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Revealed: How US Drones Found Taliban Chief Mullah Mansour

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Revealed: How US Drones Found Taliban Chief Mullah Mansour

The strike against Mansour was the result of carefully cultivated human and signals intelligence in Balochistan.

Revealed: How US Drones Found Taliban Chief Mullah Mansour

An MQ-9 Reaper equipped with an extended range modification from the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron sits on the ramp at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Dec. 6, 2015. The ER modification allows for 20 to 40 percent additional flight time dependent on the aircraft’s loadout. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Robert Cloys/Released)

Credit: Flickr/ U.S. Department of Defense

A new report in the Wall Street Journal offers a considerably detailed look into the recent U.S. drone strike that killed Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the leader of the Afghan Taliban. As The Diplomat discussed on Sunday, the strike took place early on Saturday morning near the town of Ahmad Wal in the Pakistani province of Balochistan. Mansour was killed on his way back to Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, from Iran. The Journal reveals that Mansour was on his way back from Iran after spending time with his family.

The article is worth reading in full, particularly for the detailed account it contains for how the U.S. Reaper drones approach Mansour before killing him and his driver. That we’re reading such detailed accounts of the rationale for the attack, the intelligence involved, and operational details days after its occurrence suggests that the U.S. government is trying to provide some transparency, with the goal of putting additional pressure on Pakistan. The report also largely answers the first two of the four questions I’d raised immediately after news of the strike became public. (We’ll have to wait to find out who’ll replace Mansour and how this will affect the broader peace process.) I’ve highlighted some of the big takeaways below.

The United States decided to take out Mansour after the April 19 Kabul suicide attack, which killed 71 people and injured 367 others. The attack also drew a sharp reaction from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who days later attack Pakistani sharply for hosting the leadership of the Afghan Taliban. In addition to this turning point, it appears that U.S. intelligence had long been spying “on Pakistani leaders to see whether they were making a serious effort” in bringing the Taliban to the Quadrilateral Coordination Group-led peace talks.

The United States was further forced to act after its intelligence said that “the Pakistanis tried to deliver the Taliban and grew frustrated in February by Mansour’s refusal to send representatives to meet with the Afghan government.” This idea is given further credence by widely discussed comments that Sartaj Aziz, foreign affairs adviser to Pakistani prime minister, made while in New York in March: “We have some influence on them because their leadership is in Pakistan, and they get some medical facilities, their families are here. So we can use those levers to pressurize them to say, ‘come to the table’. But we can’t negotiate on behalf of the Afghan government because we can’t offer them what Afghan government can offer them. So actually, Pakistan, the United States, and China are committed on the road map to persuade them to come together. But then it is for the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government to negotiate whatever they want to—outcome they aim at.”

That’s the political context of the strike, which mostly matches up with what most early speculation had suggested. The April 19 attack, in particular, marks an important turning point.

As I’d discussed in my questions after the strike, the question of U.S. intelligence is particularly fascinating in this case. (This is something Catherine Putz and I discuss in more detail in my most recent podcast episode.) This was the first drone strike in Balochistan and, to date, we haven’t had any reason to believe that the United States has particularly sophisticated intelligence gathering capabilities there–specifically in the realm of human intelligence, which would be necessary to execute a drone strike on a high-value target like Mansour without room for error.

The Journal‘s report demonstrates that U.S. intelligence capabilities are quite advanced inside Balochistan, to the extent that there should be no further reason to suspect that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was in any way complicit to or informed of the operation in advance. (Indeed, the fact that we still haven’t received any public reaction or statement from the Pakistani military almost four days after the strike highlights this point as well.)

It’s notable that the report notes that no Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) drones were involved in the operation or in monitoring Mansour. They largely operate in the Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), with the private complicity of Pakistani authorities (though they protest the strikes publicly). This operation was under the oversight of the U.S. Department of Defense, specifically Joint Special Operation Command (JSOC).

Mansour’s demise at the hands of a U.S. drone is perhaps not too surprising given that he never quite took after his predecessor, Mullah Omar, who lived so far off-the-grid that the CIA had been unable to locate him from years. Indeed, Omar’s death went unknown by many within the Taliban itself. (Mansour, as Omar’s deputy, had been leading the group in practice for two years before he formally took over as its leader last summer.)

Nevertheless, as I mentioned before, to pull off the drone strike, the United States would need particularly good intelligence. The Journal‘s reporting–along with a New York Times report–notes that the United States used a variety of signals intelligence, human intelligence, and satellite imagery to pull off this operation, which was its first drone strike in Balochistan and, that too, against a particularly high-value target.

The United States knew details about the SIM card Mansour used, had managed to receive tip-offs on his Iran travel plans, and was able to easily track his movements. Human assets seem to have played a particularly important role in enabling the strike and haven’t always been easily acquired for the United States in other parts of Paksitan. Developing human assets in Balochistan, which is highly securitized by the Pakistani military amid concerns about separatist insurgents, suggests U.S. intelligence in Pakistan is better than previously known. (Indeed, with so much public in the wake of this strike, whoever succeeds Mansour may chose to live more like Mullah Omar than Mansour.)

The high level of transparency about this operation is designed to apply pressure on Pakistan. The WSJ report notes that the revelation of “the location of the strike inside Pakistan” was seen as a “clear rebuke” by Pakistan, even though the U.S. Department of Defense was “instructed to announce that the strike took place along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, rather than inside Pakistan itself.”

It remains to be seen if this strike will result in a broader bilateral controversy between the United States and Pakistan like the 2011 covert operation against Osama bin Laden Abbottabad compound. Additionally, there is the question of whether taking out Mansour will actually improve the situation on the ground and help the United States and the Afghan government longer term. After all, the effectiveness of so-called ‘decapitation’ strikes against the leaders of militant groups is often overstated. Pakistani civilian leaders, including the prime minister and interior minister, have, to differing degrees, criticized the strike, saying it violated Pakistani sovereignty. Ultimately, how this develops from here will depend largely on Pakistan’s military and intelligence services, who continue to preside over the Taliban and see the group as a valuable proxy.

Four days after the strike, they remain silent.

Update: Shortly after this was written, the Pakistani military made its first statement on the matter via Facebook.