KABUL, Afghanistan – Defying warnings from Washington and the fury of Afghanistan's government, Pakistani authorities are turning a blind eye to a meeting of hundreds of Taliban supporters in a city near the Afghan border aimed at resolving a dispute over the group's leadership following the death of figurehead Mullah Mohammad Omar.
The gathering in the Pakistani city of Quetta, where the Taliban's leadership has been largely based since they were pushed from power by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, has drawn some 1,000 Taliban adherents who have openly descended on the city for a "unity shura," a meeting intended to resolve the leadership crisis and reunite the group, whose divisions have been publicly aired since Mullah Omar's death was revealed in late July.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has accused Pakistan of harboring groups that are waging war on his country. His deputy spokesman, Zafar Hashemi told The Associated Press that Pakistan was failing to take action against "those groups holding gatherings in public and declaring war against the Afghan people," a reference to the Taliban meetings in Quetta.
The Taliban's struggle to overthrow the Kabul government is nearing its 14th year. Thousands of U.S. and NATO soldiers, along with many more thousands of Afghan civilians, troops and police have been killed in the fighting, which has intensified following the drawdown last year of most foreign combat troops. The Taliban are clearly testing the Afghan forces as they take on the insurgency alone, though their fighters have made little significant progress on the battlefield.
The leadership struggle became public after the Afghan government announced in late July that Mullah Omar had been dead since April 2013. His deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, was declared his successor, but Mullah Omar's family objected, saying the vote to elect the new leader was not representative of the group. The unity shura — essentially a dispute resolution committee — was established in early August to deal with the crisis and shura leader Ahmad Rabbani says its decision could be reached in days.
In an indication of what is at stake, the Taliban published a biography Monday of Mansoor in a clear attempt by his backers to shore up his support among the Taliban leaders, religious scholars, battlefield commanders and rank-and-file supporters as deliberations come to a close. They have met at various spots around Quetta — in Chaman near the Afghan border and in tribal areas of Pakistan's Balochistan province, troubled by its own insurgency.
With impressive organizational skills, the Quetta-based Taliban have taken on the task of hosting hundreds of visitors from Afghanistan, billeting them in madrassas, mosques and private homes, ensuring they are fed and that transport is arranged so they can get to their meetings on time. Many attendees, including religious scholars and commanders, traveled from remote regions of Afghanistan. Many of the fighting men have already departed, shura leaders said, having made their preferences clear.
Rabbani said that Mansoor has yet to inform the shura that he will adhere to whatever decision is made, although Mullah Omar's brother, Manan, and son, Yaqub, have done so. Mansoor has been given until Tuesday to state his position, Rabbani said, adding: "We don't need his permission to announce our decision, and have made contingency plans for whether he says he will follow our decision or not."
He said the committee's decision on the leadership could come as early as Wednesday.
The meetings appear to have been untroubled by the Pakistani authorities, who habitually deny that they sponsor the Taliban or other terrorist groups, such as the Haqqani Network whose leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is one of Mansoor's deputies.
"Yes, our officials have contacts with them. Our officials have ability to contact and bring them to the negotiation table. That doesn't mean that our intelligence agencies have control on each and every thing," said Pakistani security analyst Zahid Hussain.
Ghani's condemnation of Pakistan's support for the Taliban boiled over in early August after a series of deadly attacks on the capital, Kabul, that left 50 people dead and hundreds wounded. After almost a year of trying to mend fences with Islamabad, the Afghan leader went on live TV and accused Pakistan of being the source of violence in his country. Relations between the neighbors have suffered, with an Afghan delegation returning empty-handed from a visit to Pakistan meant to hammer out a way of dealing with the insurgency.
"The decisions the Pakistani government will be making in the next few weeks will significantly affect bilateral relations for the next decades," Ghani said in his TV address. "We can no longer tolerate watching our people bleeding in a war exported and imposed on us from outside."
Peace talks between Ghani's administration and the Taliban, which had been supported by Pakistan, were indefinitely postponed after the announcement of Mullah Omar's death. Analysts and diplomats say it could be years before they are revived and that in the meantime the war could get worse as the new Taliban leader consolidates power and tries to win over all elements, including extremists who have been disaffected by the Taliban's lack of progress towards it goal of retaking Kabul.
U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice met with Pakistani leaders on Sunday to discuss efforts to revive peace talks. In a statement, the White House said she "underscored the U.S. commitment to an Afghan-led peace process, and urged Pakistan to intensify its efforts to counter terrorist sanctuaries inside its borders in order to promote regional peace and stability."
In recent days, gunmen loyal to Mansoor and to a powerful supporter of Mullah Omar's family in the leadership contest, Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, have fought openly in Zabul province in southern Afghanistan. At least five fighters were killed in battles on Saturday, Rabbani said.
Dadullah condemned the release of Mansoor's biograhy, accusing him of being "desperate" for power "and using every tactic to increase his popularity."
The 5,000-word document, emailed to journalists in five languages, describes Mansoor, who was born in 1968, as a tireless holy warrior, good listener and ardent protector of civilians, who was appointed as the insurgents' leader "in full compliance with Islamic Shariah law."
Mansoor "never nominated himself for leadership, rather he was selected as the only candidate ... by members of the leading council of the Islamic Emirate and religious scholars," the biography says, using the name of the former Taliban government.
"Mansoor is trying to show that he is the leader and no one can reach him on that level," said Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, the foreign relations adviser to the Afghan government's High Peace Council, which is charged with ending the war.
Mansoor is believed to have gained power in the Taliban in part because of his connections to Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which long has had ties to Afghan militants. He is believed to have acted in Mullah Omar's name in recent years and taken the Taliban into a peace dialogue with the Afghan government at the same time as stepping up the battle against Afghan forces, all at the ISI's behest, Qasimayar said.
With the backing of the Pakistani intelligence agency, Mansoor "is the only one right now that has more support than anyone else for the leadership," Qasimyar said. "With Pakistan's support, it doesn't matter who supports him and who doesn't."
However, Habibullah Fouzi, a diplomat under the Taliban and now a member of the Afghan government's peace council, said there could be more dissension within the Taliban. He said many rank-and-file members supported Mullah Omar's family. "It is clear that Mullah Mansoor has been imposed into this position by others," he said.
Mansoor's biography also for the first time gives a date for Mullah Omar's death: April 23, 2013. The Taliban said it kept his death a secret as "2013 was considered the last year of resistance and struggle" before the drawdown of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan and Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad contributed to this report.