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Leadership Feud Could Fracture Afghan Taliban

FILE - An Afghan man reads a local newspaper carrying a headline about the new leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 1, 2015.
FILE - An Afghan man reads a local newspaper carrying a headline about the new leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 1, 2015.

The brother of the deceased Taliban leader Mullah Omar is speaking out about an internal power struggle that risks fragmenting the Afghan insurgency.

Within a few days of confirmation of the death of its long-time chief, Mullah Omar, the Taliban earlier this month declared that its leadership council elected Omar’s deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, as its new "commander of the faithful." Mansoor until then had been the head of the Taliban’s political and military affairs.

Shortly after that announcement, however, a group of senior Taliban leaders led by Omar’s family approached Afghan and international media to say they did not accept Mansoor’s leadership, and alleged he was not the choice of the council’s majority.

That group has since been campaigning to have Omar's brother, Mullah Abdul Manan, named his successor. Its spokesmen say a panel of prominent pro-Taliban clerics has been mediating between the rivals to resolve differences and is expected to issue an edict soon to settle the dispute.

Mansoor’s aides say there is no conflict over his leadership role, although they acknowledge a panel of religious leaders is trying to address the concerns of a few estranged Taliban leaders.

‘Sacred responsibility’

Speaking to VOA by telephone from an undisclosed Afghan location Wednesday, Manan warned Mansoor’s supporters against coercive tactics like issuing their own religious edicts against dissidents to gain their allegiance. He said the leadership crisis is the biggest issue facing the Taliban and until religious scholars announce their decision, both sides need to avoid confrontation.

Manan warned that “an attempt to use a religious edict to coerce the opposition into announcing allegiance to [Mansoor] will - God forbid - spark bloody infighting and Taliban fighters should not give credence to any such edict.”

He acknowledged Mansoor’s services as the head of the Taliban’s military and political affairs when Omar was alive. But Manan insisted that "leading the entire Taliban movement is an Afghan national sacred responsibility, and must be given to someone capable of carrying forward the mission and is elected by prominent scholars, mujahedin commanders and tribal elders."

Abdul Hai Mutmaeen, a Mansoor spokesman, says “95 percent” of members of the leadership council of the Taliban chose Mansoor to succeed Omar. Mutmaeen, who also served as a spokesman for Omar when the Taliban was in power in Afghanistan, told VOA that the late leader never wanted his family to play a role in the movement.

“Amir-ul Momineen (leader of the faithful) Mullah Mohammad Omar did not want to give any position to his family member as he never considered the Islamic Emirate (the Taliban) as a family entity. Those people who use the Amir-ul Momineen’s family name are insincere or not loyal to Mullah Omar’s family or his thoughts,” Mutmaeen said.

Defections to IS possible

Daniel Markey, an expert on Afghanistan at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, says the leadership crisis is significant. While Mullah Omar was alive, decision-making was limited to a few people.

Now, he says, "The number of Taliban who will think that they have a say in who should be his successor rose significantly, and probably exposes the kinds of frictions that reportedly had existed - for instance, between field commanders and those leaders who have been based inside of Pakistan or elsewhere. And those kinds of splits have been somewhat apparent over the years, but now they may be bursting out into the open."

Markey says the Taliban needs unified leadership to successfully wage war and claim to control territory. But even without a single leader, there can be continued fighting, making it hard for the Kabul government to consolidate control and stabilize the nation, especially since its NATO allies have reduced their troop deployments so sharply.

There also are worries that a fracturing of the Taliban could create smaller factions and regional commanders, with some possibly defecting to the self-declared Islamic State group, which is attempting to establish itself in Afghanistan. That would multiply security challenges for the war-ravaged nation and for its allies in NATO, including the United States.

Even as Taliban leaders wrangle for power, the group's fighters have seized a district headquarters in southern Helmand province. Fighters assaulted Musa Qala district earlier this week; provincial authorities said they asked for reinforcements, but none arrived, so Afghan security forces were forced to retreat.

In a separate incident in Helmand early Wednesday, NATO said two of its soldiers were killed when two individuals wearing the uniforms of local security forces opened fire on their vehicle at a military base. NATO says the shooters were killed in return fire and the attack is under investigation.