By CARLOTTA GALL and RUHULLAH KHAPALWAKAUG
He was on his way home from a secret visit to Iran in May 2016, driving across a remote stretch of southwestern Pakistan, when he called his brother and relatives to prepare them for his death.
“He knew something was happening,” a former Taliban commander, who is close to Mullah Mansour’s inner circle, said in an interview. “That’s why he was telling his family members what to do and to stay united.”
It is rare for a Taliban commander to sit for an interview, but this one spoke on the condition that his name or location not be made public, because he had recently defected from the insurgents’ ranks and his life was under threat.
His account offered previously unreported insights into the final hours of Mullah Mansour’s life, and why and how he was killed, revealing a dangerously widening rift with his Pakistani sponsors. The account was complemented and supported in interviews with two senior Afghan officials who have conducted their own investigations into the Taliban leader’s death — Haji Agha Lalai, presidential adviser and deputy governor of Kandahar; and Gen. Abdul Raziq, the police chief of Kandahar Province.
More than a year after the event, Afghans on both sides of the war and a growing number of Western security analysts say that Pakistan most likely engineered Mullah Mansour’s death to remove a Taliban leader it no longer trusted.
“Pakistan was making very strong demands,” the former commander said. “Mansour was saying you cannot force me on everything. I am running the insurgency, doing the fighting and taking casualties and you cannot force us.”
After Mullah Mansour’s death, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, an Islamic cleric with no military experience, was selected as leader of the Taliban. Yet Afghanistan has seen little reprieve with his death, as hard-liners within the movement took over and redoubled their offensive to take power. There is little chance of anyone speaking out, the former commander said. “Ninety percent of the Taliban blame the Pakistanis,” he said. “But they cannot say anything. They are scared.” Mullah Mansour had been intent on expanding his sources of support as he prepared an ambitious offensive across eight provinces in Afghanistan last year, they said.
He relied on Pakistan’s Intelligence Service and donors from Arab gulf states, as well as Afghan drug lords, for the main financing of the Taliban, but he was also seeking weapons and other support from Iran, and even Russia. He met officials from both countries on his last visit to Iran.
Mullah Mansour’s outreach to Iran was also aimed at getting the Taliban out from under Pakistan’s thumb, according to his former associate and Afghan officials, so he could maneuver to run the war, but also negotiate peace, on his own terms. That was where his differences with Pakistan had grown sharpest.
Mullah Mansour had resisted orders from Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, to destroy infrastructure — schools, bridges and roads — to increase the cost of the war for the Afghan government. He opposed the promotion of Pakistan’s hard-line protégé Sirajuddin Haqqani to be his deputy, and he had dodged Pakistan’s demands to push its agenda in negotiations. Critically, he wanted to devolve more power to regional Taliban commanders, allowing them to raise their own funds and make their own decisions, in order to own the Afghan nationalist cause and loosen Pakistan’s control over the insurgency.
Others with close knowledge of the Taliban, including the former Taliban finance minister and peace mediator Agha Jan Motasim, said that Mullah Mansour was ready to negotiate and had sent top representatives to successive meetings in Pakistan.
While on his way to Iran, Mullah Mansour had stopped in the Girdi Jungle refugee camp, a hub of Taliban activity in Pakistan, where he called on Taliban commanders and elders to gather for a meeting.
“Ten days before he was killed he sent messages to villages and to commanders asking them to share their views on peace talks,” said General Raziq, the police chief of Kandahar Province, a fierce opponent of the Taliban, who knows the movement well.
He says that Mullah Mansour was looking for new protectors as his disagreements with Pakistan were growing.