Mullah Mansour has a reputation for supporting peace talks, but may be challenged by rivals jockeying for position.
The new Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour has a reputation as a relative moderate who favors peace talks with the government, but his leadership already faces challenges to its legitimacy.
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 has effectively been in charge since 2013, according to Taliban sources.
Like Omar, he shuns public appearances. The few pictures believed to be of him show a thickset man with the dark beard and turban that are virtually the uniform for senior Taliban cadres.
Mansour spent part of his life in Pakistan, like millions of Afghans who fled the Soviet occupation. There he reportedly developed links with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, which nurtured the Taliban in the 1990s and even now is regularly accused of fueling the insurgency.
He served as civil aviation minister in the Taliban government, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until it was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, when he fled again to Pakistan. In 2010 his name came up in a bizarre episode in which an impostor claiming to be Mansour duped U.S. and British intelligence, reportedly receiving tens of thousands of dollars from them in goodwill payments, before disappearing.
Officials and militants have said Mansour is a pragmatic man strongly in favor of pursuing dialogue with Kabul to try to end Afghanistan’s long, bloody war. He has shown his 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.
To take the leadership he outmaneuvered Mullah Yakoub, Omar’s son who was favored by some commanders as the new leader but judged too young and inexperienced at 26. But there are already rumblings of discontent—some Taliban are unhappy at the thought Mansour may have deceived them for over a year about Omar’s death and others accuse him of riding roughshod over the process to appoint a successor.
While Mansour was close to his predecessor, he does not have Omar’s aura of religious authority and it is notable the Taliban announcement did not confer the title “leader of the faithful,” by which the old chief was known.
Moreover his longstanding ties to Pakistan—viewed by many Taliban as a capricious, unreliable ally motivated solely by self-interest—has led some to suspect him of being little more than an ISI puppet. He faces a huge challenge in trying to unite a movement that is already showing signs of fragmenting and questions about his legitimacy at the highest echelon of the Taliban will not bolster his position.
As well as fighting on the ground and coming under pressure from all sides to negotiate, the Taliban also faces the challenge of halting the expansion of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan, which has been recruiting disaffected fighters.