Who controls what in Afghanistan?

Since the Taliban was ousted from power following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the armed group’s control over parts of Afghanistan has fluctuated widely.

According to a recent report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the Western-backed Afghan government has lost control of nearly 5 percent of its territory to the Taliban since the beginning of this year.

The report says the area under Afghan government “control or influence” decreased to 65.6 percent by the end of May from 70.5 percent last year, based on data provided by US forces in Afghanistan.

That amounts to a loss of 19 of the country’s approximately 400 governing districts.

However, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Army General John Nicholson, said the Taliban presence is mostly in rural areas.

Afghan officials, on the other hand, say an exact figure on areas controlled cannot be measured as the fight against the Taliban and other armed groups is still ongoing.

Based on reports gathered by Al Jazeera from local police, security forces and the Taliban, here is a conservative estimate of the areas in Afghanistan that are contested, under the Taliban, and under government forces.


Who is new Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada?

For Al Jazeera English

Conservative successor to Mullah Mansoor is known for overseeing bombings and for being a “ruthless” former judge.


Haibatullah Akhanzada [Reuters]

The Taliban took two years to confirm the death of their leader, Mullah Omar, in 2013.

However, after the killing in a US drone strike of Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, it only took the group four days to make a public announcement.

Confirming the death of Mansoor early on Wednesday, the Taliban also announced the appointment of its new leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, known as a “religious scholar” and for his role as a “ruthless” judge handing down death sentences during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

Akhunzada, in his mid 50s and originally from Kandahar province, fought against the Russians during the 1980s and then joined the Taliban movement in 1994 under the leadership of Omar, who established strict Islamic law in Afghanistan.

Once Akhunzada joined the Taliban, Omar appointed him as the head of the military court in Kandahar and he became a powerful figure in the group.

Akhunzada comes from a traditional Taliban stronghold and is known for his role in major decision-making on bombing attacks when he served as a deputy to the slain Taliban chief, Mansoor.

“He is known for his ruthless role during the Taliban rule when he served as a judge in Kandahar. He maintained his position as a traditional mujahid [fighter] actively taking decisions in the past six months whenever Mullah Mansoor was not available,” Akbar Agha, a former leader of a Taliban’s breakaway faction, told Al Jazeera.

“He will help run the Taliban movement exactly the way Mullah Omar did because of his traditional mujahideen mindset.”

Mansoor’s appointment was disputed, with reports at the time of rifts within the leadership emerging.

Violent clashes were reported between two rival Taliban groups in southern Afghanistan, resulting in the deaths of more than a dozen fighters on both sides.

Agha believes Mullah Yaqub, the elder son of Mullah Omar and now promoted as one of two deputies of Akhunzada, will play a major role in unifying the group.

“The Taliban have utmost respect for their former leader Mullah Omar, so having Mullah Yaqub as one of the deputies to Akhunzada will prove to be very beneficial for the Taliban movement in Afghanistan,” Agha said.

Within the Taliban, Akhunzada has the reputation of being very “conservative” and “does not like taking pictures”, Sami Yousafzai, an Afghan expert who has met both Mansoor and Akhunzada several times, said.

“He does not even know how to use a mobile phone. He is known to be very narrow minded and has the attitude of a typical tribal man,” Yousafzai told Al Jazeera.

“Akhunzada’s background is mysterious and his habits are secretive. He does not like to appear in public, just like Mullah Omar.

“Most Taliban are scared of him because of his role as a judge in the past. They say Akhanzada decreed that anyone who challenged or did not endorse Mullah Mansoor’s ‘leadership of the faithful’ should be executed.”

‘No hope for peace talks’

A former Taliban diplomat based in Afghanistan, who was involved in the round of talks brokered by Pakistan between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban in Murree last year, told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, that hopes of peace talks are now slim.

“Mullah Mansoor got killed by US drone strikes, so instead of talking about peace, they are planning Mullah Mansoor’s revenge,” the source said.

“There are no chances at the moment for peace talks and I don’t think there will be in the near future. Akhunzada was very close to Mullah Mansoor, and they took decisions unanimously. So if Mansoor was not willing to take part in peace talks, there are slim chances of Akhunzada moving forward.

“However, having said that, Mullah Mansoor travelled to Pakistan quite frequently and was killed there as well, which means Pakistan might have some leverage over his successor to persuade him to take part in peace talks.”

Agha, the former Taliban official, believes Akhunzada will only take part in peace talks if the group’s conditions are met.

“They are not against peace, but are more against how their conditions are not being met, which is to impose Islamic law and to drive foreign forces out of the country,” he told Al Jazeera.

Soon after Akhunzada was appointed, the Afghan president’s spokesman, Sayed Zafar Hashemi, said on Twitter that the Taliban have an opportunity to end violence or they will face the fate of Mansoor.

According to the United Nations, 2015 was Afghanistan’s deadliest year since the 2001 invasion by US forces, with more than 11,000 civilians killed and wounded. One in four of these casualties was a child, and one out of 10 was a woman.

An estimated 59,000 civilian casualties have been recorded since the UN began tracking the total in 2009.

Yousafzai said there is little hope that the bloodshed will end.

“The Taliban are unlikely to decrease their attacks in Afghanistan in the coming years, to prove that they are not weak despite the death of their leaders, Omar and Mansoor.”

Follow Shereena Qazi on Twitter:  @ShereenaQazi  

The article was originally published in Al Jazeera. View here: Who is new Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada?

Afghan Taliban: Haibatullah Akhunzada named new leader

For Al Jazeera English

Haibatullah Akhunzada, member of the conservative old guard, to head group whose last leader died in a US drone strike.


Haibatullah Akhunzada [Reuters]

An Afghan Taliban spokesman has confirmed the death of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the armed group’s leader, in a US drone strike and announced the appointment of Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada as his successor.

The Taliban spokesman told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Yaqub, son of former leader Mullah Omar, have been appointed the group’s new deputy leaders.

“We confirm the death of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor and after thorough discussion and meetings with the respected Taliban members among the group we’ve decided to name Haibatullah Akhunzada as our new leader,” he told Al Jazeera.

The announcement followed confirmation on Monday by President Barack Obama that Mansoor was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.

Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s chief executive,  said on Twitter on Sunday that Mansoor was dead. Afghanistan’s spy agency also said he had been killed.

Mansoor was chosen to head the Afghan Taliban last summer after it was announced that the group’s longtime leader Mullah Omar had died two years earlier.

The Taliban seized power and ruled Afghanistan in 1996, but were toppled by US-led invasion after September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

Almost 15 years later, about 13,000 troops from a US-NATO coalition remain in the country, including about 9,800 Americans.

The Taliban is fighting to impose Islamic law and drive the foreign forces out of the country.

The violence left about 11,000 civilians killed or wounded last year alone as well as 5,500 government troops and police officers.

‘Well-known figure’

Al Jazeera’s Qais Azimy, reporting from Kabul, said Akhunzada is a well-known figure in the group.

“He is not a new man in Taliban leadership; he was the second deputy of Mullah Mansoor,” he said.

“He is very respected. He’s an old man, definitely older than Mullah Omar, who referred to him [Akhunzada] as his teacher.

“Akhunzada is from Kandahar, from the Noorzai tribe. It’s a strong tribe among the Taliban leadership. All these things are signals that he might be able to unite the Taliban. That looks like one of the reasons they didn’t choose [Sirajuddin] Haqqani as the leader.”

Al Jazeera’s Azimy said Akhunzada has held the role of chief justice within the Taliban previously.

“He was very active and a senior member of the Quetta Shura,” he said.

The Taliban has repeatedly refused to take part in peace talks sponsored by the Quadrilateral Coordination Group,  which comprises representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US.

The group also shows no signs of easing its ongoing spring offensive against the Afghan government.

“The new Taliban leader is known to be ‘a Stone Age mullah’ who strongly believes in the Taliban,” Sami Yousafzai, an Afghan expert who has met both the late Mansoor and Akhunzada several times, told Al Jazeera.

“The appointment of Akhunzada could affect the peace process. He was very close to Mullah Omar and is known as a hardline mujahid [fighter] who will bring the Taliban together and will make sure the group gets stronger.”

A Taliban source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Taliban under Akhunzada has pledged to take revenge against foreign forces and the Afghan government for Mansoor’s killing.

“They [the foreign forces and Afghan government] should now fasten their seat belts as the attacks will continue and will be stronger than before,” he told Al Jazeera.

“We will be taking our revenge and will also make sure we come out stronger than before.”

The warning coincided with an attack that claimed the lives of at least 10 people on Wednesday.

A suicide bomber on foot detonated his explosives, striking a vehicle carrying court employees near the capital Kabul, according to the the interior ministry.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

Taliban leadership dispute

Mullah Mansoor was appointed as the new leader of the Taliban in August last year after the death of Mullah Omar. The move was rejected by some senior Taliban commanders and led to deadly infighting.

A breakaway faction elected its own leader, Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund, and battled Taliban under Mansoor’s leadership.

Commenting on the appointment of Akhunzada, the spokesman for the breakaway faction, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, said the decision was taken just among a handful of senior Taliban leaders.

“Akhunzada was appointed in the same way to how Mullah Mansoor was appointed, without consulting with anyone,” Manan Niazi told Al Jazeera.

“Mullah Yaqub has been promoted as well but is powerless and is not knowledgeable enough to lead the Taliban movement.”

Manan Niazi said his breakaway faction will continue to fight against the Taliban under Akhunzada and will not stand united with “the group that has forgotten Mullah Omar’s purpose”.

“God has taken our revenge and Mullah Mansoor got killed. He was a shame to the Taliban movement and was completely opposite to Mullah Omar.”

Follow Shereena Qazi on Twitter:  @ShereenaQazi  

The article was originally published in Al Jazeera. View here: Afghan Taliban: Haibatullah Akhunzada named new leader

Afghan Taliban’s Mullah Mansoor ‘killed in US strike’

For Al Jazeera English

Multiple sources say Akhtar Mansoor killed in Pakistan after his car attacked by several US drones.

Images of bombed vehicle in which Mullah Mansoor was reported to be traveling

Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor has been killed in a United States strike in Pakistan, according to multiple sources, a year after he was appointed leader of the group.

Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said on Twitter that he was dead, the country’s spy agency also said he had been killed and a source close to Mansoor told Al Jazeera he believed the reports to be true.

Earlier on Saturday, US officials told several media organisations that drone attacks authorised by President Barack Obama had probably killed him and another Taliban member.

A spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani also said the strike appeared to have been successful.

The Taliban, which has a history of denying developments that could hurt its standing, has not yet issued an official statement though some of the group’s officials earlier denied the reports.

False rumours on the deaths of Taliban figures have circulated before. In December, the Afghan government said Mansoor had died after a gunfight. The Taliban later released an audio message which he denied he had been killed.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday that the Taliban chief posed a “continuing imminent threat” to US personnel in Afghanistan and to Afghans, and was a threat to peace.

“This action sends a clear message to the world that we will continue to stand with our Afghan partners as they work to build a more stable, united, secure and prosperous Afghanistan,” Kerry said.

Kerry said the leaders of both Pakistan and Afghanistan were notified of the strike but he did not say whether they were told before or after the attack took place. He said he had phoned Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Pakistan has denounced the US strike, adding that US did not inform Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif before carrying out the strike on its soil.

In a statement issued to the media, Pakistan’s foreign office said the drone strike was a violation of its sovereignty.

Pakistani security officials told AFP news agency they recovered two bodies charred beyond recognition.

The passenger, who is suspected of being Mansoor, was said to be returning from Iran and was using a Pakistani passport with the name Muhammad Wali.

Several drones

US officials said the strike happened at about 10:00 GMT, which would have put it late on Friday night in the target area.

Several drones targeted the men as they travelled in a vehicle in a remote part of Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan, southwest of the town of Ahmad Wal, one US official said.

The Pentagon confirmed the US army had tried to kill Mansoor, but gave no information about his condition.

“We are still assessing the results of the strike and will provide more information as it becomes available,” spokesman Peter Cook said.

“Mansoor has been an obstacle to peace and reconciliation between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, prohibiting Taliban leaders from participating in peace talks with the Afghan government that could lead to an end to the conflict.”

Al Jazeera’s Mohammad Vall, reporting from Kabul, said the timing of the strike was significant because the Afghan government warned it would take action against the group for not participating in the talks .

“They refused to show at the negotiating table, so the Afghan president recently said that now its time for us to act and go after them. The Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), made up of representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States were urged to show their military role,” he said

“If it is proved that Mullah Mansoor has died in the strike, it would be a major blow to the Taliban.”

Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada, said the report had to be taken seriously.

“There has been an increase in the Taliban’s casualties,” Samad told Al Jazeera. “This particular news, if confirmed, is going to be a double blow to the Taliban – not only from a political leadership point of view, but I also think it will be translated on the battlefield.”

Mansoor was appointed Taliban leader last year after the death of Mullah Omar. He joined the Taliban in 1995, a year after it was founded, going on to hold important positions within the group.

Who is Mullah Akhtar Mansoor?

  • Mullah Mansoor was born in around 1965 in a small village called Kariz in the Maiwand district of Kandahar. He belongs to Afghanistan’s Ishaqzai tribe.
  • He fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan for a brief period and was a member of Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami, a former paramilitary group formed by Maulana Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi to fight them.
  • One of his first jobs for the group was overseeing the security of Kandahar airport.
  • In 1996-2001, when the Taliban was in power, he oversaw ministry of civil aviation.
  • He rose to the upper echelons after Mullah Akhtar Osmani, a senior Taliban military leader and a close associate of Mullah Omar, was killed by US-led coalition forces in 2006 and Mullah Dadullah Akhund, the group’s top military commander, was killed in 2007 by British special forces.
  • Between 2007 and 2010 he was able to stake a claim for higher office when Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy of Mullah Omar, and Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, the Taliban government defence minister, were captured by the Pakistan Intelligence agency ISI.
  • In July 2015, Afghan intelligence said that Mullah Omar had been dead for two years. Within hours of that announcement, the Taliban reportedly held a meeting and elected Mullah Mansoor as leader. But his appointment appeared to expose fissures in the group.
  • A few months after his appointment, Taliban fighters seized the capital of Kunduz province after launching a daring raid from multiple directions. The attack was the biggest blow to President Ashraf Ghani since he took office a year before.
  • In December 2015, Afghan officials said Mansoor had died after a gunfight. The Taliban later released an audio message from him in which he denied he had been killed.
  • Mansoor refused to join any of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) meetings, made up of representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States and aimed at reviving a peace process.
  • After his persistent refusal to join talks, Afghan officials told Al Jazeera that action against the Taliban would be on the agenda for the fifth round of peace talks in early May.
  • US officials briefed the media on May 21 that a drone attack authorised by President Barack Obama had “likely killed” him and another Taliban member.

Follow Shereena Qazi on Twitter:  @ShereenaQazi  

The article was originally published in Al Jazeera. View here: Afghan Taliban’s Mullah Mansoor ‘killed in US strike’

Afghan boy in plastic bag shirt thrilled over Messi meeting

For Al Jazeera English

Murtaza Ahmadi delighted after Afghan Football Federation says Messi’s management wants to arrange trip.


Photos of the young boy wearing the improvised Messi jersey has touched a chord with football fans [Homayoun Ahmadi/Twitter]

A young Afghan boy pictured wearing a makeshift Lionel Messi jersey made out of a plastic bag has said he is excited after the Barcelona star expressed an interest in meeting him.

Murtaza Ahmadi shot to Internet fame after photographs of him dressed in the blue-and-white top with Messi’s name written on it went viral last month, prompting people to try and track him down.

“I love Messi and football. I will meet him one day,” the five-year-old told Al Jazeera on Monday.

“I want to become like him (Messi),” added Ahmadi, who lives in the Jaghori district in the Afghan province of Ghazni.


On Monday, the Afghan Football Federation (AFF) confirmed that Ahmadi will now get a chance to meet his football hero.

“We’ve been contacted by Messi’s management team and they have expressed their interest in meeting the boy,” AFF spokesman, Syed Ali Kazemi, told Al Jazeera.

“We are doing our best to coordinate their meeting. The date and the venue is still not confirmed yet, but there are chances of Ahmadi flying to Spain to meet his idol (Messi).”

Kazemi added that “the passion that Murtaza carries for football, we will do everything in our capacity to train him to be a part of our Afghanistan football team”.


Ahmadi plays football in an improvised Lionel Messi jersey made out of plastic [Homayoun Ahmadi/Twitter]

The making of viral fame

Murtaza’s brother Homayoun was the one who made the improvised shirt – that perfectly fit the little boy – and scribbled Messi’s name and the No 10 in it.

“Murtaza found a plastic bag and ran towards me asking me to make a jersey out of it for him,” 15-year-old Homayoun told Al Jazeera.

“We can’t even imagine buying the original Messi jersey. We just can’t afford it so, to make my brother happy, I made a shirt out of that plastic bag for him.”

The boy’s father, Mohammad Arif Ahmadi, said that he has been overwhelmed by the response to the photographs.

“We did not expect that we would get this kind of support from everyone. People from all over the world have been calling me to help get Murtaza a jersey and a football,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Murtaza can’t hold it. He is so excited by the news of meeting Messi. We don’t know when is it going to happen, but we are humbled by the response we got.”


Ahmadi’s father admitted he could not afford to buy him a replica jersey, adding that his son only had a punctured ball to play with [Fatima Faizi/ Al Jazeera]

Mistaken for Iraqi Kurd

When the pictures first went viral, Ahmadi was mistaken for an Iraqi Kurd kid living in Dohuk.

But later his uncle Azim Ahmadi, who lives in Australia, revealed that it was his nephew in the photograph.


Tweet posted by Lionel Messi’s largest Twitter fan page before finding Ahmadi.

The official Twitter fan page of Messi later tweeted pictures confirming his identity.


“I want my son to bring pride to the country and play in the international football matches one day,” Mohammed Arif Ahmadi said.

Follow Shereena Qazi on Twitter:  @ShereenaQazi  

The article was originally published in Al Jazeera. View here: Afghan ‘Plastic bag boy’ excited about Messi meeting

Pakistan: The reporter’s death

Pakistan: The reporter’s death


A post-mortem found that Shahzad’s death had been caused by ‘liver failure, ruptured lungs and broke ribs [AFP] 

Shereena Qazi for Al Jazeera English

The family of a murdered Pakistani journalist shares his story.

On a warm Sunday evening in May, Saleem Shahzad, a Pakistani investigative journalist for Asia Times online, set off to Islamabad to be interviewed about his latest investigative piece. Although the show aired on schedule at 6pm, Shahzad’s seat remained empty.

Very few Pakistani reporters have access to the sorts of people Shahzad was able to interview – men such as Sirajuddin Haqqani, a military leader of the pro-Taliban forces in Afghanistan, and Ilyas Kashmiri, a Pakistani al-Qaeda fighter.

But it was this access, it seems, that cost him his life.

“I’ve never seen him upset at home. In fact, I didn’t even know he was receiving threats,” says his wife, Anita Saleem.

“We did not know he was going to lose his life for doing his job, [for] basically reporting the truth.”

Calm and loving at home, Shahzad was fighting a battle in his professional life that few knew about.

“I remember I used to get a little worried about the kind of reports he would publish and the places he would travel to, like Afghanistan,” Saleem recalls. “But whenever I would raise my concerns, he would ask me to not worry.

“He would always tell me ‘I know how to do my work, I know what I’m doing.’

“He was never afraid to get out of his comfort zone and report the truth,” reflects Hamza Ameer, Shahzad’s brother-in-law and a Pakistan-based foreign correspondent for Iran’s Press TV network.

“He made sure to protect his sources at all times,” he continues. “This is how he was very committed to his profession.”

But the threats began to arrive when he published a report in Asia Times online about the 17-hour siege by fighters who attacked a naval airbase in Karachi in 2011.

In the article, he wrote about how the attack came after security officials had refused to release a group of naval officials suspected of being linked to armed groups and soon after the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

“Shahzad received several threats for his articles and he knew that his life was in danger,” says Ameer, who recalls a telephone conversation he overheard his brother-in-law having.

“I remember him saying, ‘I am not your servant and I don’t work for you, I will never reveal my sources’ to someone over the phone. It was clearly one of those calls threatening him to stop doing his job as a journalist.”

Such harassment isn’t uncommon for journalists in Pakistan. Those who pursue stories about armed groups, government officials, politicians or drug dealers can expect a backlash.

“Shahzad knew what his reporting would lead to, but he still continued to work with fairness and objectivity,” says Ameer.

A day after that TV show aired, Shahzad’s body was found in the Upper Jhelum Canal, in the north of Punjab province. His face and neck showed signs of torture. The post-mortem revealed that his death had been caused by “liver failure, ruptured lungs and broken ribs”.

“We went through hell after his death,” says Saleem, fighting back the tears. “I still cannot believe he was killed this way, without any mercy.”

Ameer recalls how Shahzad had warned him of the dangers of reporting in Pakistan, a country that, in 2014, was one of the 20 most dangerous for journalists – where, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 75 journalists and six media workers were killed in 2014 alone.

“I received threats in the past over the phone a couple of times, which I ignored,” he says. “However, when I witnessed the death of my brother-in-law I came to the conclusion that I am not safe either.

“Pakistan is the worst place to be for journalists. We are not protected.”

The experiences of other Pakistani journalists seem to support his claim.

Early this year, Rasool Dawar, a senior correspondent for Pakistani news channel Geo News, reported that he had been kidnapped in the city of Peshawar by security forces on two separate occasions and tortured.

“I was on my way to my office in Hayatabad, Peshawar, when I was picked up by security forces. I was blindfolded, physically harassed and questioned for several hours about my work in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region of Pakistan,” says the correspondent.

“My life is still in danger, which is why I am not comfortable at all to continue my profession. I try to keep off sensitive topics that involve the army, militants and government officials,” he explains.

“I have always been very passionate to report the truth and expose the wrongdoers, but here in Pakistan, if you do that, you will be killed.”

And the noose may be tightening further on the profession.

In August 2015, Pakistan’s Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) made its Electronic Media Code of Conduct public. It sets strict limitations on the live coverage of security operations, mandating that live coverage “shall air only such information as may be warranted by the security agency in charge of the operation”.

It also restricts broadcasters from airing political talk shows that denounce religious beliefs and engage in “hate speech”.

The CPJ has expressed concern about “the sweeping nature of guidelines from PEMRA for on-air news coverage and commentary on [the] nation’s television and radio channels”,  and members of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) were reportedly not involved in drawing up the guidelines.

Hamza Ameer is not optimistic about the future of his profession in Pakistan. Asking for safety and security from the authorities should be a fundamental right of all journalists around the world, he says.

Then he adds: “[Shahzad] did not deserve to die this way. We went through a lot ever since.”

The whole family now fears the profession Shahzad loved.

Saleem refuses to allow her daughter, who is a keen writer, to pursue journalism.

“I would ask everyone to choose another profession in Pakistan,” she says. “Go for anything but journalism, because here if you muster up the nerve to expose the truth, you will be killed.”

Follow Shereena Qazi on Twitter: @shereenaqazi 

The article was originally published in Al Jazeera. View here: Pakistan: The reporter’s death

The New Taliban Leader: Mullah Akhtar Mansoor

Shereena Qazi for Al Jazeera English

As it was with his predecessor Mullah Mohamed Omar, little is known about the new leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.

Those who have met him describe him as soft-spoken and reclusive. But Mullah Mansoor has been part of the Taliban’s core leadership since the early days when the group was formed under the tutelage of Mullah Omar.

His appointment has sparked much speculation over the future of the Taliban and the impact it would have on the upcoming peace talks.

The second of peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government has already been postponed and there is already talk of dissent within the Taliban itself.

Mullah Mansoor was born in a small village called Kariz in Maiwand district of Kandahar, around 1965, and belongs to the Ishaqzai tribe in Afghanistan.

It is understood that he studied at a madrassa in a village called Jalozai, in Nowshera district of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

Mullah Mansoor fought against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan for a short period of time and was a part of Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami, a former paramilitary group formed by Maulana Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi to fight against Soviet troops.

Mullah Mansoor joined the Taliban in June 1995, a year after it was founded. He went on to hold important positions within the group.

Mullah Omar started the Taliban in 1994 and, by June 1995, Mullah Mansoor joined him, and soon assumed important positions within the group.

He was first given a security post, in charge of the Kandahar airport.

He was in charge of the ministry of civil aviation when the Taliban was in power in the 1996-2001 period.

 There have been a number of reports of an ISIL chapter recruiting fighters in Afghanistan [EPA]

He rose to the top echelons of the Taliban after Mullah Akhtar Osmani, a senior Taliban military leader and a close associate of Mullah Omar, was killed by coalition forces in 2006 and Mullah Dadullah Akhund, the Taliban’s top military commander, was killed in 2007 by British special forces.

Between 2007 and 2010 he was also able to stake a claim at higher positions when Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy of Mullah Omar, and Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, the Taliban government defence minister, were captured by the Pakistan Intelligence agency ISI.

Thomas Ruttig, co-director and senior analyst of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (ANN), had brief encounters with both Mullah Omar and Mullah Mansoor in 2000 and 2001, respectively.

He told Al Jazeera that Mullah Mansoor was officially the number two and a very close companion of his predecessor.

“In one of my official meetings with Mullah Mansoor in 2001, I figured that he seemed to be a confident person and [was] open to discussion,” Ruttig said.

Likewise Sami Yousafzai, an Afghan journalist, who met Mullah Akhtar Mansoor several times, told Al Jazeera that “he used to keep to himself [and was] not very talkative”.

Late last month, Afghan intelligence said that Mullah Omar had been dead for the past two years. There is still little information known about the circumstances surrounding his death.

Within hours of the announcement, the Taliban reportedly held a meeting and elected Mullah Mansoor as their new leader. But his appointment to the top position seems to have exposed the fissures within the top leadership.

One senior leader of the Taliban Supreme Council told Al Jazeera they had not been consulted in the appointment of Mansoor.

Others, speaking on condition of anonymity, said some members of the Taliban suspect that Mullah Omar had been murdered.

“There are a lot of accusations [levelled at] Mullah Mansoor from some of the members of the Taliban group. Mullah Yaqoub, Mullah Omar’s son, was the candidate for the next leader. That didn’t happen, so [Mullah Mansoor] is being accused of various things like the murder of Mullah Omar,” one source said.

“The fact that he knew about Mullah Omar’s death and did not let anyone know about it. He is not trusted by most of the Taliban members.”

But Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a member of Leadership Council of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name the group refers to itself, released a statement last week, denying claims of disagreements and conflict on the decision.

Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Pakistani Journalist, best known for having interviewed Osama Bin Laden, says that if Mullah Mansoor could manage to run the group independently after Mullah Omar’s death, he could prove to be a strong leader.

“He [Mansoor] has managed to run the group for three years without Mullah Omar. The reason he kept Mullah Omar’s death a secret was to avoid disputes and divisions. This is exactly what happened after Mullah Omar’s death. There are a lot of misunderstandings and disagreements now between them,” Yusufzai said.

Mullah Mansoor is regarded as a strong proponent of peace talks, but his statements in his first ever-audio message released on Friday cast doubts on future peace talks and negotiations.

 Mullah Mansoor was considered a close companion of Mullah Omar [AP]

He vowed to fight until the Islamic law was implemented and also urged his Taliban companions to stay united and to not concentrate on peace talks.

“Mullah Mansoor was smart and a composed person when I met him back in the days in Pakistan,” Yousafzai said.

“He used to visit my father’s Islamic bookshops in the Jalozai refugee camp for Afghans in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, Pakistan.”

“We should not concentrate on peace talks or anything related to that. We should focus on implementing the Islamic system,” he said.

Ruttig said Mullah Mansoor’s audio message seemed geared to win over those “who are sceptical about negotiations, but he also doesn’t want to drop the idea of peace talks altogether”.

But Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at Brookings in Washington, who specialises in US military policy, said Mullah Mansoor’s message was difficult to read.

“I have never seen a major basis for optimism about peace talks in the past. The differences are too fundamental, and the Taliban still thinks it might prevail militarily,” Michael O’Hanlon told Al Jazeera.

“For me, I will simply say that anytime a major insurgent organisation has a change in leadership, it is hard to forecast what will happen, but usually the longstanding organisations can survive changes. I doubt the death of Omar will fundamentally weaken the movement. Hope I am wrong.”

For most of the Taliban commanders, Mullah Omar remains the ultimate standard; they believe that Mullah Mansoor will never live up to his predecessor, even if the Taliban founder was hardly involved in the day-to-day running of the group.

“There is no comparison to Mullah Omar. We can only hope that Mullah Mansoor reaches up to his standards,” said Mullah Abdul Salam, a 37-year-old Afghan Taliban commander from the Helmand province of Afghanistan.

“However, nothing can break us apart even with these differences. I embrace him [Mansoor] as our leader because our elders elected him.”

With the appointment of Sirajuddin Haqqani as one of his deputies, Mullah Mansoor has managed to win support from  Jalaluddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network.

The Haqanni network is considered one of the most powerful anti-government groups in Afghanistan, and it has been described as a terrorist group by the US.

“We are sure that the new leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor is appointed with complete legitimacy and after due consultation and he is the most suitable successor of His Excellency the late Mullah Mohammad Umar Mujahid [may his soul rest in peace],” Haqqani said in the message, which was released in multiple languages, including English, on the group’s website.

“We fully recommend to all the senior and junior in-charge ranks of the Islamic Emirate to pledge their allegiance with him and to fully obey him.”

In the past few months, reports have emerged of fighters in eastern Afghanistan pledging their support to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

ISIL said in January it had expanded to Afghanistan and parts of neighboring countries amid reports of the Afghan Taliban insurgents began pledging allegiance to the ISIL in 2014.

However, according to Inayatullah Kakar, an Afghan analyst, the “true” followers of Mullah Omar will not join ISIL because of the significant ideological and cultural differences that exists between the movements.

“There are sympathisers of ISIL in the Afghan Taliban, but the number is apparently very few. Most of them are the ones who’ve been mistreated before. After the new appointments of the leader, we can’t tell if the number will increase, but we all know that the Afghan Taliban are struggling to maintain unity,” said Kakar.

It is still unclear whether Taliban faction will be formed independent of Mullah Mansoor in coming few days, but chances of internal disputes seems to be increasing.

“The dispute is not over yet. Rifts still might increase,” said Ruttig.

Follow Shereena Qazi on Twitter: @ShereenaQazi  

The article was originally published in Al Jazeera. View here: Profile: Mullah Akhtar Mansoor