KANDAHAR: By subduing dissidents and eliminating rivals, Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor is rapidly consolidating his authority over the fractious Afghan insurgent movement as it prepares for "decisive" battles in its upcoming spring offensive.
Mansoor was declared Taliban leader last summer after the announcement of long-term chief Mullah Omar's death, but many top commanders refused to pledge their loyalty alleging that he rigged the hastily organised selection process.
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Despite the infighting, the group saw a new resurgence under the firebrand supremo last year with striking military victories. Analysts predict that this year's offensive, expected to start this month, will be on a bigger scale.
"Let's prepare for decisive strikes against the enemy purely for the sake of Allah with strong determination and high spirits," Mansoor told his followers in a recent message posted on the Taliban website.
Ahead of the offensive, Mansoor has been rooting out the last vestiges of opposition to his leadership, buying the support of rebellious commanders, quashing renegade groups and luring dissidents with leadership positions, militant sources say.
The Taliban recently announced that two of the most influential dissenters -- Mullah Abdul Manan, a brother of Mullah Omar and the deceased leader's son, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoub -- will be given posts in Quetta Shura, the Taliban's leadership council.
Last week another vocal critic, Mullah Qayum Zakir, pledged his loyalty to Mansoor.
Mullah Dadullah, a prominent dissident commander, was killed last year in a gunfight with Mansour loyalists.
"It's quite clear that Mullah Mansoor is putting his power consolidation strategy into overdrive," Michael Kugelman, an Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based think tank the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told AFP.
"Mansoor understands that the time is ripe to do all he can to eliminate what is arguably the Taliban's greatest weakness -- its internal power struggles."
'Fearsome and ferocious'
New Taliban military gains in recent months have helped cement Mansour's authority by burnishing his credentials as a commander.
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His resurgent group has opened new battlefronts across Afghanistan with local forces struggling to beat back the expanding insurgency.
They briefly captured the strategic northern city of Kunduz in September in their most spectacular victory in 14 years and southern opium-rich Helmand province is almost entirely under insurgent control.
"Mansoor is preparing for a major military push, more spectacular victories against the government this year," Mullah Qasem, a retired Taliban commander in Helmand, told AFP.
A senior Quetta Shura source told AFP that Mansoor is mobilising fighters for major offensives in up to six provinces.
"Once he emerges victorious, not many commanders will dare to question his authority," Qasem said.
Afghan forces face their second summer fighting season without the full support of NATO, which ended its combat mission in December 2014.
Afghanistan has actively courted the Nato-led coalition to delay a planned drawdown of nearly 13,000 troops stationed in the country and maintain its air power and military support.
Nato faces growing pressure from within to expand its military role as Afghan forces struggle with high casualties and desertions and as efforts to restart Taliban peace talks falter.
"This will be a very tough year for Afghan forces, beset by mismanagement and corruption," Kabul-based military analyst Atiqullah Amarkhil told AFP.
"The morale of Taliban fighters is high, whereas Afghan forces are fighting for survival."
If Mansour comprehensively manages to quell internal rifts, the Taliban could emerge as a more "fearsome and ferocious fighting force", said Kugelman.
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"But it's quite a tall order to expect Mansour to conclusively shore up his power and completely unify a fractured organisation," he added.
"There will always be rejectionists. The question is how much of a threat such players will continue to pose, even amid Mansour's rigorous power consolidation efforts."