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Taliban Infighting Rife Amid Growing Differences

Members of a Pakistani Jamiat Ulma-e Islam Nazraiti party pray for Mullah Mohammad Omar in late July.
Members of a Pakistani Jamiat Ulma-e Islam Nazraiti party pray for Mullah Mohammad Omar in late July.

The Taliban once took great pride in its unity and brandished discipline as a hallmark of its commitment to a military victory in the Afghan conflict.

Seemingly unresolvable disagreements over leadership among key Taliban figures, however, are now expressed by weapons being turned against former comrades.

Scores of Taliban fighters have been killed in clashes over the appointment of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur as the successor of the Taliban's founding leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Known to his followers as the Amir al-Muminin, or Leader of The Faithful, Mullah Omar's death was acknowledged by the Taliban in July.

Mansur swiftly moved to declare himself as the new Amir al-Muminin. In Mullah Omar's absence, he was already the top Taliban leader for years and had appointed confidants to key leadership positions.

But his appointment angered Mullah Omar's family and many senior members of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban's leadership council named after the southwestern Pakistani city where it is believed to be based.

In an escalating and increasingly violent power struggle, those critics have pushed back against Mansur's attempt to become the undisputed leader of the Taliban.

Unprecedented for the secretive movement, Mansur's opponents first turned to the media to question his appointment. They now appear to be busy mobilizing supporters across Afghanistan to prevent Mansur from taking over the Taliban war machine.

A vicious power struggle is now unfolding amid the Taliban's most violent campaign. Since March, tens of thousands of insurgents have been busy fomenting unprecedented violence in a major push to grab territory after NATO ended major combat operations last year and handed over security responsibilities to Afghan security forces.

Taliban infighting might increase this violence manifold. Mullah Abdul Manan, the brother of the late Mullah Omar, warns of "unprecedented fighting" if Mansur continues to try to force dissident Taliban leaders and field commanders to accept his leadership.

Manan told Radio Free Afghanistan recently that Mansur is planning to issue a fatwa, or religious decree, calling for actions against those who are resisting his leadership and have so far avoided taking the traditional oath of allegiance to accept his leadership and religious authority.

"This will further increase our differences and pave the way for infighting among the Taliban," he said. "Issuing such a fatwa before the ulema (Islamic clerics), who are trying to resolve the differences among Taliban leaders, have made a decision will create major schisms and machinations."

Pakistani media reported last month that Afghan clerics have already given up on trying to reconcile Taliban leaders because Mansur was not cooperating.

Tensions have recently boiled over into violence within the hard-line group. Some Taliban members are now fighting others in their ranks with the same fervor they exhibited in fighting NATO and Afghan forces.

In the latest clash, 14 fighters were killed in western Afghanistan.

Ihsanullah Hayat, a spokesman for the governor of Herat Province in western Afghanistan, says the clash occurred in Shindand district between two rival Taliban commanders.

He told Radio Free Afghanistan that the night-long clash began late on September 1 when a local Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Samad, attempted to force his rival, Mullah Nangyalai, to pledge allegiance to Mansur.

But a Taliban commander in Shindand who identified himself as Haidairi told the BBC that two of his fighters and three of Mansur's supporters died in the clash.

In another clash, 14 insurgents were killed by a militant in northeastern Afghanistan earlier on September 1.

Sarwar Hussaini, a police spokesman in the northeastern Afghan province of Kunduz, told Radio Free Afghanistan the militant was in contact with Afghan forces before turning against his comrades. He said a local Taliban commander, Mullah Baz Mohammad, was among those killed.

Afghan media dubbed the incident as the first insider attack among the Taliban ranks. It happened in Char Dara district, which has changed hands between the Taliban and government forces since spring.

In another clash last week, at least five fighters were killed in southern Afghanistan.

Ahmad Rabbani, head of a Taliban committee attempting to reunify its Pakistan-based leaders, told the Associated Press on August 29 that the gunbattle came after Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, the leader of a Taliban splinter group and loyal to Mullah Omar's family, led hundreds of fighters against Mansur's supporters in the southern Afghan province of Zabul.

Locals in Zabul's Khak-e Afghan district say hundreds of Mansur's loyalists have now besieged Dadullah's group in the remote mountainous region.

Abdullah, a resident of the region, told Radio Free Afghanistan that some 600 fighters loyal to Mansur arrived on their motorbikes in Khak-e Afghan last week and are now facing off against a similar number of Daddullah's supporters from across Afghanistan.

"This standoff has blocked all escape routes for trapped civilians," he said. "If the infighting intensifies, this whole region is going to blow up. There will be a bloodbath."

Mohammad Sadiq Rashtinai and Shahpur Saber contributed reporting from Kandahar and Herat, Afghanistan.