WASHINGTON: Brushing aside protest from Islamabad that its sovereignty has been violated by the US drone strike that has killed Taliban leader Mullah Mansour, President Obama warned on Monday that American forces would continue to go after threats emanating from Pakistani territory, signaling that Washington’s patience with its notional ally is wearing thin.
Installed by the Pakistan military last year as its proxy successor Taliban leader Mullah Omar, Mansour was the Taliban-led Afghan Emirate government’s civil aviation minister in the later 1990s during the hijacking of the Indian Airlines aircraft from Kathmandu to Kandahar. He was seen embracing and escorting Maulana Masood Azhar, the Jaish-e-Mohammed leader who New Delhi was forced to free in exchange for the hostages on Flight 814. Before becoming a minister, he oversaw security at the Kandahar airport, and was suspected of having played a role in having the hijacked plane directed to Kandahar.
On Saturday morning, Mansour was returning from a secret trip to the border areas of Iran under a false name, when a US drone, which had been tracking his movements, eviscerated him. The targeted killing apparently came at the instance of Afghanistan, which had complained to Washington that Mansour, as a Pakistani ISI proxy, was a hurdle in peace talks it was trying to initiate with Taliban.
”He had been under close surveillance for a while, until his vehicle was struck and destroyed on the main road in the Dalbandin area,” the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, said in a statement, indicating that Kabul played a role in eliminating him.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who reportedly spoke to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after the drone strike to inform him of the attack, provided the underlying rationale and support for the Afghan position. ”We have long said that Mansour posed an imminent threat to us and to Afghan civilians,” he said. ”This action sends a clear message to the world that we will continue to work with our Afghan partners.”
Like much of the Taliban’s leadership, Mansour was sheltered in Balochistan by Pakistan, and taking him out involved the first ever drone strike by the US in the province, and outside of the northern Khyber-Pakhtunwa province where Washington has mainly attacked Al Qaeda and its remnants.
Informed of the strike after the killing, as was done in the case of Osama bin Laden, Pakistan went ballistic, bitterly complaining of its sovereignty being violated.
But Washington was unapologetic, and traveling in Vietnam, President Obama indicated that U.S would revive its punitive approach to Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism till it relented.
”We will continue taking action against extremist networks that target the United States. We will work on shared objectives with Pakistan, where terrorists that threaten all our nations must be denied safe haven,” he said, in a carefully worded statement that implicitly accused the Pakistani military of continuing to coddle terrorist groups.
Describing the targeted assassination as an ”important milestone in our longstanding effort to bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan,” Obama said Mansour rejected efforts by the Afghan government to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence. ”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 advised.
Coincidentally, the US strike came just ahead of the leaders of Afghanistan, Iran, and India signing a tripartite agreement on Monday to turn Chabahar port in Iran into a transit hub bypassing Pakistan, pointing to massive realignments in the region.
In fact, Pakistani officials on Sunday said Mansour was hit by the drone strike when he was returning from Iran, but Iranian foreign ministry spokesman refuted that, saying, ”The competent authorities of the Islamic republic deny that this person on this date crossed Iran’s border and into Pakistan.”
”Iran welcomes any positive action leading to peace and stability in Afghanistan,” the spokesman added, indicating Teheran had no problem with Mansour’s targeted killing by the United States. The developments suggest that Pakistan now stands quite isolated in the region, except for support from China, largely for economic exploitation.