KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghanistan's government has offered the new Taliban leader a choice: make peace or face the same fate as his predecessor, killed in a U.S. drone strike last week. But Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada is a hard-liner who has used his religious credentials to justify the Taliban insurgency that has killed or wounded tens of thousands of Afghan civilians as a "holy war" and his succession has inspired little hope for an end to the bloodshed.
For many Taliban fighters, the movement's leadership lost Islamic legitimacy last year, when it emerged that its founder, one-eyed Mullah Mohammad Omar, had been dead for years and that his deputy, a wealthy drug smuggler named Mullah Akhtar Mansour, had been running the war in his name.
The revelation caused a split at the top of the Taliban, and provoked mistrust among fighters. Several factions broke away, and some began fighting Mansour loyalists.
The Taliban leadership is now desperate to close these rifts. After Mansour was killed last Saturday when his vehicle was struck by an American drone in southwestern Pakistan, Akhundzada was swiftly chosen to replace him in an attempt to avoid the tensions that followed Mullah Omar's death.
On Thursday, the Taliban religious council released a statement to The Associated Press, saying they believe Akhundzada will bring unity and mend the "mistakes" of the recent past. The new leader will "bring all the mujahedeen (holy warriors) together on a single platform," the statement said.
Mansour, nicknamed "the Accountant" because of his wealth, controlled a vast drugs-smuggling empire based in the southern opium-producing provinces that provide the bulk of the world's heroin and fund the 15-year insurgency, one senior Afghan official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Battles between Mansour and his main detractor, Mullah Mohammad Rasool, for control of the smuggling routes spread disillusionment among foot soldiers, the official said.
"The Taliban have always claimed that they are fighting not for power, but for Islam, for freedom. So when they started fighting for power, it led to the erosion of their legitimacy among their own rank and file and caused them to become suspicious of each other," he added. Never again would the Taliban leadership "have the unity, authority and position as they had under Mullah Omar."
On his Twitter account, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani issued an ultimatum on Thursday, saying that "Taliban groups have yet another chance to end violence/lay their arms & start normal life. Or they'll face the same fate as their leadership."
But analysts say such threats are bound to fail as they effectively call for surrender.
Mansour had refused to join Ghani's earlier efforts to start a peace dialogue, instead intensifying the war. When the Taliban and their partners, the al-Qaida affiliated Haqqani network, were linked to an April 19 attack on Kabul that killed 64 people and wounded hundreds, Ghani changed tack and accused Pakistan of using the Taliban to wage war on his country. The new attitude has been welcomed by many Afghans, who regarded attempts to appease Islamabad, which they accuse of harboring the Taliban leadership, as misguided. Pakistan denies such accusations.
Akhundzada, a low-profile conservative who was a deputy to Mansour, is seen by many as a natural choice for a movement that, despite battlefield gains, has been in disarray for more than a year. He was close to Mullah Omar, helping formulate religious decrees to justify the war, and like him is a native of Afghanistan's Kandahar province, which was the center of the Taliban's 1996-2001 regime.
As head of the Taliban courts, Akhundzada was brutal in his pronouncements and was conspicuously extremist in his views of women, according to Rahmatullah Nabil, a former head of Afghanistan's secret service. Nabil described Akhundzada as a "small-minded man with a weak personality" who has never traveled abroad and so lacks "any familiarity with the bigger issues."
Akhundzada's need to consolidate his position could mean escalated violence, as he seeks to be taken seriously as a warrior.
Anatol Levin, a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar, said the United States appeared to have "decided that peace talks are pointless at this stage and, encouraged by the Afghan government, have decided to go for a strategy of decapitating the Taliban."
The impact of the divide-and-rule strategy may be emerging as Akhundzada's two deputies — Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani network, and Mullah Omar's son, Mullah Yaqoub — vie for influence.
The two, Haqqani and Yaqoub, have already "divided Afghanistan into two parts" and each wants to control his own section, said one Taliban commander said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Taliban leadership.
The U.S. military does not anticipate any "significant changes on the battlefield in the short term," said Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, spokesman for the American and NATO mission in Afghanistan. He expected fierce months of fighting ahead.
As Akhundzada consolidates power, he will have to identify dissidents, said political analyst Idress Rahmini. The faction led by Rasool — the main detractor to Mansoor — have said they will not reconcile with Akhundzada.
The new Taliban leader's success and longevity also depends on how he manages his relationship with Pakistan's intelligence agency, said Rahimini. He must handle the relationship "very carefully to avoid the mistakes of the last leader," Rahmini said.
Islamabad has protested that the strike on Mansour violated its sovereignty, but it is not known if the intelligence agency colluded in the assassination.
If Pakistani authorities did secretly support Mansour's killing, this "shows that Pakistan is supporting the Afghan peace process by removing a Taliban leader who was a barrier to peace," Rahmini said.
But, he added, if the attack was conducted unilaterally, this "will have a negative impact on the peace process and we will see an escalation of attacks in Afghanistan."
O'Donnell is The Associated Press bureau chief in Kabul, Afghanistan and has reported from Asia since 1990. Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan and Karim Sharifi in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.