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Afghan Government Says U.S. Drone Strike Killed Taliban Leader

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Volunteers stand Saturday near the wreckage of the destroyed vehicle, in which Mullah Akhtar Mansour was allegedly traveling in the Ahmed Wal area in Baluchistan province of Pakistan, near Afghanistan border.

The Pentagon says it targeted the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, with multiple drone strikes.

Now, as NPR's Tom Bowman reports from Afghanistan, there are conflicting reports of whether the attack killed Mansour: "The Taliban has not confirmed the death. The Afghan intelligence agency says he is dead. And the Americans, for their part, are saying they're still assessing the results of this attack."

You can listen to Tom's full report here:

Photos released from the scene of the apparent attack show smoke rising from a smoldering vehicle and what appear to be bodies wrapped in brown cloth.

Both Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah hailed the news of Mansour's apparent death, The Associated Press reports. Mansour was "the main figure preventing the Taliban joining the peace process," Abdullah said, according to the wire service.

As Tom reports on Weekend Edition Sunday, the Pentagon says "there were multiple drones involved in this mission by the American special operations forces, and it was authorized by President Obama." He says it happened in Pakistan, near the city of Quetta. That's not far from Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

Pakistan has expressed frustration at the attack in its territory.

"While further investigations are being carried out, drone attack was a violation of its sovereignty, an issue which has been raised with the United States in the past as well," Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

Speaking to reporters in Myanmar, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to welcome the news of Mansour's alleged death.

"Mansour posed a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, to Afghan civilians, Afghan security forces, and Resolute Support Coalition members across the country," Kerry said. He called Mansour a threat to "bringing an end to the violence and the suffering that the people of Afghanistan have endured for so many years now."

Kerry did not confirm that Mansour is dead, but as The New York Times notes, he "repeatedly referred to Mr. Mansour in the past tense."

Analyst Haroun Mir tells Tom that Mansour's demise could be a "game-changer." Tom explains:

"That's because you have no clear successor to Mansour, and the Taliban has fractured into rival groups. So you could have on the one hand, no leader and multiple rival groups with no clear direction. He also said there could be more Taliban attacks, more suicide attacks, to show the Taliban is still out there seeking revenge for this."

Mansour has been leading the group for three years, after the death of Mullah Omar, who "sheltered Osama bin Laden and that of course led to the American intervention." He was Omar's deputy and officially named leader after the Taliban admitted last summer that Omar had died two years previously.

And his leadership has proven divisive within the group. As the Associated Press reports, "Mansour's subsequent formal coronation as Taliban leader prompted open revolt inside the group for several months, with members of Mullah Omar's family rebelling and Taliban ground forces splitting into factional warfare."

In fact, as a result of tensions, there were rumors of Mansour's demise last year. As Tom reports, "Back in December, Mullah Mansour was involved in a gunfight with rival Taliban leaders over in Pakistan and there were reports he was wounded and later died."

As we reported, the Pentagon has accused Mansour of presiding over "many attacks that have resulted in the death of tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and Afghan security forces as well as numerous US and coalition personnel."

This drone strike marks a shift in U.S. strategy. By "actually going after the top Taliban leadership," it appears the U.S. is adopting a new, more aggressive stance against the group, Tom reports.

Likewise, as we reported, the Afghan government seems to be hardening its stance toward the Taliban. Earlier this month, President Ashraf Ghani approved the executions of six Taliban fighters.

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