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Taliban says ex-leader often visited United Arab Emirates, Iran

FILE - This Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015 file photo, shows Taliban leader Mullah Mansour. The Afghan Taliban said its former leader traveled frequently to the Middle East from Pakistan over the past decade to raise funds for an insurgency against U.S.-led forces, highlighting the ease with which the group was able to move around the region.

RAHMAT GUL/AP

By ELTAF NAJAFIZADA | Washington Post | Published: May 26, 2016

The Afghan Taliban said its former leader traveled frequently to the Middle East from Pakistan over the past decade to raise funds for an insurgency against U.S.-led forces, highlighting the ease with which the group was able to move around the region.

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike on Saturday, used a Pakistani passport to visit the United Arab Emirates, Zabihullah Mujahed, the Taliban's main spokesman, said by phone. Mansour had been on a United Nations no-fly list since 2001.

"He held meetings with Afghan businessmen and Islamic nations in the U.A.E. to discuss our Afghan holy war and raise funds for Taliban operations in Western-occupied Afghanistan," Mujahed said. He added that Mansour also traveled to neighboring Iran on "unofficial trips."

The claims may inflame a growing sense in the United States that its partners in the region are undermining American interests by either directly or indirectly supporting terrorism. This month the Senate defied Saudi Arabia in allowing Sept. 11 victims and their families to sue other countries for their role in the attacks, and the State Department said the U.S. wouldn't subsidize the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan.

They also help explain how the Taliban has managed to maintain a credible fighting force after the U.S. spent almost $700 billion and lost more than 2,200 troops since it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. President Barack Obama this week called Mansour's death "an important milestone" and urged Taliban members to join the reconciliation process.

The Taliban on Wednesday confirmed Mansour's death and named Maulavi Haibatullah Akhundzada as his successor. Akhundzada headed the judiciary during Taliban rule in the 1990s and was close to both Mansour and Mullah Omar, who founded the group.

Pakistan is conducting DNA tests on the man who died, foreign ministry spokesman Nafees Zakaria said. He identified the deceased person as Wali Mohammad and said he entered Pakistan in a hired taxi through a border crossing with Iran about five hours before he was killed.

"All indicators confirm that the person killed in the drone strike was Mullah Akhtar Mansour who was travelling on a fake identity," Sartaj Aziz, an adviser on foreign affairs to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, told reporters in Islamabad on Thursday.

Mansour used the alias Wali Mohammad to travel mainly from Karachi's international airport using a Pakistani passport over the past nine years, according to an Afghan security official, who asked not to be identified as the investigation is ongoing. Mansour went to Dubai 18 times and Bahrain once, the official said.

"Ongoing battle obligations" obliged Mansour to visit areas in Iran near its borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Mujahed, the Taliban spokesman. Iranian border police didn't recognize Mansour because he was carrying a passport under a different name, he said.

Representatives at the foreign ministries of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates didn't immediately respond to emailed questions on Mansour's travels. A public affairs official at Iran's foreign ministry didn't immediately respond to questions about Mansour's movements across the border. Offices in Iran were closed on Thursday for the weekend and calls weren't answered.

Earlier this week, Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari denied that Mansour had crossed its border before the strike.

"Iran welcomes every effort towards peace and stability in Afghanistan," he told reporters on Monday.

Afghan security agencies are investigating Mansour's international trips, according to Sayed Zafar Hashemi, the deputy spokesman to President Ashraf Ghani. He told reporters on Tuesday that he couldn't provide further information.

"His trips were likely to get funds from intelligence agencies there in exchange to keep their strategic interests and influence across our region," Ahmad Saeedi, a former Afghan diplomat to Pakistan, said by phone. "He might also have made tens of millions of dollars in cash from selling drugs there."

Prior to taking over as the Taliban's leader, Mansour was a prominent drug trafficker and was responsible for the Taliban's finances, Saeedi said. The Taliban primarily fund their insurgency through illegal mining of Afghan minerals, drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping and foreign donations, according to the Human Rights Commission of Afghanistan.

Pakistan has long been accused of harboring the Taliban's top leadership. It sees the group, which is predominately Pashtun and based in southern Afghanistan, as a counterbalance to ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks who are more aligned with India.

Mansour's death is a major blow to Pakistan and possibly also Iran, which may have forged links with the Taliban to undercut U.S. interests in the region, according to Waheed Muzhda, a former Foreign Ministry official in the Taliban regime who is now a political analyst in Kabul.

"Iran has always opposed the U.S. presence in Afghanistan," Muzhda said. "Iran may also have been behind the curtain to stab the U.S. in the back using Taliban militants."

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