By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 24, 2006 1:18 PM
A top Taliban leader and close associate of Osama bin Laden has been killed in a U.S. airstrike in southern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border, the U.S. military said in a statement yesterday.
Akhtar Mohammad Osmani was traveling in a deserted area of Helmand province on Tuesday when his vehicle was struck, immediately killing him and two unidentified people, the U.S. military said. Osmani was described as the highest-ranking member of the Taliban killed since late 2001.
"Osmani was in the top ring of the Taliban leadership, and he was also a close associate of Osama bin Laden," said Col. Tom Collins, a U.S. military spokesman. Collins said Osmani also had close ties to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Afghan militia leader once allied with the United States who is now an anti-American fugitive.
The Taliban denied that Osmani had been killed. "He is not present in the area where American forces are claiming to have killed him," commander Mullah Hayat Khan told the Reuters news service by telephone.
Forensic analysis and other information enabled the U.S. military to verify that Osmani was killed in the airstrike, a military spokesman said today, the Associated Press reported..
The military is "very sure" it killed Osmani although it can't provide visual proof as his body was "obliterated" in Tuesday's attack on a vehicle traveling through Helmand province, said Collins. He was identified through forensic analysis, but not through DNA tests, Collins said. The type of analysis was classified information.
"He was hit by a precision air strike. The vehicle was destroyed and all the occupants were obliterated," Collins said, the AP reported. "We checked various sources, and we are very, very sure it was him in that vehicle."
Qatar-based satellite channel al-Jazeera also said that sources close to the Taliban confirmed to its correspondent in Islamabad that Osmani was killed, according to the AP.
U.S. military officials in Kabul, the Afghan capital, said Osmani had been operating on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border. Afghan officials have complained for months that senior Taliban insurgents are able to move freely in parts of Pakistan's border regions, but the government of Pakistan has denied the assertions, insisting that the Taliban is based in Afghanistan and that the Afghan government should control its own borders.
In an interview in his Washington office last week, Mohammed Ali Durrani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, repeated this assertion, saying the Afghan government had not done enough to stop the revived insurgency.
"Ten percent of the problem is in Pakistan, and 90 percent of it is in Afghanistan," Durrani said. "We are doing our best, and we are doing more than anyone else in the region to stop terrorism and solve the problems on our side of the border. Our question is, what the hell is everyone doing on the other side? Why is Pakistan being constantly blamed?"
Osmani's reported death could put a major dent in Taliban operations in Helmand province, a vast, dry region where the insurgents have been able to operate freely in the lawless and cash-rich environment created by the heavy presence of opium poppy cultivation and drug trafficking.
The province has become increasingly engulfed in violence despite aggressive combat operations by British troops based there. On Dec. 12, a suicide bomber attempted to assassinate the governor in his compound, killing six policemen and two civilians. In an effort to stem the bloodshed, NATO agreed to a peace pact with Taliban leaders in one district of Helmand in September, but insurgent attacks surged elsewhere in the province.
During the Taliban's rule from 1996 to 2001, Osmani was known as one of its most influential, hard-line Islamic ideologues. This made it especially ironic that in recent months he was commanding insurgent operations in Helmand, where the Taliban once banned opium growing as un-Islamic. Since the Taliban was ousted, Helmand has become the country's top producer of opium poppies.
Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of the book "Taliban," told the Associated Press that Osmani was also instrumental in some of the Taliban's most notorious actions, including the demolition of the ancient Buddha statues in Bamian and the trial of Christian aid workers, both of which occurred in 2001, several months before the Taliban was toppled by U.S.-led forces. The aid workers were rescued by U.S. Special Forces.