Taliban Dirty Dozen: Afghan and Pakistani Insurgents to Watch

Defectors from Omar’s ranks (like this one in Herat) often hide their identities rather than risk being killed by their former comrades. Aref Karimi / AFP-Getty Images

Much has changed In the year since our last lineup of the Taliban's 12 most important second-rank figures. True, the men at the top are the same: supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar remains silent and in hiding; the group's day-to-day chief, Abdul Qayyum Zakir, is still giving orders from safety in the Pakistani city of Quetta; and their partner in jihad, Sirajuddin Haqqani, de facto leader of the Haqqani network, somehow keeps evading U.S. drones in Waziristan. But internal splits, American patrols and unmanned aerial vehicles, and plain luck have made life uncertain at best for their lieutenants in the field. An updated who's who:

Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor Babyfaced and portly, but one of the Taliban's most versatile commanders, with hands-on administrative experience as the regime's civil-aviation chief as well as a long battlefield record and proven fundraising talent. Respected for his coolheadedness, and sometimes mentioned as a possible rival to Zakir. Last year a Pakistani shopkeeper passed himself off to coalition brass as Mansoor, supposedly bearing a peace offer from Omar. Before being unmasked, the imposter got money, VIP treatment, and access to the presidential palace in Kabul—testimony to the real Mansoor's importance.

Mullah Gul Agha Akhund If any Taliban leader has direct contact with the reclusive Omar these days, he's likely the one. Claims to have a handwritten letter from Omar naming him second in command. They fought side by side against the Soviets, and when Omar gained power in 1996, Akhund was his personal secretary, often seated next to him and offering advice while Omar held court in Kandahar. Since the 2001 U.S. invasion, Akhund has overseen the insurgency's financial affairs, and as head of the accountability committee of the Taliban's ruling council, the Quetta Shura, he issues disciplinary orders against commanders who flout Omar's dictates. Not a man to be crossed.

Maulvi Hassan Rahmani Another fixture at Omar's palace; served as the regime's governor of Kandahar province and still commands troops there. Like his fellow senior Quetta Shura member Mansoor, Rahmani is respected as a calm commander and savvy organizer, fundraiser, and recruiter. Topped our list last year but has been muscled aside by rising star Akhund.

Sayyid Allaudin Agha Faces a huge challenge as head of the Quetta Shura's military committee: it's his job to reverse the past three years of U.S. gains in the south. Has been ordered by Zakir himself to be on the ground inside Afghanistan this spring and summer, personally commanding insurgent operations. A tough adversary, he earned a brutal reputation on the front lines against the Northern Alliance before the U.S. invasion, and he recently unseated his predecessor as the committee's leader, Maulvi Ishmael—who made our list a year ago but now is under a cloud, accused of having sent peace feelers to the despised Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Sayyid Tayyab Agha Never a fighter, but belongs on this list as one of Omar's most trusted aides and as the Taliban's lead negotiator in the currently suspended Qatar peace talks. By far the insurgents' best-educated, most articulate and polished representative, he was Omar's English-language interpreter and envoy before the U.S. invasion. According to a former senior Taliban diplomat, Omar entrusted Tayyab with highly sensitive information, including his own escape plans when the regime fell. Omar regarded Tayyab's father as one of the most pious men in Kandahar, and some of that esteem seems to have rubbed off on the son. Tayyab is said to repay Omar's respect by following his orders meticulously.

Hajji Lala Shadow governor of Kabul and chief of operations on the eastern front from his base in Peshawar. Has earned a reputation as a logistics expert, keeping a steady flow of money, arms, explosives and supplies moving into eastern Afghanistan, including the capital. Directed both civilian broadcast radio and covert military communications for the regime until 2001.

Maulvi Abdul Kabir Until the Taliban's dysfunctional government fell, he was officially its head, occupying the same office now used by Karzai at the presidential palace. A prominent member of the eastern Zadran tribe, Kabir helps ensure close cooperation with the Haqqanis, who are also Zadranis. He's known for fiery pep talks and ruthless tactics, like the February 2011 Jalalabad bank robbery in which his gunmen slaughtered 40 people, and few other Taliban leaders can match his credentials as a senior member not only of the Quetta Shura and its military council but also of the Peshawar Shura. Nevertheless, some Taliban suspect him of working for Pakistan's ISI spy agency, which has arrested and released him several times, most recently in early 2010.

Mullah Shareen Akhund An up-and-comer among commanders in Kandahar; widely believed to have been behind the April 2011 jailbreak from the province's main prison, when nearly 500 Taliban prisoners escaped through a hand-dug tunnel. His explosives experts have made a name for themselves building IEDs, suicide vests, and vehicle bombs, and he's credited with knowing "every inch of Kandahar's soil," able to choose the deadliest spots for IED attacks. A senior Taliban source calls him "one of our most intelligent and valuable military experts."

Amir Khan Muttaqi Omar's former spokesman and his minister of culture and education; smart, articulate, and personable but tough. Was supposed to join Tayyab Agha's talks with the Americans in Qatar this past February but never got there. Rumor has it that Pakistani officials, angry at the Taliban for seeking peace, refused to let him cross their territory en route to the Gulf. Runs the insurgents' spruced-up propaganda apparatus, which has noticeably improved the quality of its work in print, on DVD, and on the Web. U.S. psy-war experts complain that his team often reacts to events faster than the coalition's own public affairs specialists can. He has increased the number and improved the quality of the insurgency's websites, print publications, and DVDs.

Nasiruddin Haqqani While older brother Sirajuddin focuses on armed strategy and tactics, Nasiruddin collects donations to the network from wealthy Gulf Arabs and manages the family's income from ransoms, smuggling, and narcotics. He is the Haqqanis' chief liaison with the Quetta Shura, where he is said to be always warmly welcomed. Nasiruddin dispatches fighters to hit specific targets he has chosen.

Mullah Nazir As a leading Pakistani Taliban commander belonging to the Wazir tribe, he controls a strategic stretch of South Waziristan's Afghan frontier. Although his men are at war against both the Karzai government and the Americans, he abides by a peace deal not to attack Pakistani forces, which gives him the reputation in Islamabad as a "good" Taliban. His fellow Waziris appreciate him for ridding the area of abusive Uzbek and Chechen jihadis by killing more than 250 of them several years ago. Still, he does allow room for some al Qaeda operatives, several of whom have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in his territory. His own men are also frequent targets of the drones, one of which killed his brother Hazrat Omar last October.

Hakimullah Mehsud Directs the Pakistani Taliban, comprising some 40 Pakistani militant groups. Mehsud has been an avowed enemy of both Islamabad and America, boasting of his support for al Qaeda and his friendship with would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and Humam al-Balawi, the Jordanian double-agent suicide bomber who killed seven CIA operatives at an outpost in Afghanistsn in 2009. Pakistani intelligence sources have announced his death at least a half-dozen times, but he always reappears, posting an audio or video to show he's alive. This time may be different, though: since his reported death in a drone attack this past January, no new recording has surfaced. He might still be alive anyway. An order was issued in his name this March sacking his deputy, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, for unauthorized peace talks with the Pakistani government.