Wanting to pave the way for negotiations to end the war in Afghanistan, the White House has directed top U.S. diplomats to seek direct talks with the Taliban, several American and Afghan officials told The New York Times.
The Taliban, which controls or has influence over 59 of Afghanistan's 407 districts, has long said it wants to first discuss peace with the United States, not the Afghan government, but the U.S. has always pushed back. There are about 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and the Taliban continues to regularly launch deadly attacks.
Over the last few weeks, several high-ranking American officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan to prepare for talks, with Pompeo briefly visiting Kabul and meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Catherine Garcia
On Wednesday, the Afghan Taliban confirmed the death of its leader, Mullah Akthar Mansour, killed in a U.S. drone strike, and named his replacement, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada. The statement was the Taliban's first confirmation of Mansour's death. Akhundzada, a Mansour deputy believed to be 45 to 50 years old, is the former chief of the Taliban courts and is considered more of a religious scholar than military commander; he is responsible for most of the fatwas, or religious edicts, from the Taliban. "Haibatullah Akhundzada has been appointed as the new leader of the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) after a unanimous agreement in the shura," or supreme council, the Taliban said, "and all the members of shura pledged allegiance to him."
Akhundzada was not considered a front-runner to replace Mansour, The New York Times reports, especially since another Mansour deputy, Sarajuddin Haqqani, had been running the day-to-day military operations for the Taliban. But the Taliban leaders meeting in Quetta, Pakistan, apparently wanted a lower-profile consensus candidate, recalling that former Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar's reclusiveness kept him alive for many years. Peter Weber
On Sunday, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said he was not notified ahead of time about a U.S. airstrike in his country targeting the head of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour.
While speaking with reporters in London, Sharif said the strike was a "violation of Pakistan's sovereignty," Al Jazeera reports. U.S. officials say the strike was authorized by President Obama, and the drone targeted Mansour and other men in a vehicle in a remote part of Pakistan near its border with Afghanistan. Afghanistan's spy agency and the country's chief executive say the attack killed Mansour, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Mansour posed a "continuing imminent threat" to Afghans and U.S. personnel still in the country. The Taliban has not issued an official statement. Catherine Garcia
The Taliban said in a statement Monday that it suffered an "incorrigible loss" on April 23, 2013, when leader Mullah Mohammed Omar died.
— Telegraph News (@TelegraphNews) August 31, 2015
The news of Omar's death leaked in July, but the date of his passing remained a mystery until Monday. In the statement, which was written in several languages and posted on the Taliban's website, the organization said his death was kept a secret in order to keep spirits and morale high at a time when foreign fighters were leaving Afghanistan. Only a few of the Taliban's higher-ups knew about the "depressing news."
The communication also included information on Omar's successor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor. Many rank-and-file members of the Taliban are not supportive of Mansoor, The Guardian reports, and Omar's family is not backing him. The statement said Mansoor fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and "particularly loves and has interest in marksmanship." Catherine Garcia