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Taliban tussle over Mullah Omar: Is a succession crisis brewing?

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Osama Faisal/AP/File

(Read caption) A general view of Taliban office in Doha, Qatar, June 18, 2013.

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The head of the Taliban's office in Qatar resigned Tuesday, issuing a statement that seemed to criticize the group’s new leader, a week after longtime leader Mullah Omar was confirmed dead.

Syed Mohammad Tayab Agha’s resignation has fueled speculation that the Afghan militant organization faces a succession crisis following the disclosure of Omar’s 2013 death. The infighting comes at a crucial moment, amid ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government. A round of talks was scheduled for Friday, but delayed at the Taliban’s request. 

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Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansour was chosen as Omar’s successor, but several members of Omar’s family and senior leaders of the Taliban have reportedly rejected his appointment, Foreign Policy reports. 

Agence France Presse called it the “biggest leadership crisis in recent years” and said it "raises the risk of a factional split."

Pakistan-based leadership called the speculation about internal disagreements “enemy propaganda” and told followers to ignore it.

"We have tried our best to distribute materials through our official websites, Facebook, Twitters accounts, cellphone messages and other means, but enemy spies are constantly suspending and restricting our access,” the statement from the leadership said, according to the Associated Press. "So help us in this regard by sharing and distributing all materials as widely as possible.” 

Mr. Agha, the director of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, said in his resignation statement that it was a mistake for Omar’s death to have been covered up. The decision to hide it has been attributed to Mullah Mansour, who was Omar’s longtime deputy and was chosen by the Taliban’s supreme council.

“The death of Mullah Omar was kept secret for two years,” Agha said, according to Agence France Presse. “I consider this a historical mistake."

Reuters reports:

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He said previous leaders appointed outside the country going back to the invasion by Soviet forces, and the government set up after the Taliban were ousted, had "very bad repercussions."

The leader should be appointed "in presence of the courageous mujahideen in their strongholds inside the country," Agha said, referring to Islamist fighters.

The Doha office was set up in 2013 in part to facilitate peace talks.

Reuters reports that it’s unclear how serious the threat to Mansour’s leadership is, but that at the very least the talks will likely be delayed while he consolidates power, adding that several commanders have ceased fighting until “the situation is clarified.”

Mansour is perceived as being close to Pakistan, which is mediating the talks. More hardline commanders have pressed for their abandonment and a focus on fighting. Some militants see it as Pakistan “forcing” the Taliban into talks, according to AFP.

Paul Miller, the director for Afghanistan on the National Security Council under the Bush and Obama administrations, writes in Foreign Policy that Omar’s positions were incompatible with those of the US and Afghan government and that with him gone, the hard-line faction is weaker. But the Afghan government’s position is weakening too, he says. 

That does not mean peace talks with the Afghan government are imminent. The Afghan government’s negotiating position is also weak, and getting weaker by the day because of the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2016. The Afghan government will be weak after the U.S. withdrawal and more prone to make concessions to the Taliban, and they know it, almost certainly why peace talks have made little progress since Obama announced his withdrawal plans.

In a separate piece, Foreign Policy writes that the Doha-based leadership has been edged out by Mansour’s close relationship with Pakistan and the decision to hold the latest round of peace talks there.

But Mansour is going to struggle to hold the movement together, according to FP, because Mansour lacks the legitimacy Omar had as a perceived “leader of the faithful.”

Far more than al Qaeda, and perhaps even more than the Islamic State, the various competing interests inside the Taliban have remained nominally united due to the belief that Omar is the amir ul momineen (leader of the faithful). Omar’s spiritual status has long been the only thing holding the Taliban together. Mansour may have important friends in Pakistan but he is no leader of the faithful, and on the eve of negotiations, the Taliban seem closer than ever to splitting wide open.