In the hours before he was killed in an American drone strike, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the Taliban leader, knew something was wrong, according to a New York Times report.
The report said that 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 was 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.”
The report said that 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.
More than a year after the incident, 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, the report said.
“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. “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.
The report said that he relied on Pakistan’s Intelligence Service and donors from Arab Gulf States, as well as Afghan drug lords, as the main sources for financing 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.
He also negotiated peace on his own terms, causing major differences with Pakistan.
The report said that 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 hardline 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 and so to own the Afghan nationalist cause and loosen Pakistan’s control over the insurgency, it said.
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.