- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The suspected mastermind of the 2014 massacre of Pakistani schoolchildren at a military-run school in Peshawar has been killed by a U.S. airstrike, American and Pakistani officials confirmed Wednesday, giving a first glimpse of how the Obama administration’s new rules on drone strikes will affect the conflict with Islamist extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Umar Khalifa, head of the Tariq Gidar Group, a Pakistani-based terrorist organization reportedly affiliated with the Islamic State’s Afghanistan cell, was killed along with four other group members in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement.

In one of the most wrenching and bloody terrorist strikes in Pakistan’s long fight with Islamist militias, six of the group’s gunmen stormed the Army Public School and College in Peshawar in December 2014, set off suicide bombs and fired into offices and classrooms. Troops and the insurgents traded gunfire throughout the daylong siege. In the end, 141 people, mostly children, lay dead.

U.S. and Pakistani officials initially believed the Taliban’s faction in western Pakistan, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban, was responsible for the massacre.

“The United States maintains a robust counter-terrorism partnership with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we recognize the sacrifices made on behalf of our respective militaries to pursue terrorists for the sake of regional peace and security,” Mr. Cook said. “Only through continued cooperation will we collectively succeed in eliminating terrorist safe havens in the region.”

In a separate strike, Omar al-Shishani, a top Islamic State commander, was killed in fighting around the group’s stronghold of Mosul in northern Iraq, according to the organization’s official news outlet al-Aamaq. U.S. and Iraqi security officials had thought al-Shishani was killed in March in a U.S. drone strike in Syria.

The Nangarhar strike against Umar Khalifa was carried out under new rules of engagement issued by the White House for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Earlier this month, the White House agreed to allow U.S. commanders in Afghanistan to conduct offensive airstrikes against the Taliban, the Islamic State and other insurgent groups, and to let American troops restart joint ground operations with Afghan forces. President Obama also agreed to slow the pace of his plans to cut the U.S. combat presence in Afghanistan, with more than 8,000 troops now set to be in the country when Mr. Obama leaves office early next year.

Since the changes, U.S. forces have reportedly hit Taliban and Islamic State targets in northern Afghanistan’s Kunduz province and in Helmand province in the south, along with Wednesday’s strike in Nangahar.

“Now with the new authorities that we have, we’re able to provide combat enablers to assist the Afghans, who are now … taking the initiative against the enemy and their staging areas well outside of Kunduz,” Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told reporters Tuesday in Kabul.

“Right now, we’re in the midst of shifting from Kunduz as a main effort to the south and now we’re shifting to the east,” he said. “As we do those shifts, we’re applying those authorities almost daily in support of the Afghans, to enable them to take the offensive.”

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