Kabul: High-ranking officials from the Afghan Taliban confirmed on Thursday the death of their leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, and said the group's top council has elected his successor, a senior figure who served as the reclusive mullah's deputy for the past three years.
The Taliban Shura, or Supreme Council, chose Mullah Akhtar Mansoor as the new leader, two Taliban figures told The Associated Press. The two, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized by the council to talk to the media, said the seven-member Shura had met in the Pakistani city of Quetta.
Mansoor is considered close to the Pakistani authorities and his election could further divide an already-fractured Taliban as he is believed to have links to opposing councils within the movement. The Taliban are believed to have splintered under pressure to enter into peace talks with the Afghan government after almost 14 years of war.
The peace process suffered a blow earlier Thursday, first when the Afghan Taliban indicated they were pulling out of the negotiations with the Kabul government, and later, when the Pakistan foreign ministry confirmed the talks hosted by Islamabad were postponed.
Following Mansoor's election, the Taliban also chose Sirajuddin Haqqani as its new deputy leader, the two Taliban figures said.
Haqqani has a U.S. government bounty of $10 million on his head as a leader of the extremist Haqqani network, which is allied with al-Qaeda.
His election to the leadership of the Afghan Taliban confirms the group's ties to the Haqqani network, which has been accused of staging numerous cross-border attacks from their base in the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan, including a 19-hour siege at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in September 2011.
The Afghan government first announced on Wednesday that Mullah Omar is dead and that he in fact died over two years ago in a hospital in Pakistan. There was no confirmation on this from either Islamabad or the Taliban. His death had been announced on a number of occasions in the past but consistently denied by the Taliban.
On Thursday, Pakistan's foreign ministry said it was postponing the talks due to the "uncertainty" surrounding Mullah Omar's death but gave no new date for the negotiations.
"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, which was scheduled to be held in Pakistan on 31 July 2015, is being postponed," said the statement.
The first round of the official, face-to-face discussions was hosted by Islamabad earlier this month. The meeting was supervised by U.S. and Chinese representatives and ended with both sides agreeing to meet again - a significant progress in itself.
It was not immediately clear if the latest developments had scuttled the peace process altogether or whether it was just a serious setback.
Political analyst Ahmad Saeedi said the Taliban's statement could signal a total rejection of the talks.
"I'm pretty sure there will be no peace deal," he said.
The fracturing within the Taliban movement, and the rise to power of figures seen as potentially hostile to peace talks, could lead to an intensification of the war against Kabul, which has been particularly vicious this year as it spread from the traditional Taliban heartlands bordering Pakistan in the south and east to the northern provinces.
The Taliban have been fighting to overthrow the Afghan government since 2001, when the United States led an invasion to topple its extremist regime.
What had appeared to be the root of Mullah Omar's enduring leadership was his ability to act as a unifying force for fighters on the ground and for those on both sides who have pushed the peace process forward in the months since Afghan President Ashraf Ghani took office.
For his part, Ghani has sought Pakistan's help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiations, since Islamabad is believed to wield influence over the group.
A diplomat based in Kabul who is familiar with the peace process told the AP that the "government's position has been since Ashraf Ghani became president that the real negotiation is between Afghanistan and Pakistan." The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters on the ongoing talks.
Further splintering within the Taliban ranks could see more local commanders defect and join other groups. Already, the Islamic State group, which has taken control of large parts of Iraq and Syria, is believed to have recruited some disaffected Taliban members to its ranks as it tries to establish a presence in Afghanistan.
After the U.S.-led invasion, remnants of the Taliban led by Mullah Omar fled over the border into Pakistan, where they are believed to have the protection of Islamabad. Mullah Omar has not been seen in public since then, though statements have been issued in his name giving credence to Taliban denials of his death.
Most recently, a statement purportedly by Mullah Omar was issued on the occasion of this month's Eid-al-Fitr holiday, expressing support for the peace talks....