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Taliban scholars meet to resolve leadership fight, sources say

By JOSH SMITH AND ZUBAIR BABAKARKHAIL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 20, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan — Hundreds of religious scholars with ties to the Taliban have gathered near Quetta, Pakistan, to try to resolve lingering disputes about who should lead the militant group following the death of its founder, according to several Taliban sources.

The meetings could pose a serious challenge to the standing of the movement’s newly declared leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, who is trying to consolidate power after the group confirmed in July that the organization’s founder and longtime supreme commander, Mullah Mohammad Omar had been dead for at least two years.

There has been controversey over whether Mansoor, a member of the Omar’s inner circle, was legitimately named as the new supreme commander. A significant faction within the Taliban are reported to favor Omar’s eldest son, 26-year-old Mullah Mohammad Yaqoub.

The tensions within the Taliban have implications for the insurgency against the Afghan government and its international backers, as well as for peace talks, which had just begun before the announcement of Omar’s death. Mansoor disavowed the talks after the announcement of Omar’s death and his taking the reins, throwing the fragile process into doubt.

As many as 1,000 scholars with various ties to the Taliban, including some of the group’s top religious leaders, began meeting in the area south of Quetta on Wednesday, a senior Taliban political official told Stars and Stripes.

Yaquob has recognized the gathering’s authority, but Mansoor, who claimed he already has the official vote of the Taliban’s leading council, has not, the official said.

A Taliban military commander in Helmand province, Afghanistan, told Stars and Stripes that he had been informed of the gathering, but said he could not confirm if the agenda would be limited to leadership issues.

In the past, similar gatherings have been used to work out a variety of issues related to the Taliban’s organization, he said. Either way, the meetings are a clear effort to unify the group, the commander concluded.

While declining to confirm the specifics of these meetings, Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban said the group’s religious scholars had been seeking to resolve the dispute for some time.

The question of who should lead the group is not merely political. Omar claimed the title of Emir of the Believers, to whom al-Qaida founder Osama bin Ladin swore allegiance. Al-Qaida’s new leader Ayman al-Zawahiri recently confirmed the terrorist group’s allegiance to Mansoor,

Should the meetings undermine the new Taliban leader’s claim, it could throw the already fractured group into further turmoil. Reports of infighting between various factions have filtered out of the Taliban strongholds.

In a high-profile example, Tayeb Agha stepped down as head of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar after criticizing the way Mansoor was chosen.

Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, a member of the leading council that ostensibly appointed Mansoor, told the Al Jazeera network that he and other council members had not been consulted.

And in August, Maulvi Haibatullah Noorzai, a top deputy to Mansoor, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt when unidentified gunmen attacked his convoy in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. According to Afghanistan’s Pajhwok News, Noorzai and the head of the Taliban’s leading council, Maulvi Abdul Kabir, were in the area to try to drum up support for Mansoor.

Taliban leaders have tried to tamp down rumors of dissent, with former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir releasing a statement calling reports of rivalries “absolutely baseless.”

smith.josh@stripes.com
Twitter: @joshjonsmith
 

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