- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2016

The U.S. military drone attack in Pakistan that took out Taliban chieftain Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansour on Saturday was a “defensive” strike, carried out in order to protect American and allied troops in Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s top commander in the field said Monday.

The Defense Department confirmed Mansour and another senior Taliban official were killed after their convoy was struck by U.S. drones while traveling in Baluchistan on the Pakistani side of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Resolute Support Commander Gen. John W. 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,” Gen. Nicholson said, according to The Associated Press.

President Obama lauded the successful strike as “an important milestone” in the 14-year-long U.S. war in Afghanistan. Mr. Obama said Mansour’s death should be seen as an opening for the Taliban to engage in peace talks with Kabul aimed at ending the conflict there.

“The Taliban should seize the opportunity to pursue the only real path for ending this long conflict — joining the Afghan government in a reconciliation process that leads to lasting peace and stability,” he said from Hanoi, where he is the middle of a three-day visit to Vietnam.

But the president made clear the drone strike was not a return to day-to-day combat operations by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. “Our job is to help Afghanistan secure its own country, not to have our men and women in uniform engage in that fight for them,” Mr. Obama said.

U.S. and NATO forces officially ended combat operations in Afghanistan in December 2014, handing the fight against the Taliban and other militant groups to the country’s security forces.

Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Monday the operation to take out Mansour, believed to be in his 50s, was a “defensive strike” against a top enemy operative, and did not exceed the current “noncombat” support role U.S. forces are operating under in Afghanistan.

“This is not a change in authority” for U.S. operations in the region, he said, although he acknowledged it was the first time American forces had carried out a defensive strike within Pakistan’s borders.

Islamabad has publicly condemned the attack, claiming the operation was a violation of the country’s sovereignty and warning that the strike could harm future reconciliation talks between Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States and the Taliban.

On Monday the special assistant to Pakistan’s prime minister on foreign affairs summoned U.S. Ambassador David Hale to “express concern over the drone strike on Pakistani territory,” according to a foreign ministry statement.

Capt. Davis dismissed the criticism, noting that Washington and Islamabad have “a longstanding and ongoing” dialogue concerning American-led counterterrorism operations in the region. He noted that Gen. Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, spoke with Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif shortly after the strike.

Whether the strike will prove a long-term blow to the Taliban is uncertain.

The AP reported that an Afghan Taliban leader said that the militant group’s leadership has gathered to decide who to select as the new head of their movement, with at least four names on the table. They include the former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar’s eldest son, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoub, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, one of the deputies of Mullah Mansour and a leader of the Haqqani network, which is believed to be responsible for numerous deadly attacks in Afghanistan.

A Western diplomat in Kabul told reporters 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.

— This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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