The Taliban confirmed that Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund (Manan), its shadow governor and military commander for Helmand, was killed in an airstrike in the southern province last night. Manan was responsible for Taliban successes in Helmand that has left every district to be controlled or contested by the group.
“With great sadness, we received the news of the martyrdom of the governor of the Islamic Emirate of Helmand province and its military officer in brutal American bombing yesterday,” the Taliban said in an official statement released on its Arabic-language edition of Voice of Jihad.
Manan’s death was reported by the media office of provincial government of Helmand, which also claimed that two spokesmen “identified as Hafiz Rashid and Mullah Jawid – and his two guards” were also killed, according to ATN News.
The US military confirmed the strike in a short statement sent to FDD’s Long War Journal. “The strike today was part of the Afghan operational design to our military pressure on the Taliban,” Col. Dave Bulter, the spokesman for US Forces Afghanistan, said in a text.
Manan’s death took place just over one month after the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center designated him as one of six Taliban commanders who are working with Iran to destabilize and undermine the Afghan government. Manan has worked with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps – Qods Force since 2007. In this capacity he has “oversaw the logistics of lethal aid transfers from the IRGC-QF to the Taliban.” Additionally he has also “worked with Iran’s primary interlocutor with the Taliban to request supplies and coordinate lethal aid shipments.” [See LWJ report, US and partner nations seek to disrupt Iran-Taliban nexus.]
Manan, whose real name is Haji Mullah Mohammad Rahim, “struggled with courage and resilience against the occupying Americans and foiled plots and plans for the American generals,” the Taliban said in its announcement. “[W]ith his mastery and leadership, the Mujahideen managed to purge 95 percent of the territory of Helmand from the abomination of Americans and their agents.”
While the Taliban is exaggerating its control of Helmand, it is true that the group has made major inroads in Helmand province, which was the focus of the US surge from 2009 to 2013. Since 2014, when the bulk of US forces withdrew from Helmand, the Taliban has battled to eventually control seven on Helmand’s 14 districts, and contest the remaining seven.
The Taliban said that Manan’s death is “a great loss to the Islamic Emirate and the Muslim people,” but notes that “martyrdom is the wish of every Mujahid great or small.”
“Our determination will not weaken with the martyrdom of our elders,” the statement continued.
While this may seem like bluster, the Taliban has demonstrated that it has been able to effectively replace its field commanders and senior leaders who have either died of old age or have been killed in battle. For instance, the US killed Mullah Abdul Salam, the group’s shadow governor for Kunduz, in an airstrike in Feb. 2017. Salam masterminded the Taliban’s insurgency in the northern province and was responsible for successfully overrunning Kunduz City two times between 2015 and 2016. While the Taliban lamented Salam’s loss, his successor has maintained an effective insurgency in Kunduz, which remains one of the most unstable in Afghanistan.
The Taliban has even weathered the loss of its first two emirs, and has gained in strength despite these losses. After Mullah Omar died of natural causes in 2013, the Taliban hid his death from its followers and the world for two years before being forced to admit it. This caused the group to fracture, as some factions were upset that Omar’s death was hidden from them while Mullah Mansour issued statements in his name. Yet the Taliban reorganized under the leadership of Mansour and brought nearly every faction back into the fold, and intensified its insurgency at the same time.
After the US killed Mansour in a drone strike in Pakistan in 2016, the Taliban appointed Mullah Haibatullah Akhund to lead it, and the insurgency became even more deadly. Today, the Taliban contest or control nearly 60 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts and maintains the initiative in fighting throughout the country, according to a study by FDD’s Long War Journal.
The Taliban is lamenting the loss of Manan, but if history is any guide, it will be able to replace him with little problem.
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