The claim to have resolved a big rift in their leadership, in a move that will likely consolidate the power of their new leader and could lead to a resumption of peace talks with the Afghan government.
The group’s media office declared in a that key figures from the family of the late founder, Mullah Omar, had sworn allegiance to the new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.
Opposition from the family has deepened fractures in the Taliban since early August when a small group of clerics and commanders in Quetta, Pakistan appointed Mansoor, the group’s long-time number two and de facto leader, as “commander of the faithful”.
Omar’s brother Mullah Manan and his son Mullah Yaqub, claimed that the selection of Mansoor was premature and lacked consensus. Several prominent Taliban commanders refused to get behind the new leader.
The Taliban now say that Manan and Yaqub have given their blessing to Mansoor, who in turn promised to consult with them in all important matters.
The reconciliation raises hopes of reviving the embryonic peace talks, which the Taliban put on hold immediately after the Afghan government in late July.
“Peace negotiators will probably be happy to hear the news because there was a risk that you’d end up negotiating with a hundred factions instead of one, which would have been dangerous and messy,” said Graeme Smith, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Kabul. “So Taliban cohesion is good from a political point of view.”
Feeding off turbulence in the leadership, some disgruntled current and former commanders used the opportunity to fuel their own rebellion.
Mullah Mansoor Dadullah (no relation to the new leader), who was excluded from the movement in 2007, has mustered a sizable splinter group in the southern Zabul province, forcing Mullah Mansoor to dispatch hundreds of fighters on motorcycles to try and quell the dissent.
Mullah Dadullah, who has accused Mansoor of colluding to kill his brother, alleged that Mansoor only restarted peace talks at the whim of Pakistan. Other influential commanders, including former deputy Mullah Baradar, have yet to pledge allegiance to Mansoor, but their opposition has less potency without the support of Omar’s family.
Mansoor controls the media office that issued Tuesday’s statement. Consequently, some western officials were hesitant to believe it without direct confirmation from Omar’s family. And even if it were confirmed, they said, many obstacles to peace remained.
A western diplomat in Islamabad pointed out that although Mansoor’s position appeared strengthened, he still faced opposition at the top of the movement. The original split was not triggered by differences over peace talks but by jostling for power. Tuesday’s message, the diplomat said, “is not a fundamental shift towards a peace process”.
The Taliban are also struggling to contain defections of their fighters to mushrooming rebel groups fighting in the name of Islamic State (Isis). Though Isis currently poses no significant strategic threat to either the Taliban or the Afghan government, it has become a political force to be reckoned with.
In the eastern province of Nangarhar, pockets of self-declared Isis fighters have encroached on Taliban turf for months, decapitating opponents on camera and disseminating propaganda.
In some districts, Isis has reportedly closed schools, forcibly married off girls and established private prisons, according to local officials. Last week, the district governor of Achin in his district.
“It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” Smith said about the Taliban infighting. “As of right now, the Taliban insurgents are killing each other in unprecedented numbers,” he said. “There are lots of commanders who are not yet convinced by Mansoor, so he still has a long way to go in solidifying his leadership.”