KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The killing of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansour in a U.S. drone strike was greeted Sunday by Kabul's political leadership as a game-changer in efforts to end the long insurgent war plaguing Afghanistan.
In a rare show of unity, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah both welcomed the news of Mansour's death as the removal of a man who unleashed violence against innocent civilians in Afghanistan and was widely regarded as an obstacle to peace within the militant group.
Mansour, believed to be in his 50s, was killed when a U.S. drone fired on his vehicle in the southwestern Pakistan province of Baluchistan, although there were conflicting accounts whether the airstrike occurred Friday or Saturday. He had emerged as the successor to Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, whose 2013 death was only revealed last summer.
Mansour "engaged in deception, concealment of facts, drug-smuggling and terrorism while intimidating, maiming and killing innocent Afghans," Ghani said in a statement on his official Twitter account.
"A new opportunity presents itself to those Taliban who are willing to end war and bloodshed," he added.
Mansour was "the main figure preventing the Taliban joining the peace process," Abdullah said, speaking live on television as he chaired a Cabinet meeting. "From the day he took over the Taliban following the death of Mullah Omar, he intensified violence against ordinary citizens, especially in Afghanistan."
Ghani and Abdullah serve in a so-called national unity government brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry following a divisive 2014 election. As president and chief executive, the two rarely see eye-to-eye on even the most important decisions for a country beset by war for almost 40 years, including appointments to key security posts.
On Sunday, at least, they seemed to be on the same page.
Kerry hailed the news of Mansour's demise even before it was officially confirmed — an indication of how much Washington has wearied of the Taliban's 15-year war with Kabul.
"Peace is what we want. Mansour was a threat to that effort," Kerry said, speaking from Myanmar. "He also was directly opposed to peace negotiations and to the reconciliation process. It is time for Afghans to stop fighting and to start building a real future together."
His death clears the way for a succession battle, the movement's second in less than a year. Whoever wins that battle will largely determine the direction for both the Taliban and the beleaguered Afghan peace process.
Mansour leaves behind a checkered history during his brief reign. He ascended to the leadership shrouded in controversy and accusations from many of his own senior commanders. That internal bitterness stemmed from the revelation last summer of Mullah Omar's death more than two years earlier — a fact that Mansour and his clique seem to have hidden not only from the outside world but from other senior Taliban commanders.
Mansour's subsequent formal coronation as Taliban leader prompted open revolt inside the group for several months, with members of Mullah Omar's family rebelling and Taliban ground forces splitting into factional warfare.
But Mansour patiently mended the rift, appointing as his deputy Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the powerful semi-independent al-Qaida-affiliated Haqqani network faction. Haqqani helped bring Mullah Omar's brother and son back into the fold in exchange for senior leadership positions.
While he played peacemaker inside the Taliban, Mansour pursued an aggressive line with the Kabul government, shunning all overtures for peace and launching a series of bold attacks.
In September 2015, Taliban fighters surprised Afghan security forces and overran the northern city of Kunduz — the first time since their regime was overthrown in the 2001 U.S. invasion that they had captured a provincial capital.
They held the city for four days before retreating in the face of a coordinated U.S.-backed government assault, but the end result was an enduring embarrassment for Ghani's government. In the aftermath, Mansour boasted about the prowess of his men and promised that the Taliban's return to power in Kabul was only a matter of time.
Mansour's death inside Pakistan could further damage the already deeply suspicious relationship between Kabul and Islamabad.
Afghan and U.S. officials have repeatedly accused Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency of keeping the Taliban leadership safe in cities across the porous and lawless border. A senior Afghan official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, complained before Mansour's death was announced that Taliban fighters were being taken from the battlefields of Afghanistan to Pakistani hospitals.
In a statement late Sunday, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry repeated the country's protest of drone attacks on its territory. It also repeated Pakistan's preference to settle the protracted war in Afghanistan through talks, calling on the Taliban to renounce violence in favor of negotiations.
"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," it said.
Ghani has not hidden his own frustrations with Islamabad.
His government initially embraced Pakistan's role as a liaison to the Taliban and engaged in four-nation meetings with Pakistan, China and the U.S. seeking to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. But he has publicly soured on Islamabad: At the most recent quartet meeting, Kabul declined to send a high-level delegation and was represented only by the ambassador to Pakistan.
Political analyst Haroun Mir noted Mansour's apparent confidence in moving around the Pakistani province of Baluchistan in an unarmored car with no convoy, decoys or other security precautions. That shows "the Taliban are active and move freely with the support of the Pakistani authorities," Mir said.
Mansour's death could open a new chapter in Kabul's quest for enduring peace with the Taliban, Mir said. The time has come, he added, for "the Afghan government to get some benefit out of this, in bringing the Taliban into the peace process."
Whether the Taliban will be open to those fresh overtures depends on who succeeds Mansour. Afghan officials say meetings have already begun in the Pakistani city of Quetta among the Taliban elite to discuss the direction the movement will take.
Mullah Mohammad Yaqub, the son of Mullah Omar, is popular, charismatic and believed by some officials to favor participation in peace talks. He controls the Taliban's military commissions in 15 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.
Haqqani is another candidate. His network has deep pockets and is responsible for some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan, including one in Kabul on April 19 that killed 64 people and injured more than 300.
In the meantime, the drone strike that killed Mansour has sent a message to other extremist leaders — not only Taliban but others active in Afghanistan and the region — that they are no longer safe on Pakistani territory.
"It was a message to Pakistan that whenever the USA wants, it can attack whoever they want inside Pakistan," said independent analyst Ahmad Saedi. "It was a message to the Taliban that no one is safe, and if America wants, it can target anyone, anywhere, at any time."
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan, Kathy Gannon in Islamabad and Matthew Lee in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, contributed to this report.