Taliban shadow governor for Helmand killed in US airstrike

Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund. Image from the Taliban’s website, Voice of Jihad.

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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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13 Comments

  • irebukeu says:

    Say ‘mañana’ Manan.

  • Was this the airstrike that also killed all those civilians, mostly women and children??

    • Pete Wilde says:

      No. It killed Taliban fighters who were gathered to hear Akhund speak.

      Nice try though are trying to link it.

    • irebukeu says:

      Richard, It is so sad that the civilians are the ones who get played from both ends in this war, as in any war. A few Quotes of William Tecumseh Sherman come to mind. Not to play down the actual human tragedy of war and the innocent lives lost but these quotes represent sound logic in war. To find some balance in these three quotes will still result in civilians and little kids being killed.
      Quotes:
      “Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.”
      “This war differs from other wars, in this particular. We are not fighting armies but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.”
      “My aim then was to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and make them fear and dread us.”
      As a fan of history, my understanding of war is that it is so horrible, its consequences so wild and unforeseeable, that it should be avoided if at all possible.
      If not possible to avoid it, then it should be a full court press until the whistle blows or the enemy taps out.”War is hell”.
      Ok, four quotes.

    • Bill says:

      No, and people are careful.

      Drones lower the death toll, you can afford to be more careful when both sides are not at risk of death.

    • Steve says:

      I’m curious about this as well.

    • Steve says:

      Just did some quick googling, the one your thinking of took place a few days before this one in Lashkar Gah.

      //www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-airstrike/thirty-afghan-civilians-killed-in-us-air-strike-officials-say-idUSKCN1NX1N8

  • Nick Mastrovito says:

    Bravo! I’m sure that if this airstrike killed a bunch of women and children, they were, no doubt, related to this monster!

  • Moose says:

    You’re downplaying the fitna within the Taliban ranks after Omar’s death. About a thousand fighters died in the infighting, factions separated with many becoming IS-K, Mansour was set up by his own people, etc., etc.

    The only way to defeat an insurgency is to make it defeat itself. What happened after Omar’s death should be a model for COIN in Afghanistan. Divide-and-conquer.

    • Bill Roggio says:

      Not downplaying. My point is that despite this fitna (which really was related to HOW the Taliban handled Omar’s death, and not Omar’s death alone), the Taliban regrouped and continued its insurgency. The fracturing due to Omar’s death was difficult, but not insurmountable, or decisive. And I’d argue that Mansour’s death was net gain for the Taliban. It gave the current crop of Taliban leaders (I’m looking at you, Siraj Haqqani and Mullah Haibatullah) the opportunity to assert themselves, stamp out dissent, get better organized, and bring disaffected groups back into the fold.

      Additionally, IS-K formed before Omar’s death was officially recognized and realized by the Taliban leadership and rank & file. Without a doubt some moved to the IS-K ranks after Omar’s death was disclosed. But this was not a decisive blow to the Taliban either.

      At the end of the day, Omar & Mansour’s deaths did not impact the Taliban’s upward trajectory. The Taliban is stronger today than it was when Omar’s death was announced in 2015, and Mansour was killed one year later in May 2016.

      • Moose says:

        Thanks for responding. IS-K received thousands of new fighters, not just some. They didn’t conduct a major attack for a year as they consolidated these new groups and came raging back in mid-2016.

        There’s never going to be a decisive blow in this war. Fitna requires constant pressure through proxy groups, infiltration, targeted assassinations, fake news, etc. This occured by happenstance in this case, and we saw how effective it can be. This model needs to be replicated over and over to seriously crack the jihadist facade.

        Mansour’s death could have helped the Taliban, but we need to analyze it within a larger strategic framework.

        • James says:

          Hello Moose:

          I essentially agree with you on the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy but it has to be done right. With ISIS in the picture, the Taliban should be forced to fight this war on two fronts.

          What is critical I feel is how we can take control of and handle the opium trade. From our end of the pipeline, it’s a CIA strategy. From the European end, we may as well partner with InterPol. Here again, we attack the problem from two fronts.

          This is just a rough draft strategy.

      • James says:

        Bill, I especially agree with you on the assessment of Mansour’s elimination. Heck, the guy that replaced him is worse than he ever was. From what I understand here on LWJ, at least Mansour had some real and hard combat experience. The guy that replaced him got everything brainwashed into him through the madrassas.

        Then comes the twisted logic of why they eliminated Mansour. In the false hopes that he would be replaced with someone that would be more amenable to negogiation. That sure back-fired on them.

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