Taliban appoints Mullah Akhtar Mansour as new leader

  • 31/07/2015

The Taliban has appointed Mullah Akhtar Mansour as the new leader of the Afghan insurgent group, marking a historic power transition for the militant movement.

The announcement comes a day after the insurgents confirmed the death of their elusive leader Mullah Omar, who led the fractious group for some 20 years.

Mansour, a longtime trusted deputy of Omar, takes charge as the Taliban confronts growing internal divisions and is threatened by the rise of Islamic State, 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 on Friday.

The Taliban has confirmed Omar died of "sickness", without specifying when, a day after the Afghan government said the one-eyed warrior-cleric had passed away in Pakistan two years ago.

The militant group said Omar never left Afghanistan, from where he led the movement.

"Not for a single day in the last 14 years did he go to Pakistan or any other country and led the Islamic Emirate affairs from his headquarters," the statement said, declaring three days of prayer ceremonies in his memory.

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 US-led invasion of Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban from power.

But it cast a pall on the country's fragile peace process aimed at ending the long war, with the Taliban distancing itself from the second round of talks slated for Friday.

Michael Kugelman, Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the loss of their long-time leader was a huge blow for the Taliban.

"(The) announcement of Omar's death will spark an existential crisis for the Taliban, and the last thing that will be on its mind are peace talks," Kugelman told AFP.

"It will need to focus on its survival, not talks."

Mark Toner, the US 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 many Taliban ground commanders have openly questioned the legitimacy of the peace talks with Kabul, exposing dangerous faultlines within the movement.

The split over the peace process has been worsened by the emergence of a local branch of Islamic State, which last year declared a "caliphate" across large areas of Iraq and Syria under its control.

The Taliban warned IS recently against expanding in the region, but this has not stopped some fighters, inspired by the group's success, from defecting.