The Taliban confirmed the death of longtime leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and appointed his successor Thursday, as a new round of peace talks was indefinitely postponed amid concerns over how committed the new leadership is to ending the militant group’s 14-year insurgency.
Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who has been tapped to succeed Omar, is said to have close ties with authorities in Pakistan.
Mansour’s closeness to Islamabad could be crucial to Afghanistan’s future. It places him in a good position to revive peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban hosted earlier this month by Pakistan, which in recent months has moved to improve relations with Afghanistan.
But Mansour faces a challenge: Can he keep the Taliban united and rein in hard-liners who want to continue the insurgency, now that U.S. and NATO forces have stepped back? Or will the Taliban splinter?
Q: Who is Mansour?
A: Mansour was a senior figure in the Taliban and had been acting as Omar’s deputy for the past three years. If Omar passed away more than two years ago, as the Afghan government says, then Mansour may have been effectively leading the group for some time now, including during the recent peace efforts.
Mansour was aviation minister during the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule. After the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban, he was put in charge of political and military affairs in the Supreme Council, a seven-member body that takes major decisions.
Like his predecessor, Mansour hails from Kandahar province, the Taliban’s heartland. And like Omar, details about his exact age, family and whereabouts are largely unknown outside the secretive upper echelons of the group.
Q: Why does the Pakistan connection matter?
A: Pakistan is widely believed to have influence over the Taliban, and the Kabul government in the past has accused it of sheltering the group’s leadership. But the two countries have worked to repair ties since Afghan President Ashraf Ghani assumed office last year, and Islamabad has played a key role in getting the Taliban to the negotiating table.
If Pakistan is, as it says, committed to a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban, then the choice of Mansour could indicate that the Taliban remains on board. However, his presence could alarm many Afghans, who still feel Pakistan is meddling in order to project its influence in the region.
Q: Will the Taliban splinter?
A: Many observers believe the loss of Omar could widen a perceived rift between those who want to make peace with Kabul and those who want to continue the insurgency, which this year has been as vicious as ever.
Even if the Taliban remain united under Mansour, local commanders could defect to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which has made some inroads in Afghanistan in recent months. Mansour has reportedly written a letter to the self-proclaimed caliph of ISIL, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, warning his group to stay out of Afghanistan.