Taliban militants confirmed the death of their supreme leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor on Wednesday, and also announced a less-known religious scholar, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada as the new leader of the insurgent group.
An online statement posted on the Taliban website on Wednesday read: “The Leadership Council of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the name of the ousted Taliban regime) today unanimously appointed Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada as the new Amirul Mominin (supreme leader of the faithful).”
According to the statement, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network and Mawlawi Mohammad Yaqoob, son of the Taliban’s founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, have been picked as deputies for the Taliban’s new leader.
Mullah Mansoor was killed in a U.S. drone attack in an area along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border on Saturday and the Afghan government confirmed his death a day later on Sunday.
The appointment of Mansoor’s successor by the Taliban Rahbari Shura or leadership council, is taking place amid serious differences between the supporters of the late Mullah Mansoor and his opponent group, led by Mullah Mohammad Rasoul Akhund.
Rasoul Akhund, according to local media reports, has blamed the late Mullah Mansoor for killing numerous innocent people and after confirmation of Mansoor’s death, instructed his fighters to attack Mansoor’s supporters and target them across the country.
Both Mullah Mansoor and his successor Akhundzada are from the Taliban birthplace of the southern Kandahar province.
“Haibatullah Akhundzada is simply a mullah rather than a military expert and his appointment won’t help the Taliban fighters to become united,” an expert from Kandahar familiar with the situation told Xinhua.
According to the source, the newly-appointed leader, Akhundzada, belongs to the Noorzai tribe, a Pashtun clan vying with the Ishaqzai tribe, to which the late Mullah Mansoor belonged.
The source further said as Mawlawi Yaqoob is a 24-year-old man, his appointment as deputy to the new Taliban leader is symbolic, and he has little influence to bring the two factions together.
Fighting between supporters of Mullah Mansoor and his opponents led by Mullah Rasoul had claimed hundreds of lives, according to local media reports, since the confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death in July and Mansoor taking charge of the Taliban leadership in late July last year.
Predicting more fragmentation in the Taliban rank, another familiar source with the situation in the Taliban hotbed, the southern Helmand province, doubted Akhundzada’s ability to unite the Taliban fighters, saying the internal differences are too deep to unite them in near future.
Mullah Omar, according to the source, was a charismatic leader that had kept Taliban fighters as an united force until his death, but the group was splintered into two major factions under Mansoor’s leadership and there would be more fragmentation if the new Taliban leader fails to reconcile differences with the Rasoul Akhund faction.
The new leader, in efforts to consolidate his leadership and legitimacy, will likely speed up offensives against government forces and his opponents, according to observers familiar with the situation.