(AP/Rahmat Gul)

The Taliban is the most powerful insurgent group in Afghanistan, where an estimated 11,000 civilians were killed or wounded and 5,500 government troops and police officers died last year alone.

The US targeted and killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in an airstrike Saturday near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the Defense Department said.

Mansour and a second male combatant accompanying him in a vehicle were killed.

President Barack Obama authorized the attack, which occurred on the Pakistani side of the border, and was briefed before and after it was carried out, a White House aide said

The Afghan intelligence agency and a senior Taliban commander confirmed Mansour’s death.

Mansour was chosen to head the Afghan Taliban last summer after the death several years earlier of the organization’s founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, became public.

The Taliban is the most powerful insurgent group in the war-ravaged country, where an estimated 11,000 civilians were killed or wounded and 5,500 government troops and police officers died last year alone.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said Mansour has been “actively involved with planning attacks” across Afghanistan. He called Mansour “an obstacle to peace and reconciliation” between the Taliban and the Afghan government who has barred top Taliban officials from joining peace talks, which have produced few signs of progress.

Members of Congress lauded the attack. One lawmaker said Mansour’s death is a significant blow to the Taliban, though not enough to allow the US to disengage from a conflict that has involved thousands of US troops for nearly 15 years.

“We must remain vigilant and well-resourced in the field, and must continue to help create the conditions for a political solution,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain( R-AZ.) said he was glad Mansour “has met his just end” but urged stepped up coalition attacks on the Taliban.

“Our troops are in Afghanistan today for the same reason they deployed there in 2001 — to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for global terrorists,” McCain said.

Saturday’s attack was carried out by unmanned aircraft operated by American Special Operations Forces. The operation caused no other damage because it occurred in an isolated region.

Mansour, Mullah Omar’s longtime deputy, had been the Taliban’s de facto leader for years, according to the Afghan government.

His formal ascension was divisive in the Taliban, handing him the challenge of uniting a fractured — but still lethal — insurgency that has seen fighters desert for more extreme groups such as the Islamic State.

The Taliban seized power in 1996 and ruled Afghanistan according to a harsh interpretation of Islamic law until the group was toppled by a US-led invasion following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

Almost 15 years later, there are about 13,000 troops in the country from a US-NATO coalition, including around 9,800 Americans. While they are mostly focused on training and helping Afghan government forces battle the insurgency, about 3,000 of them are conducting counterterrorism operations against the Taliban and the al-Qaida and Islamic State (ISIS) terror groups.

Mansour is considered close to Pakistani authorities who hosted peace talks last year between the Taliban and Afghan government. His succession widened the internal split between fighters who want to use battlefield gains to strengthen the Taliban’s hand in negotiations with Kabul and those who want to continue the insurgency and ultimately overthrow the Afghan government. His death threatens to broaden the rift within the Taliban.

According to the Taliban, as Mullah Omar’s deputy, Mansour was effectively running the insurgency for the past three years and is said to have the loyalty of battlefield commanders who have intensified and spread their insurgency against Kabul in recent months.

By: AP and United with Israel Staff