Now what, Taliban?
Now that Mullah Omar has been officially declared dead, his successor has been named as Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. The Afghan government announced that Mullah Omar had expired more than two years back in a hospital in Karachi. The new Taliban leader has said that the jihad will continue until an Islamic system has been established in Afghanistan. He has called upon the Afghan Taliban to remain as unified as they were when the late Mullah Omar led them. These are testing times for the Taliban because they were engaged in peace talks until just recently with the Afghan government and Pakistan, the USA and China facilitated the process. It seems that the reality of Mullah Omar’s death has thrown a spanner in the works. The Afghan government obviously wished to scuttle the talks and got its National Directorate of Security (NDS) to release the information just days before the next round was about to begin. Mullah Mansour also seems to be apprehensive about the peace talks. This is despite the fact that he had ‘approved’ a historic face-to-face meeting in early July between delegations from the Taliban and the Afghan government. The meeting was being seen as crucial at the start of negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul. After Mullah Omar’s death was announced, the next round was summarily postponed. Hopes are still rife though for future contacts between the Taliban and the Afghan government while the Taliban continue to press for the setting up of an Islamic system in Kabul and Mullah Mansour is said to be the greatest proponent of this demand.
His selection as the new Taliban leader has broad backing. This includes the hard-line Haqqani wing, which is now reported to be in the top Taliban command structure. It is being reported that Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder and head of the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, backed Mullah Mansour but media reports now claim that the senior leader has also died and has been succeeded by his son. The Haqqani network is active in Pakistan's North Waziristan region that borders Afghanistan. The Operation Zarb-e-Azb launched by the Pakistani military has had vast successes in eliminating the network but it is believed North Waziristan is still being used by militants as a base to launch attacks on Afghan and international troops in Afghanistan. A few dissident voices have also emerged to claim that Mullah Mansour’s selection was the work of a small faction of his supporters and that a far larger gathering of Taliban leaders was necessary to select a new leader. The voices of dissent are said to be those of the mujahedeen, clerics and fighting commanders who were a part of the Islamic emirate for the past 20 years. It is also reported that the family of Mullah Omar, particularly his brother and son, are not happy with the appointment of Mullah Mansour though it is difficult to gauge how this will pan out in the future and impact the choice of the leader.
Born in the same southern province, Kandahar, as Mullah Omar, sometime in the early 1960s, Mansour was part of the Taliban movement from the start and was reported to be effectively in charge since 2013. Like the late Mullah Omar, Mansour is also shy of public exposure. He has spent a part of his life in Pakistan in the days after the Soviet invasion and has also served as minister for civil aviation in the Taliban government. He is described as a pragmatic who strongly favors dialogue with the government in Kabul in a bid to end the bloody war. Mansour is particularly recognized for 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. Mullah Yakoub, Mullah Omar’s son, was also backed by some commanders for a run as the new Taliban leader but was judged as being too young and inexperienced at 26. It must go to the credit of Mullah Mansour, however, that he was ready to step down as leader of the Taliban to prevent disunity from spreading. Mansour is sometimes described by analysts as among the Taliban’s more moderate leaders but what that means is unclear in the context of an insurgency that has been waged by the Taliban for more than a decade and has increasingly used suicide bombers. While Mansour was close to his predecessor, he does not have Omar’s aura of religious authority. The Taliban announcement also did not confer the title “Amirul Momineen” (leader of the faithful) on Mullah Mansour and this could create another dimension for the future of the Taliban.