The Taliban have elected a new leader following an intense discussion after the announcement of the death of Mullah Omar, the secretive mystic who founded the Taliban in 1994 and led them to victory over all the other Afghan militias in the chaos after the Soviet withdrawal, till the Taliban were toppled by George W Bush’s international coalition in 2001.
They chose his deputy Mullah Akhtar Mansour amid some tension among the militants with many senior figures opposed to the appointment. The Taliban are the main opposition to the Afghan government, and this weekend, they were supposed to take part in a second round of apparently successful talks with the Afghan government and the Haqqani network about ending the violence in Afghanistan — which has been postponed. Mullah Mansour, who is pro-talks is expected to have a decisive impact on the talks when they resume, as any successor to Mullah Omar will need to make a crucial choice between taking a more conciliatory line and re-integrating into Afghan mainstream, or remaining a violent opposition that has the power to disrupt but could never manage power.
Mullah Mansour will also have to work hard to maintain the unity of the Taliban as a coherent force. The disparate alliance of mainly Pashtun tribal forces that make up the Taliban has been held together by Mullah Omar’s religious authority as he promulgated a more conservative interpretation of Islam. There is a real danger that a weak leader would trigger some of the more radical Taliban groups to defect and join Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). There is also an obvious puzzle about Mullah Omar’s death, which apparently happened two years ago in a Karachi hospital. The inordinate delay in a public announcement raises questions about who knew about the death, and why did such a side range of figures in both Pakistan and Afghanistan keep it secret. And a further question is how did such a significant figure in the Taliban manage to get to a Pakistani hospital in the first place, at a time when the Pakistani authorities were cracking down on the Taliban in their own country.