“The Taliban seem closer than ever to splitting wide open”

A  piece asks about the future of Taliban leadership, “Two days before the second official meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban is scheduled to take place, fresh rumours are swirling that Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has been dead for two years, killed either in an internal power struggle or from tuberculosis. Even before word of the reclusive leader’s unconfirmed death, speculation of his demise and questions about who actually controls the movement have persisted since shortly after his escape from Kandahar in late 2001 — no doubt fueled by the fact that he has appeared in public only a handful of times, even during his rule over Afghanistan in the 1990s. With talks (hopefully) less than 48 hours away, the question now more than ever is: Who leads the Taliban?”

The writer goes on to note “Though the Taliban’s leadership structure is purposely oblique, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour has long been seen as the insurgency’s second-in-command. Setting aside whatever Omar’s current physical condition may be, Mansour has been making more day-to-day decisions and had more non-symbolic power than anyone else in the movement. He arguably has greater influence on the Taliban shadow government operating inside Afghanistan than any other Taliban leader. More importantly, he has maintained working relations with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), something that separates him from the “Taliban Five,” the former Guantánamo Bay detainees released in a prisoner exchange and currently residing in Doha, Qatar”.

The piece goes on to mention that “Like many Afghans, Mansour grew up in Pakistan during the communist and mujahideen governments of the 1980s and early 1990s, earning a degree from Darul Uloom Haqqania, a madrasa outside of Peshawar known as “Jihad U” and the “University of Holy War” due to the number of extremists it matriculated over the years. By 1993, Mansour had moved southward to the Pakistani province of Balochistan, which borders Kandahar and from where a good deal of the Taliban’s leadership-in-exile has long resided. From his position in Balochistan, Mansour played an early key role in linking Omar to Pakistan’s ISI, a connection that sustains the movement to this day”.

Worryingly for the ongoing, though nascent peace talks in Afghanistan “While other Taliban leaders have been imprisoned or put under house arrest by Pakistani authorities, Mansour remains a favoured son in large part because he has remained in step with ISI policy and has often served as a link between the Haqqani network of Waziristan and the Afghan Taliban of Balochistan”.

Importantly the article note “As late as 2012, Mansour was seen as a hardliner among Taliban leaders, opposing any talks with Hamid Karzai’s government. From about 2013 onward, his position appears to have changed, putting him directly at odds with Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a Taliban military leader from northern Helmand who has for years commanded arguably the largest organized insurgent front inside Afghanistan. Throughout 2014, Mansour and Zakir bickered over the direction of the movement, with Zakir adopting a hard line and eventually being sacked, only to be re-instated after a reconciliation involving a few slaughtered goats and hearty man hugs. By early 2015, however, the two “frenemies” were reportedly at odds again. The most recent news reports of Omar’s death also speculate that Mansour and Omar’s son are involved in a fight for control”.

It concludes “Given his historically close ties with Pakistan, Mansour’s moderation could be read as a clear indicator that Pakistan’s calculus has indeed changed. The fact that the first and second rounds of peace talks will be held in the Pakistani resort town of Murree, which until now was mostly known as a nice day trip from Islamabad and for its brewery, also plays to Mansour — and Pakistan’s — strength, particularly as regards the Doha-based leadership. For all the things that Mansour may be, he is definitely not Mullah Omar. Far more than al Qaeda, and perhaps even more than the Islamic State, the various competing interests inside the Taliban have remained nominally united due to the belief that Omar is the amir ul momineen (leader of the faithful). Omar’s spiritual status has long been the only thing holding the Taliban together. Mansour may have important friends in Pakistan but he is no leader of the faithful, and on the eve of negotiations, the Taliban seem closer than ever to splitting wide open”.

In some ways this will make talks harder but in the long term it could bury the Taliban and their “ideals”.

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