Abstract: A major goal of the Taliban assault on Kunduz this autumn was to bolster the leadership of its leader Mullah Mansoor after divisions surfaced following the announcement of his predecessor Mullah Omar’s death. The Taliban’s temporary capture of the city succeeded in significantly increasing his legitimacy. Mansoor is likely to seek further territorial gains to strengthen the Taliban position ahead of any talks with the Afghan government. But with momentum in the 14 year insurgency shifting toward the Taliban, he is unlikely to accept any outcome other than Taliban supremacy.
The hoisting of the Taliban’s white flag in the center of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz in late September 2015 cemented Mullah Akhtar Mansoor’s position as the Afghan Taliban’s new leader. Even though the Taliban announced their withdrawal from Kunduz in mid-October, Mullah Mansoor had scored a major victory. It was the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban in 14 years of insurgency.
Mansoor, 47, has been in de facto control of the Taliban for at least the last two years, but needed a win. Mullah Omar had been an iconic and unifying figure. By contrast, Mansoor’s election as the Taliban’s new leader in late July had been met with acrimony from some Taliban factions. Principal among the complaints was that he had covered up the death of Mullah Omar in 2013[a] and had issued commands in his name. There was also criticism from some hawks in the Taliban that he was too close to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and consequently too ready to sit down with the Afghan government for peace talks.
A video released by the Taliban on August 25, a month before it launched the assault on Kunduz, not only telegraphed the offensive, but also linked it to the anointment of Mansoor as leader. The 30-minute video showed more than 100 fighters pledging allegiance to Mansoor in broad daylight outside Kunduz. The gathering was addressed by Mullah Abdul Salam Akhund and his deputy Mullah Mohammad Akhund, the Taliban commanders who led the offensive against the city a month later. Flanked by two fighters holding rocket launchers, Salam pledged his personal allegiance to Mansoor as the new emir al-mu’minin (commander of the faithful).
The subsequent assault by these fighters on Kunduz appears to have been designed to bolster Mansoor’s position as leader with the August 25 video staged to allow Mansoor to take credit. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the only footage released by the Taliban was of a large group of fighters inside Afghanistan pledging allegiance to Mansoor.
The temporary seizure of Kunduz cemented Mansoor’s position as leader.[b] In the previous months he had already maneuvered to silence dissent. Mullah Omar’s eldest son, Mullah Yaqoub, and a brother, Mullah Manan, had initially refused to give Mansoor their backing, but the Taliban announced on September 15 that both had pledged allegiance at a “big” Taliban gathering. It is unclear what caused them to change their minds, but they were likely offered positions of influence. Mansoor had to win their loyalty at all costs because of the hallowed status within the Taliban of their family name.
A longtime rival—Mullah Abdul Zakir—the onetime military commander of the Taliban, who had been critical of talks initiated with the Afghan government under Mansoor’s watch, pledged his allegiance after reportedly being offered $14 million. Mansoor had already relieved Zakir of his command the previous year, one of many replacements of field commanders with loyalists intended to strengthen Mansoor’s position ahead of Omar’s death becoming public knowledge. On assuming the leadership, Mansoor also shored up his position—and ensured unity of Taliban efforts—by naming Sirajuddin Haqqani, the scion of the powerful Haqqani clan, as one of his two top deputies.[c] Mansoor also received and acknowledged the allegiance of al-Qa`ida’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri[d] and authorized the release of a hagiographic profile.
The Kunduz breakthrough has made it more difficult for Mansoor’s harshest critics within the wider Taliban movement to land punches. These include Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, the former Taliban governor of Kabul; Mullah Najibullah,[e] the leader of the Fidae Mahaz Taliban splinter faction; and Mullah Agha Mautasem, the former Taliban finance minister. None of these figures commands a powerful enough bloc of fighters to pose any real threat to Mansoor and they have failed to move against his leadership in a unified way.[f]
One of Mansoor’s sharpest critics has been Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, the younger brother of Mullah Dadullah Akhund, who now commands an independent faction of fighters in Zabul province. Following the revelation of Mullah Omar’s death, Dadullah accused Mansoor of being illegitimate, having acted as a ventriloquist, having issued orders in his name, and having refused to allow other mujahideen to try to communicate with him. He also inferred that Taliban leaders like Mansoor who were present on Pakistani soil were under the control of the ISI. The younger Dadullah fell out with the Afghan Taliban leadership after his brother was killed in a U.S. and NATO special forces raid in Helmand province in 2007. He spent time in prison in Pakistan and now commands a much diminished force.[g]
The more serious challenge to Mansoor’s claims to be emir al-mu’minin comes from the Islamic State in Khorasan, which is growing in strength and whose members regard Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, not Mansoor, as the global leader of Muslims. The U.S. military has classified the Islamic State as “operationally emergent” in Afghanistan. It is strongest in the eastern Nangarhar Province and also claims a growing presence in Kunar, Helmand, Kunduz, Badakhshan, Nuristan, Logar, and Kandahar.
The Islamic State has been bolstered by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s (IMU) pledge of allegiance to al-Baghdadi.[h] In recent months hundreds of fighters from the IMU have crossed from the tribal areas of Pakistan into Afghanistan because of Pakistani military operations, providing a bump in support for the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Several splinter groups of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have also pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, as have Afghan Taliban commanders who have fallen out with Mansoor’s “Quetta Shura.”[i]
The main TTP faction led by Mullah Fazlullah has yet to recognize Mansoor as the emir al-mu’minin but it has indicated it will not pledge bay`a (allegiance) to the Islamic State.[j] A TTP source says the reason is that many TTP fighters have been forced to flee to Afghanistan from North Waziristan. Pledging bay`a to Mansoor would increase the likelihood they would be targeted by Afghan national military forces. An Afghan Taliban representative says they can live with Fazlullah’s neutrality.
While the Islamic State will likely continue to expand in Afghanistan, there may be a ceiling to its growth. One factor is the Taliban’s continued success on the battlefield. Another is that the majority of the population of southern and eastern Afghanistan identify as Deobandi. Extremist-leaning young men in these areas have naturally gravitated toward the Taliban, which claims to be the modern political manifestation of the Deobandi movement. Relatively few Deobandis have joined the Islamic State because of theological differences with the Islamic State’s ultra-hardline Salafi approach and the perception it is a “foreign” construct.[k]
Since the beginning of this year, there has been fighting between the Taliban and the Islamic State in Nangarhar. But the threat from the Islamic State even in Nangarhar should be put in context. The Taliban still controls many more districts in the province. Given Mansoor’s public criticism of al-Baghdadi and support for Zawahiri—and al-Baghdadi’s refusal to recognize his title as emir al-mu’minin—there appears to be little prospect of rapprochement between the Islamic State and the Taliban.
Now that his position has been strengthened, Mansoor will likely seek further territorial gains in Afghanistan to strengthen his position and the Taliban position in any future negotiations with the Afghan government. Mansoor favors indirect rather than direct talks because he views the latter as legitimizing the Ashraf Ghani administration and weakening Taliban morale. Although personally committed to the total removal of the current ruling apparatus in Kabul, Mansoor is likely to follow a pragmatic approach when it comes to the question of entering negotiations, balancing pressure from Islamabad to enter talks on the one hand with the desire not to be outflanked by hawks in his own movement or the Islamic State on the other.l But with momentum shifting toward the Taliban after its recent gains in northern Afghanistan, Mansoor is unlikely to countenance a final agreement with the Afghan government that results in anything less than Taliban supremacy in Afghanistan.
Saleem Mehsud is a Pakistani journalist based in Islamabad originally from South Waziristan. He currently contributes to CNN’s reporting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over the last half decade he has also contributed reporting to the Washington Post, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times (UK) and DPD group of newspapers. Follow @SaleemMehsud.
* This article was written in conjunction with Paul Cruickshank.
[a] According to the Afghan government, Mullah Omar died in a hospital in Karachi in April 2013. See Dawood Azami, “The Afghan Taliban Enter Uncharted Territory,” BBC, July 30, 2015.
[b] On October 13, 2015, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid released a statement announcing that in the face of an Afghan military onslaught supported by U.S. airpower, Taliban forces had made a tactical withdrawal from Kunduz to outlying rural areas to avoid a “protracted defensive battle” that would cost the Taliban lives and resources. He claimed that Kunduz could again be taken and the operation had “lifted the spirits of the Mujahideen.”
[c] The other was Haibatullah Akhunzada, the former judiciary chief of the Taliban courts, Taliban sources told Saleem Mehsud. See also Daud Qarizadah, “Afghan Taliban: Mullah Mansour’s battle to be leader,” BBC, September 23, 2015.
[d] Zawahiri’s audio statement was released via pro-al Qaeda twitter accounts on August 13, 2015. In a Taliban statement released the next day, Mansoor accepted the pledge.
[e] According to Mullah Najibullah’s spokesman Qari Hamza, Najibullah strongly opposes peace talks, calling Mansoor an agent of NATO and accusing him of being appointed without the backing of the majority within the Taliban. Hamza also stated that the Fidae Mahaz group was ready to cooperate with the Islamic State, but would not pledge allegiance. Saleem Mehsud telephone interview with Qari Hamza, July 31, 2015.
[f] Mullah Niazi claimed in media interviews that Mullah Jalil (the deputy foreign minister under Taliban rule), Mullah Hassan (the governor of Kandahar during Taliban rule), and Mullah Razzaq (the Interior Minister under Taliban rule) all supported him in rejecting the leadership of Mansoor. However none of these figures publicly confirmed their opposition to Mansoor, illustrating the lack of unity in anti-Mansoor ranks. See “Afghan Taliban Divided as Talks Between Two Factions Fail,” Reuters, September 19, 2015.
[g] Dadullah is allegedly cooperating with Uzbek fighters loyal to the Islamic State in Zabul and is in contact with the Islamic State in Khorasan. Saleem Mehsud email interview with Taliban commander, Fall 2015.
[h] IMU leader Usman Ghazi and fighters formally pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi in a video released on August 7, 2015. Saleem Mehsud received the video from militant sources.
[i] Many of the TTP commanders who defected to the Islamic State were loyal to Hakimullah Mehsud. When Mehsud was killed Mullah Fazlullah, a militant cleric from the Swat valley won the power struggle, alienating several Mehsud loyalists. Most of the defections took place in Orakzai agency. Those who defected from Orakzai included the former TTP commander Sheikh Hafiz Saeed Khan, a former deputy to Hakimullah Mehsud, who is the current leader of the Islamic State in Khorasan. Like most of the other defectors, Saeed is not a Deobandi. He belongs to the Panjpiri strand which is closer to Salafism. Panjpiris follow the teachings of the Darul Quran seminary in the town of Panjpir in the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and have a growing presence in this province and Pakistan’s tribal areas. Another prominent Panjpiri is TTP leader Mullah Fazlullah. For more on the links between Panjpiri madrassas and militant activity see Zia Ur Rehman, “Terror ties’ of Panjpiri madrassas being probed,” The News (Pakistan), July 21, 2015. For more on divisions within TTP see Daud Khattak, Contrasting the Leadership of Mullah Fazlullah and Khan Said Sajna in Pakistan, CTC Sentinel 7:7, West Point (2014).
[j] A source in the TTP told Saleem Mehsud that Fazlullah remained close with Afghan Taliban leaders. In May the TTP released a treatise critical of the Islamic State. See Elias Groll, “In Battle of Jihadi Groups, Pakistani Taliban Prefer al Qaeda over ISIS,” Foreign Policy, May 28, 2015; Abu Uthman al-Salaraza’I, TTP Treatise on the Islamic State, posted on TTP’s website on May 26, 2015.
[k] Deobandism is a puritanical religious movement that originated in hostile reaction to British rule in south Asia. It follows the Hanafi school of thought and is followed by a majority of the population in southern and eastern Afghanistan and in many parts of Pakistan, including the border region with Afghanistan. The Taliban is a modern political manifestation of the movement. The Islamic State, by contrast, subscribes to an ultra-hardline version of Wahhabi-Salafism that originated in Arabia. The differences should not be seen as black and white. In the last 20 years, Wahhabi teachings have increasingly influenced the Deobandi movement because of the flow of Saudi petro-dollars to madrassas in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but hardline Deobandis and hardline Wahhabi-Salafis view theological difference between the two approaches as insurmountable. All this will likely place a ceiling on Islamic State recruitment in Afghanistan, although theological differences are likely more important at the leadership than foot soldier level. Thus far, most of the Afghan recruits to the Islamic State in Khorasan have been Salafis. In Pakistan, a number of Panjpiris have joined. As a general rule, Deobandis have been reluctant to join the Islamic State because they see the Taliban as the natural leaders of their faith group.
 Joseph Goldstein and Mujib Mashal, “Taliban Fighters Capture Kunduz City as Afghan Forces Retreat,” New York Times, September 28, 2015.
 “Chain of Swearing Allegiances, Kunduz,”Taliban video, August 25, 2015.
 Statement from Zabihullah Mujahid, Taliban spokesman, September 15, 2015.
 The pledge of allegiance was claimed on behalf of Zakir in an email sent by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid to Saleem Mehsud and other journalists on July 31, 2015. See also Joseph Goldstein, “Taliban’s New Leader Strengthens His Hold with Intrigue and Battlefield Victory,” New York Times, October 4, 2015; Daud Qarizadah, “Afghan Taliban: Mullah Mansour’s battle to be leader,” BBC, September 23, 2015.
 Joseph Goldstein, “Taliban’s New Leader Strengthens His Hold with Intrigue and Battlefield Victory,” New York Times, October 4, 2015.
 See Margherita Stancati, Habib Khan Totakhil and Saeed Shah, “Afghan Taliban’s Chief Military Commander Steps Down,” Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2014.
 Saleem Mesud interviews with Taliban representatives, summer and autumn, 2015. See also Joseph Goldstein, “Taliban’s New Leader Strengthens His Hold with Intrigue and Battlefield Victory,” New York Times, October 4, 2015.
 “Introduction of the newly appointed leader of Islamic Emirate, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor,” Taliban statement, August 31, 2015.
 Mullah Mansoor Dadullah made the statement in an undated video shared with Saleem Mehsud by militant sources on September 10, 2015.
 Testimony of General John Campbell, Commander U.S. Forces Afghanistan, Senate Armed Services Committee, October 6, 2015; Saleem Mehsud Interviews with Afghan sources Fall 2015; Islamic State in Khorasan source interviewed by Saleem Mehsud in October 2015.
 Sources inside the Islamic State in Khorasan and the TTP told Saleem Mehsud in October 2015 that most of the IMU fighters had moved from the tribal areas of Pakistan to the Afghan provinces of Kunduz and Badakhshan.
 Saleem Mehsud interview with TTP source, Fall 2015.
 Saleem Mehsud interview with Afghan Taliban representative, Fall 2015.
 For example “Taliban, IS Militants Clash in Nangrahar,” The Nation (Pakistan), February 11, 2015.
 Saleem Mehsud interview with Tahir Khan, Pakistani journalist working for BBC Pashto service, September 21, 2015.