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Afghan Taliban breakaway faction challenges new chief Mansour

KABUL: A breakaway faction of the Taliban has appointed its own leader, in the first formal split in the militant movement under new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, posing a fresh hurdle to potential peace talks.

Mullah Mohamed Rasool was named the leader of the faction in a mass gathering of dissident fighters this week in the remote southwestern province of Farah, according to an AFP reporter who attended the meeting.

It was unclear whether the new group can rally wide support but its emergence exposes simmering rifts within the movement since the announcement of longtime leader Mullah Omar’s death in late July.

“Mansour is not our Amir-ul-Momineen,” Rasool told the gathering of dozens of fighters in remote Bakwah district, referring to the respected Islamic title of “commander of the faithful”.

“We don’t accept him as our leader. He was not elected lawfully in accordance with Sharia to lead the group,” said Rasool, wearing glasses and a black turban and flanked by heavily armed fighters.

Splits emerged at the top of the Taliban following the appointment of Mansour as replacement for Omar, the movement’s founding leader whose death was confirmed this summer.

Many in the movement were unhappy the death had been kept secret for two years — during which time annual Eid statements were issued in Omar’s name.

Others said the process to choose Mansour, believed to be too close to Pakistan’s shadowy military establishment, as his successor was rushed and even biased.

Among Mansour’s opponents were members of Omar’s family, though the dead leader’s son and brother recently pledged allegiance to the new chief, according to Taliban officials.

The emergence of the new group was unlikely to threaten Mansour, who appears to have bolstered his position with a spate of Taliban military successes, including the recent stunning three-day occupation of northern Kunduz city.

But analysts warn that it bodes ill for any potential peace talks, which have stalled since the announcement of Omar’s death.

“The rise of this hardline group marks the first split in the militant movement since Omar’s death,” said Waheed Mujhda, an Afghan analyst and former foreign ministry official during the 1996-2001 Taliban regime.

“It could attract more hardline fighters and make any future peace talks more complicated for the Afghan government,” Mujhda told AFP.

Growing infighting

The Taliban have so far not commented on the rise of Rasool, who was believed to be close to Omar and served as the governor of southwestern Nimroz province during the group’s rule.

He appointed four deputies — Mullah Baz Mohammad Haris, Abdul Manan Niazi, Mansoor Dadullah and Shir Mohammad Akhundzada — but did not reveal the number of followers his group has.

Mujhda said Niazi and Dadullah were the only two prominent faces, both regional commanders with limited influence to wean away other Mansour loyalists.

“This splinter group cannot pose a military challenge to Mansour, who has dozens of commanders under him,” he said.

“But fighting between both sides cannot be ruled out in the future.”

Rasool, believed to be aged between 45 and 50, insisted that his group’s mission was to “unite the mujahideen” and urged his cadres to be cautious not to start an intra-rebel war.

He reiterated the insurgents’ longstanding rhetoric of stepping up the fight against US-backed forces in Afghanistan until the last foreign soldier leaves.

Mansour has been struggling to quell the internal dissent within his group and reconcile feuding factions since the bitter leadership transition.

Three senior figures in the Taliban’s Qatar political office set up to facilitate talks with Kabul, including its chief Tayeb Agha, resigned in August to protest his appointment.

But despite being riven with internal divisions, and the recent emergence of the rival Islamic State group in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s 14-year insurgency shows no sign of slackening.

The United Nations estimates that the group’s reach is the widest since 2001 and more than half of the districts across Afghanistan are at risk of falling to the Taliban.

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