ATbar Mullah Akhtar Mansour the new leader of the Afghan Taliban
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Mullah Akhtar Mansour the new leader of the Afghan Taliban

04/08/2015 | by Shay, Shaul (Dr.)  

The Afghan Taliban confirmed the death of longtime founder and leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. The Taliban Supreme Council then appointed his successor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour as the Taliban's new commander. The leadership gathering was held outside of Quetta, Pakistan, where many Taliban leaders have been based.

Following Mansoor's election, the Taliban chose Sirajuddin Haqqani as its new deputy leader. Haqqani has a U.S. bounty of $10 million on his head as a leader of the brutal and extremist Haqqani network, which is allied with al-Qaeda. His election to the leadership of the Afghan Taliban confirms the group's ties to the Haqqani network, which has been accused of staging numerous cross-border attacks from its base in the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan, including a 19-hour siege at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in September 2011.[1]

On August 2, 2015, the Afghan Taliban issued a written statement quoting Haqqani, mourning the loss of Mullah Mohammad Omar, purportedly in an effort to quell rumors of his death. The statement did not include any audio of Haqqani speaking to prove he is alive.[2]

As a reminder of the threat posed by Taliban insurgents stepping up their campaign to overthrow the government, the Taliban captured a district in the southern province of Helmand that foreign troops struggled to secure for years. This appears to be a recurring trend as the Taliban has taken control of pockets of territory across the country since NATO withdrew most of its forces at the end of 2014, leaving the Afghan army and police to quell the violence. [3] Afghan government forces are experiencing a 50-percent increase in casualty rates. Roughly 4,100 Afghan soldiers and police were killed and 7,800 wounded in the first six months of this year.[4]

Kabul held talks last month with the Taliban in an attempt to work towards a peace process for the war-ravaged nation. About two weeks ago, after the initial round of talks, the Taliban published a statement made in Mullah Omar's name, urging jihad against foreign forces in Afghanistan but, most importantly, blessing peace talks.

“If we look into our religious regulations, we can find that meetings and even peaceful interactions with the enemies is not prohibited,” the Eid statement said. “It is our legitimate right to utilize all legal pathways.” [5]

The second round of talks that had been expected in Pakistan on July 31, 2015, was postponed following the announcement of the death of Mullah Omar and the resulting uncertainty.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is keen to pursue the peace process, and has the backing of Pakistan and China, but the Taliban leadership is divided over whether to take part. Opposing views on the peace process are tied closely to the power struggle over new leadership of the Taliban movement.[6]

On August 1, 2015, the new Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour called for unity in the movement in his first audio message. "We should all work to preserve unity, division in our ranks will only please our enemies, and cause further problems for us…….our goal and slogan is to implement sharia and an Islamic system, and our jihad will continue until this is done," he said in the message. The audio message from Mansoor also mentioned peace talks with the Afghan government, though it was not clear whether he supported them.[7]

The death of Mullah Muhammad Omar [8]

Mullah Omar was a military commander who formed the Taliban movement that had taken control over most of Afghanistan by 1996. More than just a military-man, he was also the spiritual leader of the movement, with the title of the “commander of the faithful.”

He has been a deeply influential figure well beyond the Taliban. Even Osama Bin Laden—who was Mullah Omar’s guest in pre-9/11 Afghanistan—reportedly expressed allegiance to Mullah Omar. Last year, al Qaeda renewed its oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar. [9]

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until they were overthrown in a U.S-led invasion in 2001. It is widely believed that Mullah Omar fled over the border to Pakistan, where he lived under Pakistani protection until his death.

Mullah Omar the founder and the leader of the Taliban had served as a unifying figure in the Taliban. He carried enormous prestige, something that helped hold together a movement that was defeated and dispersed in 2001 and lead to it eventually refashioning itself into an insurgency capable of fighting a 50-country-strong coalition. [10]

The U.S. had hunted Mullah Omar, who was on the U.S.’s list of most-wanted terrorists, along with Bin Laden, who was killed by U.S. Special Forces in 2011 in northern Pakistan.[11]

Mullah Omar was last seen in public in 2001, shortly after the U.S. drove him from power in Kabul. An audio recording attributed to him surfaced in 2007. After that, there were only sporadic communications in writing. But the Taliban said Mullah Omar remained in charge.[12]

The Taliban said that Mullah Omar's family had confirmed his death from an unspecified illness, though no time frame was given. In a statement emailed to media, the Taliban quoted Mullah Omar's brother and one of his sons as asking for forgiveness for "mistakes" he made at the helm of the militant group.

In the statement, Mullah Omar's family praised his dedication to jihad, holy war, against the U.S.-led coalition and said it was the "duty of all Muslims" to follow his example by establishing Sharia law in Afghanistan. They also maintained Mullah Omar never left Afghanistan after his government was toppled in 2001 — an assertion that contradicts the widespread belief that he fled to Pakistan, from where he led the insurgency for a number of years.

"During 14 years of jihad against the U.S., Mullah Omar never left Afghanistan for one day, even to go to Pakistan or to any other country," the statement said, adding that he remained in Afghanistan through two weeks of serious illness before passing away. No further details were provided.

The statement, issued in the name of Mullah Omar's brother, Mullah Abdul Manan, and his son, Mohammad Yaqub, came after the Afghan government announced that Mullah Omar had died more than two years ago in a Pakistani hospital.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, confirmed that Omar was dead. "For some time, (Omar) has been suffering a kind of sickness and over the last two weeks it became more serious, and due to that illness he passed away," Mujahid said, calling on Taliban commanders to hold prayers for him.[13]

Afghanistan had said Omar died in April, 2013 in a Pakistani hospital, but Pakistani officials could not confirm that.[14]

The new Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour.

Born in the southern province of Kandahar sometime in the early 1960s, Mansour was part of the movement from the start and has effectively been in charge since 2013, according to Taliban sources. Mansour spent part of his life in Pakistan, like the millions of Afghans who fled the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

He served as civil aviation minister in the Taliban government which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until it was ousted by the US-led invasion in 2001, when he fled again to Pakistan.

Mansoor has effectively commanded the movement for the three years since Mullah Omar's previous deputy and co-founder of the movement, Mullah Abdul Baradar, was arrested by Pakistani authorities. [15]

While Mansour was close to his predecessor, he does not have Omar's aura of religious authority though the Taliban announcement does confer upon him the title "leader of the faithful", by which Mullah Omar was also known.

He shies away from public appearances. The few pictures believed to be of him show a thick-set man with a dark beard and turban, characteristic of many officials in the senior Taliban cadre.

Mullah Akhtar Mansour has a reputation as a relative moderate who favors peace talks with the government. He recently sent a delegation to inaugural meetings with Afghan officials hosted by Pakistan, hailed as a breakthrough.

Observers say he has the respect of battlefield commanders and is behind the intensification of the war in recent months as a means of strengthening the Taliban's hand as it enters into a formal dialogue with Kabul.[16]

He has shown his ability to navigate between different currents in the Taliban movement, from the Quetta Shura to the "political office" in Qatar to commanders on the ground in Afghanistan, but his leadership already faces challenges to its legitimacy.

The internal disputes

Mullah Mansour has powerful rivals within the Taliban, notably battlefield commander Abdul Qayum Zakir, a former inmate of the U.S. prison in Cuba's Guantanamo Bay. Zakir is pushing for Mullah Omar's son Yaqoob to take over the movement, and a sizeable faction also supports Yaqoob.

Yaqoob and his uncle Abdul Manan, Omar's younger brother, were among several Taliban figures that walked out of leadership meeting held in the western Pakistani city of Quetta. "Actually, it wasn't a Taliban Leadership Council meeting. Mansoor had invited only members of his group to pave the way for his election and when Yaqoob and Manan noticed this, they left the meeting." said one of the sources, a senior member of Taliban in Quetta.[17]

Mullah Mansour's longstanding ties to Pakistan have led some Taliban leaders to suspect him of being little more than an "ISI puppet".[18]

Relations with Pakistan

Afghan Taliban leaders have long been offered sanctuary in Pakistan, especially since their regime in Afghanistan was toppled in 2001 by the U.S.-led military coalition. Pakistani government officials have denied offering support in recent years.

Opponents of Mansour criticize him for being too close to Pakistan's military, which has long been accused of supporting the Afghan insurgency to maintain regional influence.

Pakistan has pushed Taliban leaders based in its territory to negotiate with the new Afghan government at the request of ally China and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

But many Taliban, and some Afghan officials, fear the recent talks are a ploy by Pakistan to retain control. The Pakistanis deny that.

The challenge of ISIS

ISIS formally announced its presence in Afghanistan in January 2015, and ISIS supporters are battling Taliban forces in Nangarhar province.[19]

 The Islamic State stands to benefit from Mullah Omar’s death. The divisions within the Taliban organization threaten a formal split. They also provide an opening to rival Islamic State (ISIS) that has attracted renegade Taliban commanders in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Numerous Taliban militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan had already started affirming allegiance to Islamic State.

This month, two Afghan militant groups swore allegiance to Islamic State, and more could follow suit.[20]

Summary

Mullah Akhtar Mansour faces a huge challenge in trying to unite a movement that is already showing signs of fragmentation. Doubts about his legitimacy at the highest echelons of the Taliban will not bolster his position either.

The display of dissent within the group's secretive core is the clearest sign yet of the challenge Mansour faces in uniting a group already split over whether to fight the Afghan regime or pursue peace talks.

If Mullah Mansoor fails to appease Taliban fighters and field commanders on the ground, the ultimate beneficiary could be the Islamic State. The Taliban face the challenge of halting the expansion of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan, which has established a small foothold in Afghanistan already recruiting Taliban commanders and fighters.

Notes


[1] Lynne O'donnell and Kathy Gannon, Afghan Taliban confirm Mullah Omar's death, choose successor, AP, July 31, 2015.

[2] Afghan Taliban issues statement quoting Haqqani group leader ,ahramonline, August 2, 2015.

[3] Jibran Ahmad, Afghan Taliban name a new leader, but peace talks delayed, Reuters, July 30, 2015.

[4] Why Mullah Omar’s Death Could Be a Nightmare for Afghanistan, The Atlantic, July 30, 2015.

[5] Saeed Shah and Margherita Stancati, Taliban Name Chief as Peace Talks Are Canceled, The Wall Street Journal, July 30, 2015.

[6] Kay Johnson, Taliban disavows Afghan peace talks after leader declared dead, Al Jazeera, July 30, 2015.

[7] New Taliban leader calls for unity in ranks in first audio message, Ahramonline, August 1, 2015.

[8] Lynne O'donnell and Kathy Gannon, Afghan Taliban confirm Mullah Omar's death, choose successor, AP, July 31, 2015.

[9] Michael Kugelman, How Death of Taliban’s Mullah Omar Could Boost ISIS in Afghanistan ,The Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2015.

[10] Saeed Shah and Margherita Stancati, Taliban Name Chief as Peace Talks Are Canceled, The Wall Street Journal, July 30, 2015.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Jibran Ahmadת Afghan Taliban name a new leader, but peace talks delayed, Reuters, July 30, 2015.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Lynne O'donnell and Kathy Gannon, Afghan Taliban confirm Mullah Omar's death, choose successor, AP, July 31, 2015.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Jibran Ahmad, Exclusive: Walkout at Taliban leadership meeting raises specter of split, Reuters, July 31, 2015.

[18] Hashim Safi, Mullah Mansour, pragmatic heir to Taliban leadership, AFP, July 31, 2015.

[19] Michael Kugelman, How Death of Taliban’s Mullah Omar Could Boost ISIS in Afghanistan ,The Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2015.

[20] Jibran Ahmad, Exclusive: Walkout at Taliban leadership meeting raises specter of split, Reuters, July 31, 2015.