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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — In the hours before he was killed in an American drone strike, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, then the Taliban leader, knew something was wrong.
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 is 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.”
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.
His account offered previously unreported insights into the final hours of Mullah Mansour’s life, and why and how he was killed, revealing a dangerously widening rift with his Pakistani sponsors.
The account was complemented and supported in interviews with two senior Afghan officials who have conducted their own investigations into the Taliban leader’s death — Haji Agha Lalai, presidential adviser and deputy governor of Kandahar; and Gen. Abdul Raziq, the police chief of Kandahar Province.
More than a year after the event, 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.
“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 his 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. “But 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.
He relied on Pakistan’s Intelligence Service and donors from Arab gulf states, as well as Afghan drug lords, for the main financing of 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.
Mullah Mansour’s outreach to Iran was also aimed at getting the Taliban out from under Pakistan’s thumb, according to his former associate and Afghan officials, so he could maneuver to run the war, but also negotiate peace, on his own terms. That was where his differences with Pakistan had grown sharpest.
Mullah 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 hard-line 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, in order to own the Afghan nationalist cause and loosen Pakistan’s control over the insurgency.
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.
“Ten days before he was killed he sent messages to villages and to commanders asking them to share their views on peace talks,” said General Raziq, the police chief of Kandahar Province, a fierce opponent of the Taliban, who knows the movement well.
He says that Mullah Mansour was looking for new protectors as his disagreements with Pakistan were growing.
“There were reports that he may have wanted to escape,” General Raziq said. “We knew one month before that Mansour was ready to make peace.”
General Raziq also said Mullah Mansour feared assassination by Pakistan. “He told his relatives that ‘relations with Pakistan were very bad and they might kill me.’”
The day he was killed, Mullah Mansour was alone.
The trip to and from Iran was one he had taken before. He always traveled on a Pakistani passport, under a fake name, with the full knowledge of Pakistani intelligence.
His fake identity, Muhammad Wali, was known in intelligence circles, according to a former Afghan intelligence chief, who did not want to be identified while discussing sensitive aspects of relations with neighboring countries.
This time, however, unusually, when Mullah Mansour reached the Pakistani side of the border with Iran, 300 extra guards were posted at the crossing and along the highway. Mullah Mansour was detained inside the border post.
He emerged after two hours, and climbed into a taxi about 9 a.m. for the eight-hour drive to Quetta. Traveling alone in an ordinary taxi was typical of the Taliban leader: low-profile, but at the same time casually confident in a familiar terrain.
The Taliban had freedom of movement in the border regions with the tacit agreement of Pakistani security forces, the former Taliban commander explained. Anyone armed with a Kalashnikov, or just a walkie-talkie, could pass where ordinary civilians could not, he said.
But his reception at the border had worried Mullah Mansour.
He called his brother and spoke to him and family members for 45 minutes, the former Taliban commander said. He also called a close friend in Quetta and asked him to go around to his brother’s house with a message to expect guests that night.
He was doing what is known in Islamic Law as “wasiyat,” passing on his last wishes and taking leave.
“He was very worried about his safety,” said Mr. Lalai, the Afghan presidential adviser, who also knew of the long telephone call. “He had a conversation with his family and he gave last instructions to educate his children, on his money, most of the talk was instructions in the case of his death.”
Six hours into the journey, near the small town of Ahmad Wal, where the road runs just 20 miles from the Afghan border, Hellfire missiles fired by an American drone tore into the car, first hitting the front and then striking the body.
Workers farming watermelons nearby rushed to the burning wreck and shoveled dirt on the flames but could not save the men inside, General Raziq said.
Members of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps arrived suspiciously fast.
“His car was followed,” said General Raziq, who conducted his own investigation into the strike. “The Frontier Corps were following him, and within five minutes of him being hit they reached him, with the media.”
The Pakistani police showed journalists Mullah Mansour’s passport, undamaged, beside the charred wreck. Afghan officials and Western security analysts say it was most likely planted there after the blast since everything else was burned beyond recognition.
For many in the Taliban, Mullah Mansour’s death represented a devastating betrayal by their longtime patron and sponsor, Pakistan, that has split and demoralized the ranks.
About two dozen senior commanders from Mullah Mansour’s Pashtun tribe have defected to the Afghan government or moved into Afghanistan in fear of further retribution from Pakistan.
The Taliban commander compared the strike with Pakistan’s detention of senior Taliban commanders who dared to reach out to the Kabul government, like Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was detained in a joint United States-Pakistani raid in 2010. American officials welcomed his detention but later it emerged that he had been supporting peace overtures with Kabul.
The strike against Mansour was the first time a top Afghan Taliban leader had been killed inside Pakistan, which has provided a sanctuary for Taliban leaders throughout their 16-year insurgency against Afghanistan.
At the time, President Obama and other American officials and diplomats expressed satisfaction.
“He was a prime target for the Americans and the Afghan government,” General Raziq said. “He was a terrorist.”