In what is quite apparently a bid to keep the movement from fraying without the magnetism and authority of Mullah Omar, his successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, new chief of the Afghan Taliban, has pulled out of the Pakistan-sponsored peace talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government and vowed that the jihad will continue.
Mansoor, who is around 50 years old, was born in Kariz village in Kandahar’s Maiwand district to a poor, farming family. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, his family, like countless others, encamped in Pakistan. As a stocky and seemingly humorless madrassah student in Jalozai camp near Peshawar in 1994, Mansoor cultivated his fellow students with his generosity and compassion. He parlayed his popularity into a position in the Harkat Islami student union.
Although Mansoor had briefly participated in the jihad against the Soviets, he was a bit of a latecomer to Omar’s burgeoning Taliban movement that was quickly filling up the power vacuum in restive post-occupation Afghanistan. In June 1995, he decided to abort his religious schooling and head back home to join the movement. Mansoor took with him 150 students from Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan to Kandahar to pledge allegiance to the Taliban. He caught Omar’s eye and rose to become the Taliban regime’s minister for civil aviation.
In 1997, when the Taliban failed in their attempt to take Mazar-e-Sharif, an Uzbek warlord took Mansoor as prisoner of war. Omar retrieved his young lieutenant through a prisoner exchange. Two years later, Mansoor was in the hot seat and gained international prominence for his role in defusing the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814, which had finally landed in Kandahar. Since New Delhi did not formally recognize the Taliban regime, it found little support from Omar’s camp. But at Pakistan’s behest, the Taliban and Mansoor relented and worked with the U.N. to manage and end the crisis.
After 9/11, Mansoor kept rising through the ranks by default: one by one, his rivals for power were killed off by the Americans or by Afghan forces. In 2012, Mansoor’s authority was challenged by Abdul Qayum Zakir. But the wily Mansoor, who has long presented himself as a wise tribal elder, had Zakir politically sidelined. Mansoor has not been above using his growing clout and closeness with Omar for personal gain. He consolidated his grip by giving several key positions in the movement to members of his own Ishaqzai tribe, and many say he is involved in both the opium trade and in marble smuggling.
Ambitious but measured, eloquent but reserved, Mansoor now heads a movement that is struggling for relevance in the age of the sweeping Islamic State. But if he can outfox the CIA and others by keeping Omar’s 2013 death secret until now, and having built a strong resistance to the Kabul government, this may not prove too difficult a job for him.