New Taliban Leader Moves to Repair Old Fractures
Reconciliation efforts come as insurgency presses new offensive in Helmand
Photo: An Afghan security force member manning a position during a military operation against the Taliban in Helmand province last week. Photo: Xinhua /Zuma Press
By Habib Khan Totakhil and Jessica Donati
Aug. 4, 2016 2:00 p.m. ET
KABUL—The Taliban’s new leader is wooing back some disaffected members as the insurgency wages a new offensive in strategic Helmand province, say those close to the group, defying U.S. and Afghan government efforts to undermine it.
Maulavi Haibatullah Akhundzada, in power for just over two months, has been reaching out to key Taliban figures sidelined by his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, according to these people.
In one key example, the new Taliban chief has nominated a former military commander in Helmand, Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir, to return to an official post just as the insurgency is intensifying efforts to retake the province. Other nominations include Mullah Nanai as chief justice of the Taliban supreme court.
The more inclusive approach marks a break from Mullah Mansour, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in May. Mullah Mansour had attempted to stamp out opposition to his leadership, after rival factions battled for control of the group. The group splintered when it emerged last year that their supposed leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had died two years before and his death had been kept secret.
The Afghan government sought to exploit these divisions by paying off breakaway commanders to fight the main group. The U.S. military expected the May drone strike that killed Mullah Mansour would further disrupt the movement, since he kept such tight grip over financial and military operations.
Instead, the Taliban’s new leader is winning back factions that previously posed a threat. “They don’t have the internal disagreements anymore,” said Waheed Muzhda, a former Taliban official who maintains contacts with the group. “They are stronger than before.”
A more unified Taliban is now close to capturing two more districts in Helmand, a traditional stronghold that produces much of the opium that helps fund the insurgency, and which borders Pakistan. Some of the fiercest battles between the Taliban and U.S. and British troops have been fought for control of the province.
A reorganized Taliban would further strain Afghan forces that are struggling to hold ground against the group despite an increase in U.S. military support. A recent report by the U.S. government watchdog in Afghanistan showed the local forces have lost control over another 5 % of the country’s territory since the start of the year.
At the same time, the Taliban have claimed responsibility for several suicide bombings targeting the capital, highlighting the shaky security nationwide since most foreign troops withdrew in 2014. Casualties are up sharply this year, both for civilians and among the Afghan police and military.
President Barack Obama agreed in June to reinstate permission for U.S. troops to take offensive action against the Taliban, and said last month he would slow the rate of troop withdrawals.
Despite heavy U.S. airstrikes in recent days, Taliban forces have advanced in southern Helmand this week and overrun two districts there including Nad Ali, which borders the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.
Residents in Nad Ali say it is only a matter of time before the Taliban capture the last remaining buildings under government control.
“Taliban seem determined to capture Lashkar Gah even for a few hours. Locals in the city are very worried,” said Rohullah Elham, the son of a local police commander.
The military push has coincided with new appointments aimed at repairing fractures. Those close to the Taliban say reconciliation efforts have targeted several influential figures who quit when Mullah Mansour seized power.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid confirmed appointments had been made but declined to provide details “for security reasons.”
Sayed Akbar Agha, a former senior Taliban commander now living in Kabul. said the Taliban “most probably” would reappoint Tayyeb Agha, who was a close aide to the Taliban’s founder, as chief of the group’s political office in Qatar.
A person close to the office said Mr. Agha’s return was unlikely to accelerate chances for peace. He added that the U.S. decision to slow the withdrawal of forces had renewed the group’s determination to keep fighting.
“There is no new direction at the political office,” he said.
Saeed Shah and Ehsanullah Amiri contributed to this article.