The United States has said the new Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, is not on its list of designated terrorists.
The surprise move came hours after Akhundzada rejected peace talks as a viable solution to bring an end to the insurgency and vowed to continue fighting.
“No, he’s not. You asked if he was on the designated terrorist (list), he’s not,” US state department deputy spokesperson Mark Toner told a news briefing.
Last week, a US drone killed Haibatullah’s predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in a remote area of Pakistan’s Balochistan region. On Monday, the Taliban elected their new chief.
“We would hope that he would seize the opportunity. He does have an opportunity in front of him to choose peace and to work towards a negotiated solution. We hope that he makes that choice now,” Toner said.
US President Barack Obama said in a statement that Mullah Mansour was killed because he had rejected efforts to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that took the lives of countless Afghan men, women and children.
Obama said Mullah Mansour’s death had created an opportunity for peace and 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.
When asked if another drone attack is in store for the new Taliban chief if he rejects the peace process, Toner said: “I’m not going to predict who we might target in the national security interests of the United States.”
Reports say that Akhundzada never assumed a combat role during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Akhundzada, a religious scholar, was a senior judge who had issued many of Taliban harsh verdicts.
Akhundzada went on to become the group’s “chief justice” before a US-led invasion toppled the Taliban government in 2001. He was a close ally of Mansour and was one of his two deputies.
He is said to have issued many of the group’s rulings on how Muslims should comply with the Taliban’s extreme interpretation of Islam.