.I.A. to carry out the attack, the United States denied Pakistan the fig leaf of a covert operation, which in the past has given the Pakistanis the ability to claim they had been consulted beforehand.
The fact that the top official of Afghanistan’s Taliban was able to travel freely through Pakistan, and even into Iran, contradicted years of denials by Pakistani officials that they were harboring Taliban leaders. Mr. Obama offered no apology for the decision to strike Mullah Mansour in Pakistani territory, saying it was a simple case of self-defense.
“He is an individual who as head of the Taliban was specifically targeting U.S. personnel and troops inside of Afghanistan who are there as part of the mission I have set to maintain a counterterrorism platform and provide assistance,” Mr. Obama said during a news conference in Hanoi, Vietnam. Killing Mullah Mansour, Mr. Obama said, sent a message that “we’re going to protect our people.”
To many outside experts, it sent an equally powerful message to Pakistan. On Monday, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry summoned the American ambassador, David Hale, to lodge a protest for what it said was a “violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.” The killing would obstruct multiparty efforts to negotiate a settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, it said.
Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment was said to favor Mullah Mansour as the group’s new leader. But the White House concluded he was a stubborn obstacle to reconciliation talks, which have been paralyzed for months. While his intransigence on the peace process had made him less valuable to the Pakistanis as well, experts said, Mr. Obama’s decision to target him suggested he had little patience for Pakistani sensitivities.
“The administration is no longer worried about blowing up anything,” said Vali Nasr, a former State Department official who worked on Pakistan. “This is literally carrying out an operation, not against an Arab terrorist leader, but against a Pashtun ally of Pakistan, inside Pakistani territory.”
Mr. Obama approved the targeting of Mullah Mansour in the past few weeks, according to officials. With this authorization in hand, the Joint Special Operations Command was able to act quickly when intelligence indicated that he was traveling through Baluchistan, those officials said.
The United States told Pakistani authorities several weeks ago that Mullah Mansour was a target, officials said. While the Pakistanis provided general information on his location and activities, they did not provide specific details on his movements. That was supplemented by American intelligence, including satellite imagery, signals intelligence and human assets.
For Pakistan, providing even the most slender of details about the possible whereabouts of Mullah Mansour would represent an unexpected turn. Pakistan had cultivated him for years, and he was widely seen as its choice to lead the Taliban after the 2013 death of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the founder of the insurgency movement, was revealed last year.
But once installed, he resisted Pakistani efforts to put up even the appearance of being willing to take part in a peace process. As a result there was growing American pressure on Pakistan to crack down on Taliban leaders who take shelter there — and a growing sense within Pakistan’s security establishment that Mullah Mansour was proving too independent, and thus expendable.
A senior American defense official said that another factor in Pakistan’s decision to provide some limited help in tracking down Mullah Mansour may have been that one of his deputies, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has deep and longstanding ties to Pakistan’s main spy service, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence.
Mr. Haqqani, who leads a Taliban faction that is widely seen as one of the most violently effective parts of the insurgency, may prove more willing to take cues from Pakistan’s military leadership and the ISI.
For the United States and its allies in the Afghan government, though, the possibility of an even harder-line Taliban leader could undo any temporary advantage provided by the killing of Mullah Mansour.
“One of the interesting questions is, ‘Does this help?’” said Vikram Singh, a former Pentagon and State Department official who is now vice president for international security at the Center for American Progress. “Mansour was bad news for any kind of peace process. He definitely came in hard line and basically pressed for a military advantage.”
The White House, a senior American official said, had not given up on the peace process. Removing Mullah Mansour from the scene, he said, might actually increase the incentives for the Taliban to go to the bargaining table since he was the major impediment to talks. But this official acknowledged that it could also splinter the group’s leadership.
Mullah Mansour had gone to Iran for undisclosed medical treatment, said a European official who had been briefed on the American operation. He traveled across the border to avoid Pakistani hospitals where the ISI tends to keep track of who is coming and going.
Mr. Obama emphasized that the strike did not reflect a shift in American strategy toward Afghanistan, which is focused on training and assisting Afghan troops rather than engaging in combat. But it may have implications for how the United States deals with Pakistan.
“Does this amount to starting a two-track approach — working through Pakistan while using force to eliminate Taliban leaders who obstruct peace talks?” said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States. “Either way, it shows a diminishing of the Obama administration’s already diminished trust in Pakistan.”
Barnett Rubin, a former senior State Department official, said that Mullah Mansour’s death was unlikely to have a significant impact on the Taliban, which can easily replace him.
The effect could be far greater on Pakistan’s government, he said, which now must deal with the embarrassing circumstance.
“We killed the leader of the Taliban driving across Baluchistan in a taxi,” Mr. Rubin said. “I think we have some questions to ask of Pakistan.”
This article was originally published in The New York Times on May 23, 2016