KABUL (Reuters) - The United States is watching the upheavals in the Taliban leadership closely, following disputed reports over the fate of its leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, but it may be some time before a clearer picture emerges, a top U.S. official said on Sunday.
The comments from Richard Olson, newly appointed U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, follow an audio message from the Taliban rebutting widespread reports that Mansour had been seriously wounded in a shootout.
“We’ve seen conflicting reports about what may have happened and we’re going to continue to monitor the situation,” Olson told a news conference in Kabul.
“We’re actually somewhat skeptical that we will have a great deal of clarity in the near term but, in any case, we believe that stability in Afghanistan and the region requires an end to violence,” he said.
The audio message, said to come from Mansour himself, rejects “enemy rumors” that he was badly wounded or even killed when a dispute escalated during a meeting with other Taliban commanders near Quetta in Pakistan last week.
No independent verification of the speaker’s identity has been possible, and there is wide scepticism about the utterances of a movement that denied reports of the death of its founder Mullah Mohammad Omar for months before finally acknowledging in July that he had died as long ago as 2013.
The message accuses the Taliban’s enemies of deliberately spreading propaganda aimed at creating disunity, but also implicitly acknowledges internal disagreements.
“I didn’t want to talk about this rumor but was compelled to give confidence to the Mujahideen (fighters) and ordinary Muslims,” said a statement summarizing the message.
Even as it rejects the “rumors” and denies that the shooting incident took place, the statement implies that some divisions do exist, but says that “verbal differences do not mean escalation to armed conflict”.
“We have Ulama (religious scholars) and astute leaders who can resolve, intervene in such matters and never let it escalate to such a state,” it says.
Mansour, the longtime Taliban number two, was named as leader immediately after Omar’s death was confirmed, but some parts of the movement have never accepted his authority and dozens have been killed in fighting between rival factions.
The confused picture has been further complicated by the emergence of groups claiming allegiance to Islamic State, which is battling the Taliban in some regions for leadership of the anti-government insurgency.
Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Kevin Liffey