Nearly a year ago, Pakistani security forces acting on U.S. intelligence arrested the Taliban's senior leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, brother-in-law and No. 2 to the reclusive, one-eyed Mullah Mohammed Omar. Now the Taliban have finally anointed his successor. A top Taliban intelligence officer and several other knowledgeable insurgent sources tell NEWSWEEK that the insurgency's top commanders named two replacements for Baradar last month at a shura--or senior council meeting--near the Pakistani frontier city of Quetta. The anointees: Abdul Qayum Zakir, a former Guantanamo inmate and ruthless field commander; and Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, a portly financial and logistical expert who commands a large militia force. "It's clear that these two top leaders are in control of the Taliban's military affairs," says the Taliban officer. (Another top guerrilla commander in eastern Afghanistan, Sirajuddin Haqqani, operates his insurgency independently of the Taliban and Mullah Omar, though he pledges allegiance to them.)
Zakir's and Mansoor's official elevation comes at a crucial time for the guerrillas, who are under increasing pressure in the key southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar from tens of thousands of U.S. reinforcements, drastically ramped-up U.S. airstrikes, and night raids on suspected Taliban compounds. The American offensive has resulted in the capture and deaths of more than a thousand guerrilla fighters, including the crucial loss of hundreds of mid- and lower-level commanders over the past few months. While Zakir and Mansoor differ on many issues, Taliban leaders are hoping that the men--both of whom hail from southern Helmand province--will be able to improve flagging insurgent morale in the south and help fighters devise a comeback strategy when the harsh winter weather wanes in the next few months.
Zakir, in particular, is well placed to rally the insurgents: as former head of the insurgency's Central Military Command, he was responsible for funneling funds and weapons from Pakistan to the front in Afghanistan, for delivering a flood of suicide bombers to the north, for promoting attacks on key cities, and for increasing funding for Kandahar and Helmand as they staggered under heavy U.S. pressure. Zakir's replacement, a kidnapper and gangster named Mullah Muhammed Ishmael, came to the shura's attention thanks to a lucrative protection racket he ran along a key stretch of the Kandahar Highway (also called the Bush Highway, after the former president who funded its construction) in Zabul. In return for massive bribes from private Afghan security contractors hired by the U.S. military, Ishmael allowed safe passage for fuel convoys to U.S. bases in the south. During that time, Taliban sources say, he also made big money kidnapping Afghans and foreigners along the highway and holding them for ransom.
To give the new appointments extra heft, the Taliban is playing up the line that they were made with Mullah Omar's explicit consent. According to the Taliban official, Zakir "was not happy as the military council's head...he's now more comfortable as Mullah Omar's official deputy." And when Zakir summoned Ishmael to Quetta to transfer control of the Central Military Command, he told him that the appointment had been personally approved by Omar. But according to other fighters, few people truly believe Omar had any say in the matter. The mullah has not been seen or heard from since November 2001, when he fled Kandahar on the back of Baradar's motorcycle. Ten years later, Omar's name does not have the resonance or clout it once did. As a result, most Taliban are skeptical of claims or rumors that Zakir and Mansoor--or any Taliban commanders, for that matter--have had direct contact with their missing leader.
In fact, the arrest of Baradar and the appointments of Zakir, Mansoor, and Ishmael make many Taliban suspicious that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, may be behind the changes and could be manipulating the jihad for its own purposes. Mansoor has been widely rumored to be close to the ISI. "The ISI's arrest of our respected senior leader, and the appointment of two new and competing commanders, makes me wonder if all this is a sign that the ISI wants to divide and weaken us without killing us," says a former senior Taliban intelligence officer who now operates for the insurgency out of the Gulf state of Dubai. He quotes a Pashto saying to make his point: "Too many butchers can't kill the cow." One strong reason for his skepticism: the sudden appearance of another pretender to the position of Omar's deputy.
Mullah Agha Jan Montasim--a former treasurer of the Taliban regime during Omar's rein in Kabul who is widely accused of absconding with $20 million in state funds--is now promoting himself as a Baradar replacement. According to several Taliban sources, Montasim has been meeting with senior Taliban commanders in Pakistan and doling out money and military hardware to them. "There is such a leadership vacuum that we don't know who is, or should be, in charge--or who is really linked to Mullah Omar," laments the Taliban member in Dubai. He and other Taliban fear that without a coherent, respected, and popular leadership, the insurgency could eventually deteriorate into competing warlords, similar to the kind who tore Afghanistan apart in the anarchic early 1990s. Washington can only hope.