6 August 2015

Taliban Leadership Struggle Sows Confusion Amongst Movement’s Fighters Inside Afghanistan

Margherita Stancati and Habib Khan Totakhil
August 4, 2015

Taliban Leadership Rift Seeps Down to Fighters

KABUL—A power struggle has emerged within Afghanistan’s Taliban following the death of their supreme commander, causing confusion among foot soldiers and sowing fears that some might defect to Islamic State.

Just a few people within the Taliban knew of Mullah Mohammad Omar’s death until it was revealed with certainty last week, first by the Afghan government, which said it occurred in April 2013, and a day later by the Taliban. For years, the movement’s leadership continued to issue orders and statements in the name of their deceased founder.

Now the costs of that coverup are starting to become clear.

“Most ordinary Taliban feel like they’ve been deceived by their leaders,” said a Taliban commander in the eastern Afghan province of Khost. “We were kept in dark, and now we don’t know who to follow.”

The commander added that “disagreements between senior leaders are further discouraging fighters,” many of whom say they are tired of war after 14 years.

Divisions within the Taliban leadership could open the way for Islamic State to gain more ground in Afghanistan, where it has a limited presence. This year, the extremist movement has stepped up efforts to establish a foothold in the country, launching a recruitment campaign that has attracted some disaffected Taliban.

U.S. officials are closely watching the situation.

“Mullah Omar’s death could present opportunities for other terrorist organizations to recruit disenchanted Taliban members, create splinter groups who may seek peace settlements with the Afghanistan government, or possibly incentivize the Taliban to continue [their] fighting efforts,” a U.S. intelligence official said. 

The Afghan Taliban are considered less extreme than Islamic State, and their stated goal is limited to returning to power in Afghanistan, rather than waging global jihad.

“There was a moral obligation to be loyal to Mullah Omar that is no longer there,” said a foreign diplomat briefed on intelligence matters. His death “will speed up defections to Islamic State.”

A senior Afghan security official said the uncertainty is beginning to have an impact on the battlefield.

“There is chaos and confusion not only among the Taliban’s top leadership, but also among the ordinary fighters,” said the official. “The Taliban’s internal disagreements are distracting them from the fighting.”

He said Afghanistan’s south, the Taliban’s traditional stronghold, has been relatively quiet in recent days. Most of the fighting is happening in the country’s north and east, where other extremist groups—the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and a group affiliated with Islamic State, respectively—are responsible for much of the violence, he added.

For years, the reality and myth of Mullah Omar—revered by the Taliban as their spiritual father—kept the movement united as its fighters waged an insurgency against the U.S.-led military coalition and its Afghan allies. But the Taliban’s admission last week that Mullah Omar was dead, and the public bickering over his succession, is testing a movement that is divided over possible peace talkswith the Kabul government.

Senior Taliban are split over who should inherit Mullah Omar’s mantle. Some are backing Mullah Omar’s longtime deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who on Thursday was formally introduced as the new Amir Ul Mumineen, or “commander of the faithful.”

But others, including Mullah Omar’s close relatives and some members of the Taliban’s leadership council, have rejected Mullah Mansour’s claim to the top job through statements and interviews—an unusually public display of dissent.

Underscoring the discord, the head of the Taliban’s Qatar-based political commission, Tayeb Agha, resigned on Monday, a person briefed by members of the commission said, putting another potential obstacle in the way of peace talks.

News of Mullah Omar’s death—as well as splits among Taliban leaders—has also seeped into the Taliban’s rank and file.

“The commander of the faithful was a unifying figure for us all, and it will be difficult for someone to replace him,” said Ayobi, a Taliban commander from Kunar. “The news of disagreements between our leaders is upsetting…but we believe they will resolve their differences.”

The Taliban’s communications branch, which mostly reflects the point of view of Mullah Mansour, has rejected reports of discord, dismissing them as a conspiracy of their enemy. It released a statement and a video to show that a large number of Taliban have pledged allegiance to Mullah Mansour.

In his first public statement since his apparent appointment on Saturday, Mullah Mansour appealed for unity among jihadists. “If we are united with each other, the enemy will fail and success will be with us and all Muslims,” he said in a recorded message.

But differences within the movement are far from resolved. In an audio message distributed over the weekend, Mullah Omar’s brother Mullah Abdul Manan said the family didn’t recognize Mullah Mansour as the Taliban’s new leader.

“In case of disagreement, our family will not side with anyone, not even with Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour,” he said, adding that there needs to be a broad consensus among religious scholars, fighters and senior Taliban for the selection of a new commander of the faithful. Critics of Mullah Mansour say his appointment isn’t valid because he was chosen by a small group of people close to him.

Other prominent critics include Mullah Mansour’s powerful longtime rival, Mullah Abdul Zakir, who supports Mullah Omar’s son Yacoub as his successor.

Fractures within the Taliban have complicated efforts to start formal peace talks with the Kabul government, a priority of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. A second round of talks between Afghan officials and Taliban representatives that was supposed to take place in Pakistan last week has been postponed indefinitely. Divisions over whether to negotiate with Kabul and how had tested the Taliban’s unity in recent months

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