KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Political uncertainty inside the Taliban has cast doubt on the prospects for an end to the war in Afghanistan. On Saturday the Taliban's controversial new leader vowed to continue fighting while urging unity among his followers in a message aimed at preventing a split in the group between those who want peace and those who still believe they can win.
An audio message purportedly from newly elected Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor came as cracks in the Taliban's previously united front widened, two days after the group confirmed an Afghan government report that reclusive longtime leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had died. The 30-minute speech attributed to Mansoor was emailed to The Associated Press by the Taliban's spokesman. It could not be independently verified.
In it, the man purported to be Mansoor seemed to be carefully parsing his words to calm internal dissent and solidify his political base inside the Taliban, urging his fighters to remain unified and continue the jihad, or holy war, to establish an Islamic state in Afghanistan. He did not endorse or reject the nascent peace talks with the Afghan government despite the fact that, according to the government, Mansoor has been effectively running the Taliban for more than two years and the group's decision to participate in landmark face-to-face talks in Pakistan last month took place under his leadership. A second round of talks, which has been scheduled to begin Friday in Pakistan, has been indefinitely postponed.
"We have to continue our jihad, we shouldn't be suspicious of each other. We should accept each other. Whatever happens must comply with Sharia law, whether that be jihad, or talks, or an invitation to either. Our decisions all must be based on Sharia law," he said.
Mansoor took over the Taliban after the group on Thursday confirmed that Mullah Omar had died and said they elected Mansoor as his successor. The Afghan government announced Wednesday that the reclusive mullah had been dead since April 2013; the Taliban has remained vague on exactly when Mullah Omar died.
Mansoor's first priority seems to be quelling internal opposition to his election. Mullah Omar's son Yacoob has publicly rejected Mansoor's election, which was held in the Pakistani city of Quetta. He said the vote took place among a small clique of Mansoor's supporters and demanded a re-election that includes all Taliban commanders, including those fighting in Afghanistan.
"We should keep our unity, we must be united, our enemy will be happy in our separation," Mansoor purportedly said in the message. "This is a big responsibility for us. This is not the work of one, two or three people. This is all our responsibility to carry on jihad until we establish the Islamic state."
Observers said the coming days should reveal how the Taliban leadership crisis plays out — a process which could have a seismic effect on Afghanistan's political landscape.
"There's a lot of unknowns right now, but hopefully within the next few days we would know more about what will be the intentions of the new leadership and if the new leader would be able to keep unity within the Taliban," said Haroun Mir, a political analyst.
If Mansoor fails to appease his fighters and field commanders on the ground, the ultimate beneficiary could be the Islamic State group. The rival Islamic extremist group, which already controls about a third of Syria and Iraq with affiliates in Egypt and Libya, has established a small foothold in Afghanistan and is actively recruiting disillusioned Taliban fighters, according to Afghan government and U.S. military officials.
The position of the Afghan government was also unclear, he said, as President Ashraf Ghani — who has made peace a priority of his administration — is in Germany for medical treatment. "We are hopeful that when President Ghani returns to Kabul, he will make a statement about this new event and about the future of the peace process," Mir said.
Mullah Omar was the one-eyed, secretive head of the Taliban, who hosted Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaida in the years leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He had not been seen in public since fleeing over the border into Pakistan after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban from power.
Under Mansoor's shadow leadership, the Taliban has participated in a series of indirect meetings with government representatives, culminating in last month's landmark meeting. But the Taliban has simultaneously intensified its attacks on Afghan security forces, expanding its footprint into the previously peaceful northern provinces after NATO and U.S. troops ended their combat mission and handed over security to local forces at the end of last year.
Officials said on Saturday that Taliban gunmen had surrounded a police station in southern Uruzgan province and were holding 70 police officers hostage. The head of the police in Khas Uruzgan district said that five police officers had been killed and four wounded in fighting so far.
"If we don't get support then all 70 police will be either dead or captured," he said.
In a separate statement on Saturday, the Taliban refuted media reports that the leader of the Haqqani Network, Jalaluddin Haqqani, had died in eastern Afghanistan a year ago.
"These claims have no basis," the statement said. It said the leader of one of the country's most brutal insurgent groups, based in Pakistan's tribal belt with links to al-Qaeda, "has been blessed with good health for a long time now and has no troubles currently."
Like Mullah Omar, Haqqani has been reported dead on a number of occasions, but the reports have not been independently verified. Jalaluddin's son Sirajuddin was elected as the Taliban's deputy to Mansoor — a move possibly aimed at ensuring a steady cash flow from the Haqqani's wealthy backers and appeasing hardliners.
The Haqqani Network is considered one of the country's most vicious militant organizations, responsible for complex and well-planned attacks that often involve large numbers of suicide bombers and produce heavy casualties.