If Mullah Mohammad Omar is dead, who will lead the Taliban now?

An FBI wanted poster for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. Photo: FBIPaul McGeough: Are the Taliban becoming yesterday’s men?

Even before word of Mullah Mohammad Omar’s death, questions about who actually controls the Taliban existed.

Though the Taliban’s leadership structure is purposely oblique, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour has long been seen as the insurgency’s second-in-command. Whatever Omar’s current status may be, Mansour has been making more day-to-day decisions and had more non-symbolic power than anyone else in the movement.

More importantly, he has maintained working relations with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), something that separates him from the “Taliban Five”, the former Guantanamo Bay detainees released in a prisoner exchange and currently residing in Doha, Qatar.

Mansour was born and raised in the poppy-rich river valley of Band-e-Timor, the very same area of central Kandahar province where Omar first mobilised what was to become the Taliban and from which a disproportionate number of the Taliban’s leadership has traditionally hailed.

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 religious seminary outside Peshawar known as “Jihad U”  due to the number of extremists it matriculated over the years.

By 1993, Mansour had moved south to the Pakistani province of Balochistan, which borders Kandahar and where a good deal of the Taliban’s leadership-in-exile has long resided. Mansour played an early key role in linking Omar to Pakistan’s ISI, a connection that sustains the movement to this day. When the Taliban took control of Kandahar in 1994, Mansour was made minister of civil aviation. Residents of his native Kandahar recount stories, perhaps apocryphal, of Mansour transporting opium in Taliban helicopters from the fields of Band-e-Timor to smugglers’ dens along Afghanistan’s southern border.

When the Taliban collapsed in 2001, Mansour fled back to Balochistan after briefly serving as one of Mullah Omar’s representatives in last-minute talks with the CIA.

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. He is also one of the individuals to have benefited from the US surge in 2010-11. As one analyst from Kandahar notes in an interview: “More than anyone else, Mansour has benefited from the leadership vacuum that opened up after the US started to take a lot of the Taliban commanders out . . . Mansour remained safe in Pakistan and he was able to expand his network and powerbase, even though he had never really been a military commander per se.”

As late as 2012, Mansour was seen as a hardliner among Taliban leaders, opposing any talks with Afghan president 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 organised insurgent force 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 reinstated. By early 2015, however, the two were reportedly at odds again.

Mansour’s moderation could be read as a clear indicator that Pakistan’s calculus has changed. The fact that the first and second rounds of peace talks will be held in the Pakistani resort town of Murree also plays to Mansour – and Pakistan’s – strength, particularly as regards the Doha-based leadership.

Yet far more than al-Qaeda, and perhaps even more than Islamic State, the various competing interests inside the Taliban have remained nominally united due to the belief that Omar is the commander of the faithful, a title that traditionally belongs to Islam’s caliphs.

Mansour may have important friends in Pakistan but he lacks this status, and on the eve of negotiations, the Taliban seem closer than ever to splitting wide open.

Foreign Policy

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