Washington: The US has told Pakistan that while it respects its territorial integrity, it will continue to conduct strikes to eliminate terrorists who target American soldiers, a day after Islamabad summoned the US ambassador to express concern over the drone strike in Pakistan that killed Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour.
Mansour was engaged in “specific actions, specific things …in real time” that posed “specific, imminent threats” to US and coalition forces in Afghanistan, Pentagon spokesman Capt Jeff Davis said.
“This was a defensive strike against an individual who was actively engaged in planning and conducting operation that were targeting US and Coalition personnel,” Davis said during a press conference yesterday.
While the US has been conducting similar defensive strike inside Afghanistan, this is probably for the first time that the US did a “defensive strike” inside Pakistan after the killing of Osama bin Laden.
The strike targetting the Afghan Taliban supremo deep inside Pakistan was carried out on May 21 by multiple unmanned drones operated by US Special Operations forces while Mansour was travelling in a vehicle in a remote area in the restive Balochistan close to the Afghan border while apparently returning from Iran.
Mansour, believed to be in his 50s, had emerged as the successor to Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, whose 2013 death was only revealed last summer.
Davis, however, asserted that the drone strike has not strained ties with Pakistan, despite Islamabad summoning US ambassador David Hale to express concern over the drone strike, which it described as a “violation of its sovereignty”.
Responding to questions on Pakistan hitting out at the US for the drone strike, State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner said: “We certainly do respect Pakistan’s territorial integrity. But as we’ve said before, we will carry out strikes to remove terrorist who are activity pursuing, and planning and directing attacks against US forces.”
Davis said the location of the strike “required higher level of approval”. “Ultimately this was an individual who was specifically targeting US and coalition personnel and had specifically engaged in operations in the past that resulted in US and coalition personnel being killed,” he said.
In a subtle warning to the Taliban, Toner said the strike “sends a clear message that those who target Americans and Afghan people are not going to be given a safe haven. And then also, that it know that there’s only one option for the Taliban and that is to pursue a peaceful resolution to the conflict”. He said the death of Mansour does not mean defeat of the Taliban but it does send a “clear message”.
“What I think it does send is a clear message. If you’re going to carry out attacks, if you’re going to lead attacks against our forces and against Afghanistan’s forces, then you are going to be targeted and you’re not going to have safe haven,” Toner told reporters at his daily news conference.
Meanwhile, the New York Times also said that Mansour’s killing sent a “powerful message” to Pakistan, which has for years denied harboring Taliban leaders and must now be asked how the terror group’s leader was able to travel freely in its territory. “The fact that the top official of Afghanistan’s Taliban was able to travel freely through Pakistan, and even into Iran, contradicted years of denials by Pakistani officials that they were harboring Taliban leaders,” the report said.
It quoted Barnett Rubin, a former senior State Department official, as saying that Mansour’s death was unlikely to have a significant impact on the Taliban, which can easily replace him, but its effect could be far greater on Pakistan’s government, which now must deal with the embarrassing circumstance.
“We killed the leader of the Taliban driving across Baluchistan in a taxi. I think we have some questions to ask of Pakistan,” Rubin said.
Experts also pointed out that Barack Obama’s decision to target the Taliban leader suggested the US President had little patience for Pakistani sensitivities.
“The administration is no longer worried about blowing up anything,” said Vali Nasr, a former State Department official who worked on Pakistan. “This is literally carrying out an operation, not against an Arab terrorist leader, but against a Pashtun ally of Pakistan, inside Pakistani territory.”
The report said that Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment was said to favour Mansour as the group’s new leader but the White House concluded he was a stubborn obstacle to reconciliation talks, which have been paralysed for months.
The US had told Pakistani authorities several weeks ago that Mansour was a target, it quoted officials as saying, and while the Pakistanis provided general information on his location and activities, they did not provide specific details on his movements.
The report quoted a senior American defence official as saying that another factor in Pakistan’s decision to provide some limited help in tracking down Mansour may have been that one of his deputies, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has deep and longstanding ties to Pakistan’s main spy service ISI.
While the strike does not reflect a shift in American strategy toward Afghanistan, it may have implications for how the US deals with Pakistan, the report added.
“Does this amount to starting a two-track approach – working through Pakistan while using force to eliminate Taliban leaders who obstruct peace talks?” said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US.
“Either way, it shows a diminishing of the Obama administration’s already diminished trust in Pakistan.