KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The Taliban’s most senior commander in southern Afghanistan was killed in an American airstrike, the insurgent group and Afghan and American officials said on Sunday.
The commander, Mullah Abdul Manan, had orchestrated the insurgents’ campaign to take over much of Helmand Province. He was also believed to be a key figure in developing the Taliban’s special forces, the Red Unit, which have carried out deadly attacks across the country.
Mullah Manan, Taliban shadow governor for Helmand province was one key Taliban strategist in southern Afghanistan. He was also right hand of mullah Mansoor. During his time for the first time red unit was formed in Helmand which later copied across Afghanistan by Taliban.
— Rahmatullah Amiri (@rahmat_amiri) December 2, 2018
The Taliban described the death of Mullah Manan, who was born Mullah Mohammad Rahim, as a great loss, but insisted that it would not affect the group’s momentum.
“The Taliban should consider intensifying peace talks, not the fight,” Sgt. First Class Debra Richardson, a spokeswoman for the United States forces in Afghanistan, said, confirming that Mullah Manan had been killed by an American airstrike.
“They’re going to have trouble intensifying the fight when their fighters and leaders are under constant assault. Peace talks are the only solution,” she added.
Bashir Ahmad Shakir, who until recently was the head of the security committee at Helmand’s provincial council, described Mullah Manan as a “fighting machine.”
“He was a tough and a good manager of the battlefield,” Mr. Shakir said. “I remember there were times where he would engage the Afghan forces in 12 different places in Helmand simultaneously.”
Mullah Manan’s death comes as the Taliban are pushing for further gains in the south, following the assassination of the general leading the government’s defenses there. Gen. Abdul Raziq, the police chief of Kandahar Province and a major anti-Taliban bulwark, was gunned down in an attack last month that barely missed the top American commander, Gen. Austin S. Miller.
The violence remains unabated even as American diplomats push to persuade the group to join formal negotiations. Led by Zalmay Khalilzad, a special envoy for Afghan peace efforts, American delegations have met repeatedly with the group in Qatar, where the Taliban keep a political delegation.
American officials have expressed optimism, but the Taliban have yet to show willingness to meet with the Afghan government and have promised to continue their attacks.
“The political efforts of the Islamic Emirate for the withdrawal of American invaders should not be misconstrued as meaning that the American invaders will not be targeted militarily or that withdrawing and not withdrawing from Afghanistan are options chosen by American Generals,” the Taliban said in a statement.
Separately on Sunday, the Taliban kidnapped 60 trucks with drivers and their assistants in northern Afghanistan for not paying taxes. The insurgents have increased their efforts in recent years to tax Afghan businesses, and even to collect electricity bills in areas under their control.
The kidnappings took place in the Dara-i-Suf Payin district of Samangan Province, where trucks were transferring coal from the biggest coal mine in the country.
Abdul Yaqin Ahmadi, the governor of Dara-i-Suf Payin, said that tribal elders had negotiated the release of the 60 assistants, but that the drivers and trucks remained in Taliban custody. About 300 trucks transport coal from the area daily.
Last December, the Taliban burned several trucks and abducted their drivers when they refused to pay taxes.
“The Taliban asked these drivers to pay them $100 tax on each truck, which they didn’t,” Mr. Ahmadi said.