KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Afghan Taliban confirmed on Wednesday that their leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a U.S. drone strike last week and that they have appointed a successor – a scholar known for extremist views who is unlikely to back a peace process with Kabul.
The announcement came as a suicide bomber struck a minibus carrying court employees in the Afghan capital, killing at least 11 people, an official said. The Taliban promptly claimed responsibility for the attack.
In a statement sent to the media, the Taliban said their new leader is Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, one of Mansour’s two deputies. The insurgent group said he was chosen at a meeting of Taliban leaders, which is believed to have taken place in Pakistan, but offered no other details.
Mansour was killed in Pakistan on Saturday when his vehicle was struck by a U.S. drone plane, an attack believed to be the first time a Taliban leader was killed in such a way inside Pakistani territory.
Pakistani authorities have been accused both by Kabul and the West of giving shelter and support to some Taliban leaders – an accusation that Islamabad denies. The insurgents have been fighting to overthrow the Kabul government since 2001, when their own Islamist regime was overthrown by the U.S. invasion.
The United States and the Afghan government have said that Mansour had been an obstacle to a peace process, which ground to a halt when he refused to participate in talks with the Afghan government earlier this year. Instead, he intensified the war in Afghanistan, now in its 15th year.
Mansour had officially led the Taliban since last summer, when the death of the movement’s founder, the one-eyed Mullah Mohammad Omar became public. But he is believed to have run the movement in Mullah Omar’s name for more than two years. The revelation of Mullah Omar’s death and Mansour’s deception led to widespread mistrust, with some senior Taliban leaders leaving the group to set up their own factions.
Some of these rivals fought Mansour’s men for land, mostly in the opium poppy-growing southern Taliban heartland.
Senior Taliban figures have said Mansour’s death could strengthen and unify the movement, as he was in some ways a divisive figure. The identity of his successor was expected to be an indication of the direction the insurgency would take, either toward peace or continued war.
Akhundzada is a religious scholar who served as the Taliban’s chief justice before his appointment as a deputy to Mansour. He is known for issuing public statements justifying the existence of the extremist Taliban, their war against the Afghan government and the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. His views are regarded as hawkish, and he could be expected to continue in the aggressive footsteps of Mansour, at least in the early days of his leadership.
He was close to Mullah Omar, who consulted with him on religious matters. A convincing orator, Akhunzada was born in Kandahar – the capital during the Taliban’s 1996-2001 regime.
A member of the Noorzai tribe, he is said to be aged around 50 years, and comes from a line of religious scholars. He leads a string of madrassas, or religious schools – figures in the Taliban say up to 10 – across Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province.
A former foreign minister under the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Ghous, told The Associated Press that the choice of Akhundzada was “a very wise decision.” Akhundzada was well respected among Taliban of all ranks, and could be a unifying force for the fractured movement, Ghous said.
But hopes that the new leader would be a unifying figure dimmed within hours of the announcement Wednesday, with some dissident Taliban figures rejecting Akhundzada as leader.
A breakaway Taliban faction led by Mullah Mohammad Rasool, which has for months battled Mansour’s men for control of drug smuggling routes in the south, said it would not accept the new leader for the same reason it rejected Mansour – Akhundzada was chosen by the same small clique of leaders rather than by the wide rank and file.
“We will not accept him as a new leader until and unless all religious scholars and tribal elders sit together and appoint new leader,” said the faction’s spokesman, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, speaking of Akhundzada.
However, President Ashraf Ghani’s office said the appointment brought the insurgents “yet another opportunity to end and renounce violence, lay down their arms, and resume a normal and peaceful life.”
Ghani, who took office in 2014, assiduously courted Pakistan in an effort to bring the Taliban into a dialogue that would lead to peace talks. Mansour, however, refused, choosing instead to intensify the war once the international combat mission drew down to a training and support role in 2015.
Deputy presidential spokesman Zafar Hashemi said that if the Taliban decided against joining the peace process, “they will face the fate of their leadership.”
Wednesday’s Taliban statement also said two new deputies to Akhundzada have been appointed – both of whom had earlier been thought to be the main contenders for the top job.
One of them is Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was also one of Mansour’s deputies and who leads the notorious Haqqani network – the faction behind some of the most ferocious attacks in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. The other is the son of Mullah Omar, Mullah Yaqoub, who controls the Taliban military commissions for 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Akhundzada’s appointment came as a surprise to some, including Ghous, who said that despite not being a top contender but a “third candidate,” the new leader would rise above any personal animosity or conflict that might have arisen should either Haqqani or Yaqoub have been chosen.
The Taliban statement called on all Muslims to mourn Mansour for three days, starting from Wednesday. It also attempted to calm any qualms among the rank and file by calling for unity and obedience to the new leader.