President Barack Obama approved a drone strike that killed the Taliban leader because he was overseeing plans for new attacks on American targets in the Afghan capital, U.S. officials have said.
U.S. forces targeted Mullah Akhtar Mansour because he was plotting attacks that posed “specific imminent threats” to U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said on Monday.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, later specified that the Taliban were planning new attacks against “our interests and our people in Kabul.” He did not give further details.
The Obama administration hopes Mansour’s death will have a long-term impact by pushing the Taliban to end its refusal to engage in peace negotiations with Kabul and “choose the path to reconciliation,” the official said.
Mansour was killed when a U.S. drone fired on his vehicle in the southwestern Pakistan province of Baluchistan. He had emerged as the successor to Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, whose 2013 death was only revealed last summer.
Davis said the drone strike that killed Mansour was carried out under U.S. rules of engagement that permit the military to conduct defensive strikes. He said it was the first time to his knowledge that U.S. forces had attacked inside Pakistan under that rule. Previous strikes there were done under U.S. rules on counterterrorism.
Obama said Monday Mansour’s death marks an “important milestone” in the longstanding effort to bring peace to Afghanistan.
High-ranking sources in Taliban confirmed Mansour’s death. They said the Shoura Council met late Sunday in the Pakistani city of Quetta to choose the figure who would replace him.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson, also said Monday that Mansour was an obstacle to peace and his death will have a disruptive effect on the insurgency.
Nicholson said during a visit to the northern province of Kunduz that Mansour rejected the chance offered by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to participate in the peace process.
“I hope that the Taliban leadership will realize it is time to lay down their weapons and join the peace efforts, so the people of Afghanistan can enjoy peace and prosperity in the future,” Nicholson added.
A western diplomat in Kabul said it was widely understood that Mansour had been in contact with Iran and Russia in recent months, as he was “trying to move away from Pakistan because he didn’t want to be pressured by Islamabad” into joining the peace process — implying that Mansour was seeking new international allies.
Russia and Iran are believed to have reached out to Taliban groups in recent months as a counterweight to the presence in Afghanistan of ISIS.