Afghan Taliban on Wednesday named Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s successor as the group confirmed the late chief was killed in a US drone strike in Balochistan.
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan announces that Mullah Akhtar Mansour embraced shahadat in a US drone strike on Shaban 14, in the border region near Kandahar’s Registan and Balochistan’s Naushki area,” a statement from the Taliban read.
While confirming his death, the group also announced Mullah Mansour’s successor. “Maulvi Haibatullah Akhunzada has been appointed the new chief of the group,” a Taliban statement said.
Sirajuddin Haqqani and Maulvi Yakub have been appointed as deputy chiefs of the group.
Afghan Taliban leader Mansour, who according to US officials was killed in a drone strike, took over as head of the insurgent movement last July following the revelation that the group’s founder Mullah Omar had been dead for two years.
However, Taliban failed to confirm the leader’s death. The group was issuing routine statements about spring offensive but did not deny or confirm the Pentagon’s claim.
Who was Mullah Akhtar Mansour?
For some Mansour was the obvious choice to succeed Mullah Omar, the one-eyed warrior-cleric who led the Taliban from its rise in the chaos of the Afghan civil war of the 1990s.
Born in the same southern province, Kandahar, some time in the early 1960s, Mansour was part of the movement from the start and effectively in charge since 2013, according to Taliban sources.
Mansour spent part of his life in Pakistan, like millions of Afghans who fled the Soviet occupation.
There he reportedly developed links with the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, which nurtured the Taliban in the 1990s and even now is regularly accused of fuelling the insurgency.
He served as civil aviation minister in the Taliban government which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until it was ousted by the US-led invasion in 2001, when he fled again to Pakistan.
He repeatedly showed a canny ability to navigate between different currents in the Taliban movement, from the Quetta Shura to the “political office” in Qatar to commanders on the ground in Afghanistan.
But his leadership got off to a rocky start.
Election of a new leader
The election of a new leader took time as the Rahbari Shura wanted to evolve a ‘broad-based consensus’ to avoid any controversy, said the Taliban leaders.
“At least seven members of the Rahbari Shura gathered at an [undisclosed] location on Tuesday to continue consultations. The other members who couldn’t join them were also consulted,” one Taliban leader, who attended the meeting, confided to The Express Tribune. He requested not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
“Members of the Haqqani network and some senior leaders who were previously associated with the Hizb-e-Islami (Younas Khalis group) and now support the Taliban gave their input during the meeting,” he added.
“This time, the Taliban leaders are very cautious. They want to avoid a controversy like the one that had surfaced over Mansoor’s election. I was among the nearly 50 Taliban who have been contacted to share opinion,” according to one commander.
The list of names for possible replacement of Mansoor was not long. The top contenders included Mullah Yaqoob, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Maulvi Haibatullah.
Mullah Yaqoob: He is the elder son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar. He has emerged as the ‘most likely’ choice to replace Mansoor because he enjoys more support than the other figures on the list, according to Taliban commanders.
Sirajuddin Haqqani: He is known as Khalifa among the Taliban. Some commanders say the Kandahari Taliban would prefer Yaqoob over Khalifa as they had been dominant since Mullah Omar had launched the movement in Kandahar in the early 90s. Majority of the Taliban founding members, including Mullah Omar and Mansoor, belonged to Kandahar. Later people from other areas joined the Taliban. The impression about the Haqqani network at the international level will also force the Taliban leaders to think many times before endorsing Sirajuddin for the top slot.
Maulvi Haibatullah: He is the second deputy in the Taliban hierarchy. He is among the favourits because of his religious background. He runs a madrassa and many Taliban fighters consider him as their teacher. He had also served in the judiciary during the Taliban regime in Nangarhar and Kandahar, according to a Taliban leader.
There was also a suggestion to pick out a lesser known commander to replace Mansoor to minimise possible threats to his life. The US drone campaign would remain a threat to known Taliban leaders and this situation could affect their activities. However, some believed the appointment of a lesser known or unknown person could trigger differences.
QUESTIONS OVER PEACE TALKS
Senior members of the insurgent group had been keenly aware of the need to appoint a candidate who could bring disparate factions together and repair the splits that emerged last year when Mansour was appointed.
However, there was no immediate indication of whether the appointment would lead to a shift in the stance of the Taliban, which under Mansour ruled out participating in peace talks with the government in Kabul.
A spokesman for Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah called on the new Taliban leader to join talks, or face dire consequences. “We invite Mula #Haibatullah to peace. Political settlement is the only option for #Taliban or new leadership will face the fate of #Mansoor,” spokesman Javid Faisal said in a tweet.
The United States, Pakistan and China have also been trying to get the militants to the negotiating table to end a conflict that has killed thousands of civilians and security personnel and left Afghanistan seriously unstable.
News of the appointment came as a suicide attack on a bus carrying staff from an appeal court killed 10 people and wounded four west of the Afghan capital, Kabul. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
The Taliban have made big gains since NATO forces ended their main combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014, and now control more of the country than at any time since they were ousted by US-led forces in 2001.
Mansour, a former deputy to Omar named as leader after the Taliban announced that Omar had died more than two years earlier, faced widespread suspicions that he had deceived the movement by covering up his predecessor’s death.