The Taliban have confirmed that a U.S. strike killed its leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansur, on Saturday, and have already named a replacement, Hibatullah Akhundzada, whose title is mawlawi, which is similar to mullah, and who ran the Taliban court system.
In confirming the killing of Mansour in Pakistan, to which the country objected for the violation of its sovereignty, President Obama indicated that he hoped the move would bringing the Taliban back to on-again off-again regional peace talks.
"The Taliban should seize the opportunity to pursue the only real path for ending this long conflict—joining the Afghan government in a reconciliation process that leads to lasting peace and stability," the president said in a statement.
After the Taliban named Akhundzada its new leader, an audio recording was released purportedly of Akhundzada insisting the Taliban would not join "any type of peace talks." Reuters said the tape was given to them by two Taliban commanders, but they could confirm its authenticity. A spokesperson for the Taliban, who announced Akhundzada's selection as leader, denied the group had released an audio recording and said they were investigation who distributed it.
Nevertheless, Akhundzada is considered a hard-liner and his appointment was joined by two other promotions, those of Muhammad Yaqoob, the 20-something son of long-time Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who died at some point in the last few years, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, of the Haqqani network, a Taliban offshoot the U.S. recognizes as its own terrorist organization. There is a $10 million bounty offered by the State Department for Haqqani.
The new leadership appointments could signal a greater focus by the Taliban on targeting Western interests in Afghanistan, as one U.S. official told NBC News. The Taliban's spring offensive, which started last month, was met by desertions from the Afghan army ranks, with some joining the Taliban instead. Gains by the Taliban have led to a more aggressive role for remaining U.S. forces, including regular airstrikes against low-level insurgents.
As for peace talks, the Taliban refused to participate in the most recent round of talks organized by Pakistan—the group has said it would not come to the table while U.S. troops were deployed in Afghanistan and while the U.S. was conducting drone strikes there.
While President Obama announced an "end" to the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014, at least 9,000 troops will remain in the country through 2017, a deadline that has been repeatedly extended.
U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, as well as numerous other countries, fall under the jurisdiction of the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) passed after 9/11 to purse that terrorist attack's organizers and their "associated forces." A poll conducted back in 2010 found 92 percent of Afghans saying they'd never heard of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Efforts to either rescind the post-9/11 AUMF (or the 2002 AUMF that covered the Iraq war) have repeatedly failed, and while the president has asked for an AUMF specifically for the Islamic State (ISIS), he has not gotten it and insists the post-9/11 AUMF covers actions against the former Al-Qaeda affiliate-turned-dominant foe. The issue came up briefly in the nascent phase of the presidential campaign, but the best hopes of dealing with the legal authority for U.S. military action directed unilaterally by the executive comes in the form of the 45th president likely being highly unliked.