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Rumblings Emerge After Taliban Names New Leader


Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada in an undated photograph

The Afghan Taliban has confirmed that leader Mullah Akhtar Mansur was killed in a U.S. drone strike last week and appointed as his successor a scholar known for his radical views.

But a breakaway Taliban faction has signaled its rejection of the elevation of Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, a former deputy to Mansur, inviting uncertainty about whether the militant group can unite on key issues, which include its strategic opposition to Kabul's authority and possible peace talks to end years of fighting.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Akhundzada was appointed "after a unanimous agreement" in a meeting of Taliban leaders, which was believed to have been held in Pakistan.

Later on May 25, a suicide bomber killed 11 people in an attack -- claimed by the Taliban -- on a minibus carrying court employees in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Mansur was killed in Pakistan on May 21 when his vehicle was targeted by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan's southwestern province of Balochistan.

He had been named leader of the Taliban in July, just days after the Afghan government confirmed that the movement's spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar had died in the Pakistani port city of Karachi two years earlier.

Akhundzada is a religious scholar. He is around 50 years old and was born in Kandahar, the capital during the fundamentalist Taliban's 1996-2001 rule over most of Afghanistan.

He hails from the Noorzai tribe and leads a network of madrasahs, or religious schools, across Pakistan's Balochistan Province.

Akhundzada served as the Taliban's chief justice before his appointment as a deputy to Mansur. His views are regarded as hawkish, and reports say he could be expected to continue Mansur’s aggressive line.

In a statement e-mailed to the media on May 25, Taliban spokesman Mujahid denied a Reuters report that Akhundzada had issued an audio recording rejecting peace talks. Mujahid wrote in the e-mail that Akhundzada had not issued any message.

A former foreign minister under the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Ghous, said the choice of Akhundzada was "a very wise decision." Ghous suggested that Akhundzada was highly regarded among Taliban of all ranks and could be a unifying force for the fractured movement.

Breakaway Group

However, a breakaway Taliban group led by Mullah Mohammad Rasool, which had reportedly been battling Mansur's fighters for control of drug-smuggling routes in the south, said it would not accept the new leader for the same reason it rejected Mansur.

Mullah Manan Neyazi, a spokesman for Rasool, said Akhundzada, like Mansur before him, was chosen by the same small group of leaders rather than by the rank-and-file.

"He doesn’t have wide recognition and he is unpopular among Taliban, that's why his appointment is not acceptable," he told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.

Rahimullah Yousafzai, a prominent Pakistani journalist who specializes in covering militants, said that "the status quo remains unchanged" after Akhundzada's appointment.

"I don't foresee any shift from Mansur's policies,” Yousafzai added. "[Akhundzada] is unlikely to negotiate with the Afghan government."

"Even if [Akhundzada] favors peace talks, he is unlikely to proceed without consensus" within the Taliban's main leadership council where many oppose negotiations, said Amir Rana, the director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies in Islamabad.

The Taliban statement also said two deputies to Akhundzada were appointed.

One of them, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is the leader of a network blamed for many high-profile bomb attacks in Kabul in recent years. The second one is Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of former leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

The movement has since been fighting to overthrow the Kabul government.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan according to a harsh interpretation of Islamic law until the group was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion following the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Shortly after Taliban's announcement of a new leader, a suicide bomber targeted a minibus carrying court employees in Kabul during morning rush hour on May 25, killing 11 people. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

The bomber, who was on foot, detonated his explosive vest as he walked by the vehicle in the western part of the city, Afghan authorities said.

The attack was the second of its kind on the judiciary this month -- a judge was shot dead by unknown attackers in Kabul earlier in May.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Afghan Service, Reuters, AP, and AFP
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