The release of a biography of the Taliban's new leader provides an insight into the challenges faced by the movement. The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics explores what the propaganda tells us about a Taliban in transition.
A month after the news of the death of Mullah Omar, the Taliban has suffered mixed fortunes. On the one hand, new leader Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansour has received the allegiance of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri (a figure of increasing irrelevance to the course of global jihad). However, in this uncertain climate, the group has also witnessed a number of defections to its arch-rival, ISIS, including that of the influential Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
The release of a 4,500 word biography of the group's new leader Mullah Mansour, about whom little was known before his announcement as leader at the end of July 2015, seems timed to reassure its supporters about the continued relevance of the Taliban to Afghanistan's future, and the unity of the movement in the face of external and internal threats.
The statement is perhaps as notable by what it omits as what it says. The issues of peace negotiations and the encroachment of ISIS, the two most pressing existential issues faced by the group, are omitted. However, the narrative painted of Mansour's life seems to implicitly address these elephants in the room, and may give clues to the direction of the Taliban going forward.
Preparedness for Leadership
As might be expected from such a central, albeit elusive, personality, the legacy of Mullah Omar is ever-present throughout the biography. The opening pages of the statement refer to the leadership ability that Omar developed in "several Mujahidin who displaced foresight and leadership traits, capable of leading the jihadi caravan," including Mullah Mansour.
This focus on succession, mentorship, proper authority and legitimacy suggests an emphasis on legacy and continuity of Omar's values. Indeed, the biography at times reads like an extended resumé, outlining the qualities that make Mansour a worthy successor to Omar.
Notably, however, in the article Mansour is at no point referred to by the hugely contentious title Amir-ul-Momineen (Commander of the Faithful, the title historically used by Caliphs), despite being previously referred to as inheriting the title from his predecessor in a Taliban statement after announcing Mullah Omar's death.
Presentation of Mullah Mansour
Despite this emphasis on continuity, Mansour is presented as a moderniser, perhaps even a technocrat, by Taliban standards; after the Taliban's takeover of Kabul in 1996, he was appointed minister for aviation and tourism, and the biography boasts of his establishment of flights to perform the Hajj pilgramige, as well as the "millions of dollars of revenue [generated from a] transit tax from international flights via Afghanistan."
Emphasis is on Mansour's capacity to restore the Taliban's fortunes.
However, the real emphasis of this chronology seems to be on Mullah Mansour's capacity to restore the group's fortunes. The reconstruction of airbases and the Afghan air force after 1996 seem to be analogous to the job he currently faces with the Taliban, revamping an aging infrastructure in the face of a cutting edge threat, in this case the appeal of ISIS rather than the weapons of the 2002 international coalition. Significantly though, Mansour is not a break with the past: the biography emphasises that he was there at the beginning of the Taliban's struggle, and so understands the true nature of its jihad.
Change and Continuity
Mansour's pious and administrative qualities are both heralded, as he balances pragmatism and ideology in his "jihadi and administrative proficiencies." Equal emphasis is placed on the quality of his religious education with the nobility of his jihad against the Soviets and 'crusader' foreign forces.
In an account of his daily routine Mansour is presented a receptive listener; as one who "speaks less and tries to listen more to other people." This rhetoric implies an increased conciliation and transparency within the movement. However, an emphasis on these qualities also insinuates the disaffection felt by many Taliban members about their distance from the life of Mullah Omar.
This is particularly exacerbated given the length of time it took the Taliban to release the "depressing news" of the death of their leader, which the biography hastily justifies by emphasising importance of retaining unity until the withdrawal of international troops in 2014.
This emphasis on Taliban unity reflects the release of a video on 25 August on the movement's official website, Voice of Jihad, showing the hundreds of jihadis congregating in Kunduz, pledging allegiance to Mansour. These PR exercises, restoring trust in a damaged brand, has special significance given the new competition for the ownership of the Afghan jihad from ISIS' 'Khorasan Province,' which splintered from the Taliban in 2014.
There is a clear attempt by the Taliban to demonstrate its Islamic credentials and to reinforce its legitimacy in the wake of the death of Mullah Omar and the appointment of Mullah Mansour. This is particularly noteworthy in light of ISIS' advance in Afghanistan, during which it has attempted to undermine the religious legitimacy of the Taliban as a jihadi group. An entire section in the official biography is devoted to the Islamic legality of Mullah Mansour's appointment as leader of the Taliban.
The gathering of the Ahl al-Hal wal-Aqd (influential and discerning leaders) is referred to as "the most authentic and reliable procedure" by which a new leader is chosen. A prophetic tradition that appears in two authenticated books of hadith is cited to delegitimise those who desire to undertake leadership, while the example of the 'rightly-guided' Caliphs is also offered to show how the Taliban's process is in total accordance with how Abu Bakr became the first Caliph. Mullah Mansour is said to have never presented himself for a leadership role, hence he is likened to the early, pious Muslims.
Mansour's 'popular support' is an attack on ISIS' legitimacy.
The biography claims that hundreds and thousands of ordinary people from across the country have given bayah (pledged allegiance), to Mullah Mansour, which they believe legitimises his authority and leadership. The Taliban's claim that "responsible people, ordinary Mujahidin and the general masses" all pledged allegiance of their own accord may be another implicit attack on Baghdadi's legitimacy. Claiming to have the support of the people, the Taliban are effectively contrasting ISIS' leadership to the popular appointment of their emir.
However, this image of unity and populism sits in contrast to reports of dissent in the Taliban ranks about the legitimacy of Mansour's leadership. Reports that over a dozen Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar's brother and son, walked out of a Shura council meeting in the Pakistani city of Quetta in July, seem to affirm this division. The dissenters' desire for the new leader to be chosen by leading Islamic scholars and veterans of the movement, may partly explain the lengths to which the movement has gone to emphasise the propriety of Mansour's appointment.
While members of the Taliban and its supporters already accept the group's religious legitimacy, the references to the prophetic tradition and the examples of the rightly-guided Caliphs could be viewed as a retort to ISIS' continual insistence that it, and it alone, is the sole heir of Islamic authority and legitimacy. By referencing the selection process from Islamic history that involves consensus amongst scholars and influential individuals, the Taliban appear to be calling out ISIS and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on their so-called Islamic credentials.
The threat of ISIS has only catalysed the rift in the Taliban over the peace process.
Meanwhile, Mullah Mansour is giving off mixed signals with regards to peace negotiations with the government. This biography confirms that the movement has been under the de facto leadership of Mansour for the last two years. This period has seen a notable increase in overtures towards negotiation and a meaningful peace process with the Afghan government, although the latest round of talks was broken off suddenly with the announcement of Omar's death.
Michael Semple, a Taliban expert, argues in the Guardian that there is no evidence that Mansour is either "pro-peace" or particularly close to Pakistan's intelligence services, a trait that some hoped would provide leverage for steering the movement towards the negotiating table. It remains to be seen whether the peace process momentum built up throughout 2015 will remain with a more public leader at the helm.
The threat of ISIS has only catalysed the rift in the Taliban over the peace process. Meanwhile, the idealised image presented of a cohesive and strong movement comes as the Afghan government continue to apply pressure to the group's strongholds, with recent large-scale Taliban attacks representing an attempt to demonstrate their continued relevance to the struggle for an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan.
In this biography, the Taliban presents its leadership as being supported by the masses and ordained by religious scholars across the land. However, the Taliban has never before had to deal with a leadership succession, and in an increasingly fractious global jihadi landscape, it is determined to show a unified front. This was a considerably easier task when the group's spiritual leader could be (posthumously) held up as a symbol of jihadi harmony. A month after the announcement of the death of their founder, the cracks in the movement are already showing.