Mullah Omar Names Major Taliban Appointments to Replace a Captured Leader

Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who remains in hiding and has not been seen publicly for nine years, has appointed two of his top Taliban militia commanders from the south to replace his former deputy and longtime comrade-in-arms Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar who was arrested by Pakistani forces in Karachi last month.

Abu Zabihullah, a senior Taliban operative whose has supplied accurate information to NEWSWEEK in the past, says that the one-eyed Taliban leaders has confirmed Abdul Qayum Zakir, a former Guantánamo inmate, and Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, a portly and personable rear-echelon leader, as his deputies, replacing Baradar. Their appointments, Zabihullah says, are meant "to convey a good message that, despite our leader's arrest, the Taliban is back to business-as-usual operations without a problem."

The choice of Zakir, who was released from Guantánamo in late 2007, and who returned to join the Taliban in the field about one year later after being freed by Afghan authorities, is popular with Taliban commanders. Several Taliban commanders have told NEWSWEEK that they wrote letters to Mullah Omar in support of Zakir as the logical replacement for Baradar soon after his deputy's arrest. The commanders favor Zakir because, unlike Baradar—who never set foot in Afghanistan since the Taliban's collapse in late 2001—he frequently visits insurgent units in the field, giving them advice and listening to their complaints. For more than a year, Zakir, who is in his mid-30s, has largely been in charge of insurgent operations in the south of Afghanistan.

Mansoor, who is in his early 40s, is also liked by field commanders. Although he doesn't have the presence on the battlefield that Zakir does, he is known be a key rear-echelon logistics man, helping to move financing, arms, and other equipment from Pakistan into the field and assisting in the evacuation of the wounded. He also has important contacts with financial sources in the oil-rich Persian Gulf nations.

As one of their first orders of business only three days ago, Zakir and Mansoor reshuffled several shadow provincial governors in an effort to improve the insurgency's effectiveness. They also appointed another former Gitmo detainee to head a committee in charge of handling the insurgents' hefty ransom demands for their kidnap victims and for dealing with nongovernment-aid organizations who are considering—or may already be running—projects in areas under Taliban influence. They even appointed directors of male education for several provinces in an effort to soften their image. Girls' education is still frowned upon.

Unlike Baradar, who may have favored a testing the waters for some kind of eventual peace talks (by holding contacts with tribal leaders and perhaps indirect contacts with Kabul and U.N. officials), neither Zakir nor Mansoor seem to favor any moves toward negotiations at this time. Rather they are both focused on trying to keep the insurgency as strong and as intact as possible in the face of the U.S. military surge in the south this year. That in itself will be a very big challenge.

Who are Abdul Qayum Zakir's brothers in arms? Click here to see a slideshow of America's most wanted terrorists.