Last week, years of fierce speculation over the whereabouts of Mullah Mohammed Omar ended when the Taliban leader was declared dead by the Afghan government. After initially denying the claim, the Taliban named his successor, Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansoor. A founding member of the Taliban, Mansoor knew Omar and Osama bin Laden personally, has a reputation for being a moderate and is known to have lent his support to the peace process. Many see this as a positive move for the group, a decision that will help bring more than a decade of war to an end. There are, however, numerous problems which he will need to overcome in order make this a reality.
Mansoor is believed to have joined the Taliban in 1994, after the insurgent group gained control of Kandahar province. In the late 1990s he served as the Taliban’s aviation minister and fled to Pakistan after the US invasion in 2001. He was appointed deputy to Mullah Omar in 2013. As secretive as his notoriously camera-shy predecessor, no picture or video of the new Taliban chief has made its way into the public domain.
As Omar’s deputy, Mansoor has had years of experience managing the Taliban, experience which should have stood him in good stead for his new leadership role. However, the announcement that he would be taking over from Mullah Omar has shaken the Taliban to its core. To begin with, there has been much criticism over the way that Omar’s death was covered up, not just from the rank and file but from senior members of the Taliban. Omar’s former personal secretary, Tayeb Agha, has resigned from his position as head of a political office in Doha in protest, saying that the coverup was a “historical mistake”. In a statement issued at the time of his resignation, Agha implied that he had not been made aware of Omar’s death until very recently, an indication of how closely guarded this secret was and how deeply it has effected the Taliban’s core followers.
Another factor that will have to be considered is the effect that Omar’s death will have on the insurgency. Although Omar hasn’t made a public appearance since the fall of his government in 2001, his reputation as Amir al-Momineen (leader of the faithful) has played a vital role in preserving the group’s unity and sense of overall direction. Without it, Mansoor will have to find another way of holding the group together, a task made more difficult by the seductive appeal of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, which has in recent months succeeded in luring away many disenfranchised members of the Taliban.