PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - The Afghan Taliban may split into two factions, said a spokesman for one group on Saturday, because they cannot agree who should be leader following the death of their founder.
The split could derail fledgling peace talks between the insurgency and the Afghan government and open the way for the Islamic State group to expand its foothold in one of the world’s most tumultuous regions.
The dispute occurred after Afghan intelligence leaked news last month that the insurgency’s reclusive founder, Mullah Omar, had been dead for more than two years.
A hastily convened meeting chose Omar’s deputy, Mullah Mansour, as the new leader. But many commanders were angry that Mansour had concealed Omar’s death and objected to his speedy appointment.
On Saturday, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, a spokesman for the anti-Mansour faction, said talks between Mansour and the dissatisfied commanders had failed.
“We waited for two months and wanted Mullah Mansour to understand the situation and step down to let the Supreme Council choose the new leader by consensus - but he failed,” said Niazi.
Representatives for Mansour were not available for comment.
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan, imposing a severe interpretation of Islam and Sharia, from the mid-1990s until 2001 when they were overthrown during a U.S.-led invasion. But in recent years, and with the withdrawal of Western forces, their guerrilla forces have grown in influence.
Niazi did not suggest the dissident commanders would attack Mansour, who has considerable support. Instead, he said the dissident commanders will now direct their own attacks on the Afghan government and its foreign allies in Afghanistan.
“Anyone engaged in militant activities under the leadership of Mullah Mansour isn’t a jihadi,” he said. “We will now publicly oppose him.”
Niazi’s comments come after Omar’s son Yaqoob and brother Manan swore allegiance to Mansour this week. Omar’s family had initially opposed Mansour but agreed to support him after he agreed to a list of their demands.
Niazi said Mansour had threatened to cut Taliban funds that Manan had been receiving if he did not support Mansour’s leadership.
“Its an economic issue rather than religious,” Mullah Niazi said. “Mullah Yaqoob and Mullah Manan had never played any role in 20-year of jihad. They were sitting at home.”
“We founded the Islamic Emirate, we gave sacrifices and we brought it to this level. We are the real heirs of the Islamic Emirate.”
The Islamic Emirate is what the Taliban called Afghanistan under their rule.
Representatives for Omar’s family were unavailable for comment.
Niazi said the dissident Taliban included Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir, a prominent commander formerly held in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay; Mullah Hasan Rahmani and Mohammad Rasool, two Taliban leaders with substantial power bases; and Mullah Abdul Razaq, a former Taliban minister of the interior.
Several powerful Taliban leaders based at the political office in Qatar have not yet publicly endorsed Mansour.
Writing by Katharine Houreld; editing by Ralph Boulton