PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - The Afghan Taliban’s new leader is wooing powerful figures from the militant movement based in the Middle East who have not yet publicly pledged their support, sources within the group say, as he attempts to stifle a brewing challenge to his position.
A battle for the top job could worsen violence in Afghanistan by triggering Taliban-on-Taliban fighting and in turn doom fledgling peace talks between the Afghan government and the insurgency.
It could also make it easier for Islamic State to expand its influence in one of the world’s most unstable regions.
Mullah Mansour was hastily appointed leader of the Taliban, the Islamist insurgency fighting to overthrow the Afghan government, in July after the Afghan spy agency leaked the death of Mullah Omar, founder of the movement.
Mansour was Omar’s deputy. Many commanders were outraged that Mansour concealed news of Omar’s death for more than two years and boycotted the meeting that appointed him.
Mansour said the deception ensured Taliban unity amid the 2014 withdrawal of NATO troops.
Despite his efforts, as rumors of Omar’s death grew stronger, at least three Afghan insurgent factions pledged allegiance to Islamic State, a Middle Eastern group known for public executions and systematic rape in Iraq and Syria.
In recent weeks, Mansour sent Mullah Jalil, an envoy with good contacts with the Taliban’s political leadership, to persuade senior members based in the Middle East to publicly support him instead of a rival faction coalescing around Omar’s brother and son, Taliban insiders told Reuters.
The Taliban operate a political office in Qatar and also frequently hold informal meetings with diplomats in the United Arab Emirates.
The outcome of talks in Qatar and the UAE may determine whether the dissident faction launches an open challenge to Mansour.
So far it has refused to accept his authority, but not put forward a rival candidate. Omar’s family have far less money and fighters than Mansour, who also enjoys good relations with Pakistan.
One Taliban source said the leadership in the Middle East had been planning to split from Mansour because they feared he was too close to Pakistani intelligence.
Pakistan has long been accused of backing the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, having helped set up the movement in the 1990s. It denies it has any operational links.
“Some senior members of the group such as Tayyab Agha and Mullah Hasan Rahmani ... feel threatened in Pakistan,” the source said. “Mullah Mansour is sending a delegation headed by Mullah Jalil to hold talks with them and convince them to pledge allegiance.”
Agha is the leader of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar and Rahmani is a former deputy of Omar’s and head of the political council.
So far, both Mansour and his opponents have succeeded in avoiding an open showdown. Taliban commanders opposing Mansour say he is using threats and incentives to strengthen his position.
“Mullah Mansour offered (his opponents) top responsibilities in the Islamic Emirate and huge financial assistance if they pledged allegiance to him, but they rejected all these offers,” a senior member of the anti-Mansour faction told Reuters.
“Then he started sending threatening messages, but even then they are opposing his appointment as leader.”
Small skirmishes over the leadership have already begun, some Taliban say.
“Their (Mansour’s) armed men are raiding in different places in Afghanistan and forcing their rivals to announce allegiance to Mansour,” said Mullah Abdul Niazi, spokesman for the anti-Mansour faction.
Mullah Mansour Dadullah, a battlefield commander leading a breakaway faction of the Taliban, accused Mansour of sending fighters to seize territory from his men in Zabul province last month.
“Taliban, with 50 motorcycles, raided our centers and residential areas during the night late in August and tried to establish check points,” a furious Dadullah said in a video published last week.
“We are trying to solve the problem through the mediation of the ulema (council) of elders. They may force us to an armed defense,” he said.
A senior member of Mansour’s faction admitted there had been “some clashes among fighters in different areas due to misunderstandings ... But we overcame this issue.”
But Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who supports Mansour, denied that and dismissed Dadullah’s claims.
“Why would we send our fighters to harass him? He is not capable enough to challenge us,” he said.
Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni in Kabul; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Mike Collett-White