“Who’s in Charge of the Taliban?”
Foreign Policy, July 29, 2015
“Two days before the second official meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban is scheduled to take place, fresh rumors 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 double 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? 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. … 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. … 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.”
Quickie analysis: An interesting portrait of a man who just became a lot more important to the rest of the world.