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Taliban power transition raises hopes for Afghan peace talks

AFP , Friday 31 Jul 2015
Taliban
Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, Taliban militants' new leader, is seen in this undated handout photograph by the Taliban (Photo: Reuters)
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The Afghan Taliban named Mullah Akhtar Mansour as their new chief Friday, a historic power transition that raises hopes a more moderate leadership will pave the way for peace talks despite divisions within insurgent ranks.

The Taliban also announced his deputies -- Sirajuddin Haqqani, who leads the Taliban-allied Haqqani network and has a $10 million US bounty on his head, and Haibatullah Akhundzada, former head of the Taliban courts.

The appointment of Mansour, seen as a pragmatist and a proponent of peace talks, comes a day after the Taliban confirmed the death of their near-mythical leader Mullah Omar, who led the fractious group for some 20 years.

The Taliban's first handover of power comes at a time when the US-led Afghan government has been trying to jumpstart talks aimed at ending the 14-year insurgency.

Mansour, a longtime trusted deputy of Omar, takes charge as the movement faces growing internal divisions and is threatened by the rise of the Islamic State group, the Middle East jihadist outfit that is making 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.

"When Mullah Omar was alive, Mullah Mansour was considered a trustworthy and appropriate person to take this heavy responsibility."

A Taliban official said that after the group's ruling council had chosen a successor for Omar, the decision was supposed to be ratified by a college of religious clerics.

Omar's son Mullah Yakoub was favoured to take over by some commanders, sources said, but at 26 was considered too young and inexperienced for such a key role.

Mansour, who was named the new Amir-ul-Momineen -- "commander of the faithful" -- faced staunch internal resistance from some members of the Taliban's ruling council, the Quetta Shura, who accuse Pakistan of hijacking the movement.

"Mansour is considered a man of Pakistan... and a majority of Shura members are against him," a member of the Quetta Shura told AFP from an undisclosed location in northwestern Pakistan.

"The announcement (of his leadership) was made in a hurry. Several Shura members including three founder members of the Taliban opposed him."

Mansour faces powerful rivals within the Taliban who are strongly opposed to peace talks with the Afghan government, with some insurgents also unhappy at the thought he may have deceived them for over a year about Omar's death.

"His selection will only widen the rift within the Taliban," Kabul-based military analyst Jawed Kohistani told AFP.

But the internal opposition is unlikely to prevent Mansour from proceeding with peace talks launched in the Pakistani hill station of Murree earlier this month.

"Mullah Mansour is one of the founders of the Taliban movement and he is a moderate, pro-peace, pro-talks person," Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former Taliban official and a member of the Afghan High Peace Council, told AFP.

"I believe that under him the peace process will be strengthened and the Taliban will become part of political process in Afghanistan."

The confirmation of Omar's death ends years of speculation about the fate of the leader, who was not seen in public since the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban from power.

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".

His death, however, initially cast doubt on the fragile peace process aimed at ending the long war, forcing the postponement of a second round of talks that had been expected in Pakistan on Friday.

Even before Omar's death was confirmed, the Taliban distanced themselves from the negotiations, saying their political office was "not aware" of the process.

The two sides had agreed to meet again in the coming weeks, drawing international praise, and Afghan officials had pledged to press for a ceasefire in the second round.

But so far the embryonic talks have not stopped the militants pressing ahead with their summer offensive, which is shaping up to be one of the bloodiest in recent years.

The Taliban have ramped up attacks on military and government targets since the NATO combat mission ended in December.

And on the ground many Taliban commanders have openly questioned the legitimacy of the negotiators, exposing dangerous faultlines within the movement.

The split over the peace process has been worsened by the emergence of a local branch of the Islamic State group, 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.

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