Sirajuddin Haqqani and Haibatullah Akhundzada have been appointed his deputies.
The Taliban announced Mullah Akhtar Mansour as their new leader Friday, marking a historic power transition for the militant movement that has waged a 14-year insurgency in Afghanistan.
The Taliban also announced his deputies—Sirajuddin Haqqani, who leads the Taliban-allied Haqqani network and has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, and Haibatullah Akhundzada, former head of the Taliban courts.
The anointment of Mansour, seen as a moderate and a proponent of peace talks, comes a day after the Taliban confirmed the death of their near-mythical leader Mullah Omar, who led the fractious group for some 20 years. The power transition raises hopes that Mansour’s leadership will pave the way for an end to nearly 14 years of fighting as the U.S.-backed Afghan government struggles to contain the Taliban’s intensifying summer offensive.
Mansour, a longtime trusted deputy of Omar, takes charge as the Taliban confronts growing internal divisions and is threatened by the rise of the Islamic State group, the Middle East jihadist outfit that is making steady inroads in Afghanistan.
“After [Omar’s] death the leadership council and Islamic scholars of the country, after long consultations, appointed his close and trusted friend and his former deputy Mullah Akhtar Mansour as the leader,” the Taliban said in a Pashto-language statement posted on their website. “When Mullah Omar was alive, Mullah Mansour was considered a trustworthy and appropriate person to take this heavy responsibility.”
A Taliban official said the process to choose Omar’s successor had several stages: the group’s ruling council would choose a candidate who must then be approved by a college of religious clerics. The top contenders included Mansour and Omar’s son Mullah Yakoub, who sources said was favored by some commanders but at 26 was considered too young and inexperienced for such a key role.
“Mullah Mansour is one of the founders of the Taliban movement and he is a moderate, pro-peace, pro-talks person,” said Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former Taliban official and a member of the Afghan High Peace Council. “I believe that under him the peace process will be strengthened and the Taliban will become part of political process in Afghanistan.”
The confirmation of Omar’s death ends years of fevered speculation about the fate of the leader, who has not been seen in public since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban from power.
Mark Toner, the U.S. State Department’s deputy spokesman, said Omar’s death was “clearly a moment of opportunity and we would encourage the Taliban to use this time of opportunity to make genuine peace with the Afghan government.” But his death appeared to cast a pall on the fragile peace process aimed at ending the long war, with the Taliban distancing itself from the second round of talks slated for Friday.
The insurgents have ramped up their attacks on military and government targets since the NATO combat mission ended in December. “Media outlets are circulating reports that peace talks will take place very soon… either in China or Pakistan,” the Taliban said in a separate statement posted on their website on Thursday. “[Our] political office… are not aware of any such process.”
Afghanistan later said the meeting scheduled in Pakistan had been postponed, voicing hope that it would be convened in the “near future.”
Afghan officials met Taliban cadres this month in Murree for their first face-to-face talks aimed at ending the bloody insurgency. They had agreed to meet again in the coming weeks, drawing international praise, and Afghan officials had pledged to press for a ceasefire in the second round. But many Taliban ground commanders have openly questioned the legitimacy of the negotiators, exposing dangerous faultlines within the movement.