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Afghan Taliban pick new leader; future of peace talks is murky

Members of the Afghan security forces stand guard on a Kabul roadside on July 29 as security is increased following reports of the death of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban.

Members of the Afghan security forces stand guard on a Kabul roadside on July 29 as security is increased following reports of the death of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban.

(Jawad Jalali / European Pressphoto Agency)

The confirmation of former Afghanistan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar’s death reverberated Thursday as the insurgent group reportedly selected a new leader but signaled growing dissension over peace talks with the Afghan government.

The Taliban acknowledged that the long-missing Omar had died and announced that its leadership council had selected as his replacement his former deputy, Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, who had been running the council in his absence. Mansoor’s election was reported by news media in Pakistan, where the Taliban leadership is based.

Afghan officials said a day earlier that Omar had died in April 2013 in Pakistan, resolving one of the region’s longest-running mysteries -- but only in part.

A Taliban spokesman initially denied the claims, but on Thursday a statement attributed to the Taliban leadership and Omar’s family said the former leader had “passed away due to his illness,” without elaborating.

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The statement said Omar never left Afghanistan, contradicting many reports that he fled across the border into Pakistan during the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

Without their spiritual leader, the Taliban appeared increasingly divided over whether to negotiate with the Afghan government or continue their 14-year insurgency.

Pakistan abruptly called off a meeting scheduled for Friday between Taliban representatives and Afghan officials. It would have been the second such encounter between the two sides this month, and had raised hopes that formal peace talks could eventually be launched.

“In view of the reports regarding the death of Mullah Omar and the resulting uncertainty, and at the request of the Afghan Taliban leadership, the second round of the Afghan peace talks ... is being postponed,” the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said.

Adding to the confusion, the Taliban issued another online statement Thursday saying that the group was “not aware” of peace talks with the Afghan government. The same website had two weeks ago published a statement under Omar’s name endorsing the idea of talks, although not specifically mentioning the Pakistan-hosted meetings.

The cancellation of Friday’s meeting appeared to catch Afghan officials by surprise. As late as Thursday morning, after Omar’s death had been confirmed, Afghan envoys were still preparing to travel to Pakistan.

The confirmation of Omar’s death will make it even harder for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to persuade critics to support his controversial peace initiative. Ghani has made ending the war a priority of his year-old administration and has made significant concessions to Pakistan in exchange for pledges to bring Taliban leaders to the negotiating table.

Many Afghans view Pakistan as a malign influence and oppose Ghani’s outreach, although until now it appeared to be paying off.

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Analysts say that fissures within the Taliban could now intensify, making it even more difficult for Afghan officials to know whether the Taliban representatives they are attempting to negotiate with would be able to end the fighting or implement any agreement.

Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper, reported that two deputies to Mansoor also were appointed, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, a senior leader of the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, which U.S. officials blame for a series of major attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan. The group is closely allied with the Taliban, and although its stance on peace talks is unclear, a Haqqani network representative reportedly attended the first meeting with Afghan officials in Pakistan.

Haqqani’s appointment would appear to strengthen the influence of Pakistan’s military spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, over the Taliban and any eventual peace talks. In 2011, U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the Haqqani network as “a veritable arm” of the ISI.

Special correspondent Sahi reported from Islamabad and staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India. Special correspondent Ali M. Latifi in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

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