Nearly a year ago, Pakistani security forces acting on U.S. intelligence arrested the Taliban’s senior leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, brother-in-law and No. 2 to the reclusive, one-eyed Mullah Mohammed Omar. Now the Taliban have finally anointed his successor. A top Taliban intelligence officer and several other knowledgeable insurgent sources tell NEWSWEEK that the insurgency’s top commanders named two replacements for Baradar last month at a shura—or senior council meeting—near the Pakistani frontier city of Quetta. The anointees: Abdul Qayum Zakir, a former Guantánamo inmate and ruthless field commander; and Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, a portly financial and logistical expert who commands a large militia force.
Zakir’s and Mansoor’s appointments come at a crucial time for the guerrillas, who are under increasing pressure in the key southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar from tens of thousands of U.S. reinforcements, drastically ramped-up U.S. airstrikes, and night raids on suspected Taliban compounds. The American offensive has resulted in the capture and deaths of more than a thousand guerrilla fighters, including the loss of hundreds of mid- and lower-level commanders over the past few months.
While Zakir and Mansoor differ on many issues, Taliban leaders are hoping that the men will be able to improve flagging insurgent morale in the south and help fighters devise a comeback strategy when the harsh winter weather wanes in the next few months.
To this end, the Taliban are emphasizing that Zakir’s and Mansoor’s appointments were made with Mullah Omar’s explicit consent. But according to other fighters, few people truly believe Omar had any say in the matter. The mullah has not been seen or heard from since November 2001, when he fled Kandahar on the back of Baradar’s motorcycle. As a result, most Taliban are skeptical of claims or rumors that Zakir and Mansoor—or any Taliban commanders, for that matter—have had direct contact with their missing leader.
In fact, the arrest of Baradar and the appointments of Zakir and Mansoor make many Taliban suspicious that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, may be behind the changes. Mansoor has been widely rumored to be close to the ISI. “The ISI’s arrest of our respected senior leader, and the appointment of two new and competing commanders, makes me wonder if all this is a sign that the ISI wants to divide and weaken us without killing us,” says a former senior Taliban intelligence officer who now operates for the insurgency out of the Gulf state of Dubai.
One strong reason for his skepticism: the sudden appearance of another pretender to the position of Omar’s deputy. Mullah Agha Jan Mutasim—a former treasurer of the Taliban regime during Omar’s reign in Kabul—is now promoting himself as Baradar’s replacement. “There is such a leadership vacuum that we don’t know who is, or should be, in charge—or who is really linked to Mullah Omar,” laments the Taliban member in Dubai.
He and other Taliban fear that without a coherent, respected, and popular leadership, the insurgency could eventually deteriorate into factions of competing warlords, similar to the kind that tore Afghanistan apart in the anarchic early 1990s. Washington can only hope.