The Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, who is facing increasing dissent from his own ranks, has been seriously wounded in a gunfight in , the Afghan government has said.
The reports are evidence of deepening rifts within the militant movement, and could threaten to further jeopardise nascent peace efforts by the Afghan government.
According to several accounts, Mansoor was injured during a meeting with a former commander outside Quetta, Pakistan, on Tuesday evening. A heated scuffle between the two evolved into a shootout, Sultan Faizy, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s first vice-president, told the Guardian.
“Mansoor was wounded and transferred to a hospital nearby. He is seriously injured. We are waiting for confirmation of his death,” Faizy said. On Thursday the Afghan chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, that the Taliban leader had been injured in the vicinity of Quetta.
A number of people were reportedly killed in the clash, including the former commander, Mullah Abdullah Sarhadi, who reportedly led an insurgent splinter group in Zabul, southern .
The reports unleashed a flurry of rumours. Two official Taliban spokesmen denied the assertions, with one of them, Zabiullah Mujahed, calling them “a total lie”. A well-placed western official said a dozen sources in Pakistan and Afghanistan confirmed that Mansoor had been wounded, but another half a dozen denied the claims.
Mansoor assumed leadership in the summer following the announcement that the group’s founder, Mullah Omar, had died in 2013.
As Omar’s deputy who oversaw statements issued in the leader’s name after his death, Mansoor’s credibility is severely strained. Media reports of his wealth, including property holdings in Dubai, have put a further dent in his image. While his predecessor was known for his ascetic lifestyle, Mansoor is viewed as a pragmatist – some would say opportunist.
“For the ideological Taliban, Mullah Mansoor is a criminal, a mafia boss, a drug dealer. It is only those Taliban who fight under instructions from the Pakistani intelligence who see Mansoor as a leader,” said Ali Mohammad Ali, a security analyst in Kabul.
Since he was elected swiftly after Omar’s death, rivals have accused Mansoor of assuming power without the necessary consensus.
The potential demise or incapacitation of Mansoor could throw the Taliban into another power struggle, which would probably be prolonged since this time as there is no obvious heir. Despite recent military gains, including the temporary capture of the northern city of Kunduz, the Afghan Taliban is struggling to maintain unity.
Tuesday’s meeting in Quetta was ostensibly an attempt to iron out differences between the mainstream Taliban and a splinter faction that recently took up arms in Zabul province. Last month, the fighting in Zabul led a dissident commander in Farah province named Mullah Rasool to declare himself head of the group, in an unprecedented challenge to the central leadership.
Rifts within the Taliban have undercut attempts to restart peace talks. In Pakistan, many think people within the Afghan government intentionally spread rumours of Mansoor being shot to undermine the talks even further.
“You will always hear such kind of rumours from Afghan side whenever Pakistan will make effort to restart talks to ensure peace in the region,” a Pakistani intelligence official said.
With rumours rife, Mansoor will be hard pressed to issue a statement soon. With the revelation that he concealed Omar’s death for more than two years, secrecy will only erode his support further.