In his first words on the drone strike in Pakistan that killed Taliban leader Mullah Mansour, President Obama said the action does not signal a ramping up of U.S. operations in the region but was intended to “help Afghanistan secure its own country.”
Appearing at a joint press conference alongside Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, Obama called the mullah, who had led the “Islamic Emirate” only since last year, “an individual who as head of the Taliban was specifically targeting U.S. personnel and troops.”
He added that Mansour’s assassination “does not represent a shift in our approach — we are not reentering the day to day combat operations.”
Mansour had recently launched Operation Omari, the Taliban spring offensive named for their late Mullah Omar. The Taliban admitted last summer that the one-eyed mullah had been dead for two years; Mansour took over after that.
Just after that operation launched, a spokesman for U.S. operations in Afghanistan warned that al-Qaeda had struck up an unsettling “increased relationship” with the Taliban.
Obama said Mansour was a “high-profile leader who has been consistently part of operations and plans to harm U.S. personnel” — and was “resistant to kind of peace talks and reconciliation” long pushed by Washington.
“It is my responsibility as commander in chief to not stand by but send a clear message to the Taliban and others that we’re going to protect our people,” he added.
Mansour was riding in a car Saturday afternoon in Balochistan — the Pakistan side of the border — when he was droned.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told reporters in London on Sunday that the strike was a violation of his country’s sovereignty, something also stressed in a statement from the foreign ministry: “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.”
Pakistan has generally been a safe haven for Taliban leaders. Former Afghan deputy interior minister Mirza Mohammad Yarmand charged that “Mansour had been trained by the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence service) since he was a youngster — the ISI made huge investments in him, he was a trusted person.”
The Taliban messaging on the strike wasn’t coordinated, with some leaders and spokesmen insisting Mansour was still alive while others admitted he had been killed.
Before Obama was asked about the strike at the end of his news conference, the White House issued a lengthy statement confirming Mansour’s death.
“Today marks an important milestone in our longstanding effort to bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan,” Obama declared in the statement. “…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.”
“As an enduring partner of the Afghan people, the United States will continue to help strengthen Afghan security forces and support President Ghani and the National Unity Government in their efforts to forge the peace and progress that Afghans deserve. 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 added. “After so many years of conflict, today gives the people of Afghanistan and the region a chance at a different, better future.”