The South Asia Channel

Who’s in Charge of the Taliban?

The newest round of rumors over Mullah Omar’s demise is spreading like wildfire. And if Omar really is dead, understanding Akhtar Mansour -- arguably the Taliban’s number two man -- is vital for the upcoming peace talks.

ALGIERS, ALGERIA - OCTOBER 28:  A man reads 28 October 2001 in Algiers the Algerian daily El Youm, with on its frontpage a picture presented by the newspaper as a portrait of Mullah Mohammed Omar. The leader of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime Mullah Mohammed Omar said in an interview with El Youm that the "real war" against the United States has not yet begun, and promised to give the US a "bitter lesson". AFP PHOTO HOCINE  (Photo credit should read HOCINE/AFP/Getty Images)
ALGIERS, ALGERIA - OCTOBER 28: A man reads 28 October 2001 in Algiers the Algerian daily El Youm, with on its frontpage a picture presented by the newspaper as a portrait of Mullah Mohammed Omar. The leader of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime Mullah Mohammed Omar said in an interview with El Youm that the "real war" against the United States has not yet begun, and promised to give the US a "bitter lesson". AFP PHOTO HOCINE (Photo credit should read HOCINE/AFP/Getty Images)

Two days before the second official meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban is scheduled to take place, fresh rumors are swirling that Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has been dead for two years, killed either in an internal power struggle or from tuberculosis. Even before word of the reclusive leader’s unconfirmed death, speculation of his demise and questions about who actually controls the movement have persisted since shortly after his escape from Kandahar in late 2001 — no double fueled by the fact that he has appeared in public only a handful of times, even during his rule over Afghanistan in the 1990s. With talks (hopefully) less than 48 hours away, the question now more than ever is: Who leads the Taliban?

Though the Taliban’s leadership structure is purposely oblique, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour has long been seen as the insurgency’s second-in-command. Setting aside whatever Omar’s current physical condition may be, Mansour has been making more day-to-day decisions and had more non-symbolic power than anyone else in the movement. He arguably has greater influence on the Taliban shadow government operating inside Afghanistan than any other Taliban leader. More importantly, he has maintained working relations with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), something that separates him from the “Taliban Five,” the former Guantánamo Bay detainees released in a prisoner exchange and currently residing in Doha, Qatar.

Mansour was born and raised in the poppy-rich river valley of Band-e Timor, the very same area of central Kandahar province where Omar first mobilized what was to become the Taliban movement and from which a disproportionate number of the Taliban’s leadership has traditionally hailed. Like many Afghans, Mansour grew up in Pakistan during the communist and mujahideen governments of the 1980s and early 1990s, earning a degree from Darul Uloom Haqqania, a madrasa outside of Peshawar known as “Jihad U” and the “University of Holy War” due to the number of extremists it matriculated over the years.

By 1993, Mansour had moved southward to the Pakistani province of Balochistan, which borders Kandahar and from where a good deal of the Taliban’s leadership-in-exile has long resided. From his position in Balochistan, Mansour played an early key role in linking Omar to Pakistan’s ISI, a connection that sustains the movement to this day. When the Taliban took control of Kandahar in 1994, Mansour was made Minister of Civil Aviation. Residents of his native Kandahar recount stories, perhaps apocryphal, of Mansour transporting opium in Talban helicopters from the fields of his native Band-e Timor to smugglers’ dens along Afghanistan’s southern border.

When the Taliban collapsed in 2001, Mansour fled back to Balochistan after briefly serving as one of Mullah Omar’s representatives in last minute talks with the Central Intelligence Agency.

While other Taliban leaders have been imprisoned or put under house arrest by Pakistani authorities, Mansour remains a favored son in large part because he has remained in step with ISI policy and has often served as a link between the Haqqani network of Waziristan and the Afghan Taliban of Balochistan. He is also one of the individuals to have benefited from the U.S. surge in 2010-2011. As one analyst from Kandahar notes in an interview: “More than anyone else, Mansour has benefited from the leadership vacuum that opened up after the U.S. started to take a lot of the Taliban commanders out — particularly in the south. Mansour remained safe in Pakistan and he was able to expand his network and powerbase, even though he had never really been a military commander per se.”

As late as 2012, Mansour was seen as a hardliner among Taliban leaders, opposing any talks with Hamid Karzai’s government. From about 2013 onward, his position appears to have changed, putting him directly at odds with Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a Taliban military leader from northern Helmand who has for years commanded arguably the largest organized insurgent front inside Afghanistan.

Throughout 2014, Mansour and Zakir bickered over the direction of the movement, with Zakir adopting a hard line and eventually being sacked, only to be re-instated after a reconciliation involving a few slaughtered goats and hearty man hugs. By early 2015, however, the two “frenemies” were reportedly at odds again. The most recent news reports of Omar’s death also speculate that Mansour and Omar’s son are involved in a fight for control.

Given his historically close ties with Pakistan, Mansour’s moderation could be read as a clear indicator that Pakistan’s calculus has indeed changed. The fact that the first and second rounds of peace talks will be held in the Pakistani resort town of Murree, which until now was mostly known as a nice day trip from Islamabad and for its brewery, also plays to Mansour — and Pakistan’s — strength, particularly as regards the Doha-based leadership.

For all the things that Mansour may be, he is definitely not Mullah Omar. Far more than al Qaeda, and perhaps even more than the Islamic State, the various competing interests inside the Taliban have remained nominally united due to the belief that Omar is the amir ul momineen (leader of the faithful). Omar’s spiritual status has long been the only thing holding the Taliban together. Mansour may have important friends in Pakistan but he is no leader of the faithful, and on the eve of negotiations, the Taliban seem closer than ever to splitting wide open.

Photo credit: HOCINE/AFP/Getty Images

Casey Garret Johnson is a researcher and an occasional contributor to Foreign Policy's South Asia Channel.

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