Newfound unity in Afghan Taliban after months of infighting

The Taliban are closing ranks around their new leader Mullar Aktar Mansour after months of infighting that followed the summer announcement of the death of Mullah Omar.

Senior Taliban figures who had objected to the rapid and secretive succession of Mullah Mansour are now reluctantly returning to the fold, a Taliban commander said. Rahmat Gul / AP Photo

KANDAHAR // Afghanistan’s Taliban are closing ranks around their new leader after months of feuding that followed the death of Mullah Mohammed Omar, a move which could allow the insurgents to speak with one voice in peace talks but could also strengthen their position on the battlefield.

The Afghan government’s announcement last summer that Mullah Omar, the reclusive one-eyed founder of the group, died two years earlier in Pakistan aggravated rifts within the group.

Many senior figures said his deputy-turned-successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, had misled them.

The upheaval led to the collapse of Pakistan-brokered face-to-face talks between Kabul and the Taliban after one meeting, and clashes flared between Mansour loyalists and a splinter group led by Mullah Mohammad Rasoul, which declared him the leader of the Taliban in November.

But Abdul Rauf, a Taliban commander close to Rasoul, said senior Taliban figures who had objected to the rapid and secretive succession are now reluctantly returning to the fold.

“We all took a stand against Mullah Akhtar Mansour, but now one-by-one we are joining with him without demanding any changes,” he said.

Relatives of Omar, notably his brother Manan and son Yaqub, objected to the selection of Mansour, which was made by a small circle of senior Taliban. They were persuaded last year to drop their objections and publicly declared their loyalty to Mullah Mansour.

Rauf said Abdul Qayum Zakir, a military commander sacked by Mansour in 2014, and former Rasool loyalists Abdullah Jan and Niaz Mohammad, had also reconciled with Mansour.

Mullah Hassan Rahmani, who was governor of southern Kandahar province when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, last month threw his weight behind Mansour.

The Taliban’s former foreign minister, Mohammed Ghaws, said he hoped the united front would help peace talks succeed.

“I am not in favour of, or against, any faction,” he said, but if Rasoul had continued to oppose Mansour and the majority allied with him it would have brought “no good to the Taliban or to Islam”.

While Rasoul has yet to reconcile, Mansour had sent his representatives to meet him in western Farah province, Mr Ghaws said.

“There is no religious reason for him [Rasool] not to come with the majority, and so I believe we will be fully united very soon.”

The Taliban’s growing unity – brokered by religious scholars within the movement – raised hopes that the group can be brought back into peace talks to end 15 years of war.

Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and China planned to hold a third round of talks today to lay the groundwork for the renewal of direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban.

The Taliban’s leadership was widely believed to be based in Pakistan, and Islamabad was seen as having a key role in getting them to the table.

Afghanistan has promised to wipe out any insurgents who do not join the peace process, while the Taliban have adhered to their demands for the withdrawal of all foreign forces, the release of Taliban prisoners and the establishment of some form of Islamic rule.

“Hopes for peace are increasing because the United States and China are involved – these two world powers have a great influence on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and can pressure both countries to encourage the armed opposition to come to the negotiating table,” said Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a senior member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, which is tasked with negotiating an end to the war.

Political analyst Nazar Mohammad Mutmaeen said the Taliban’s newfound unity would be “effective and useful” for the peace process.

But it could also make them even more formidable on the battlefield. The Taliban have advanced on a number of fronts since the US and Nato formally ended their combat mission and shifted to a supporting role more than a year ago.

As the snow melts in the rugged mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the coming months, the insurgents are expected to launch their annual springtime offensive.

Even with all the infighting, the Taliban managed to seize the northern city of Kunduz last year and hold it for three days, marking the insurgents’ biggest foray into a major urban area since 2001.

“The Taliban leadership is fragile, but the movement is not,” said a western official in Kabul who has seen intelligence reports on the group. The official was not authorised to brief media on the subject so spoke on condition of anonymity.

Mansour is “first among equals, but there are many equals whose support he doesn’t have,” the official said. Those commanders now appear to have set aside their misgivings about him because of a “realisation that it is better to be working together”.

* Associated Press