KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban confirmed the death of longtime leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and appointed his successor Thursday, as a new round of peace talks was indefinitely postponed amid concerns over how committed the new leadership is to ending the militant group’s 14-year insurgency.
The Afghan Taliban Shura, or Supreme Council, chose Mullah Omar’s deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, as its new leader, two Taliban figures told The Associated Press, saying the seven-member council had met in the Pakistani city of Quetta.
Mansoor is considered close to Pakistani authorities who hosted peace talks earlier this month, and his election could widen an internal split between fighters who favor negotiations with the Afghan government and those who want to continue an insurgency that has gained speed following the end of the international combat mission last year.
Mansoor has effectively commanded the movement for the three years since Mullah Omar’s previous deputy and co-founder of the movement, Mullah Abdul Baradar, was arrested by Pakistani authorities. Observers say he has the respect of battlefield commanders and is behind the intensification of the war in recent months as a means of strengthening the Taliban’s hand as it enters into a formal dialogue with Kabul.
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The peace process was plunged into uncertainty earlier Thursday when the Taliban indicated they were pulling out of the negotiations and Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry announced the talks, which were to have been hosted by Islamabad beginning Friday, had been postponed.
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until they were overthrown in a U.S-led invasion in 2001. It is widely believed that Mullah Omar fled over the border to Pakistan, where he lived under Pakistani protection until his death.
Afghan President Ashraf 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 since Ghani assumed power last year the government’s position has been that “the real negotiation is between Afghanistan and Pakistan.” The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the ongoing talks.
Despite operating in near-total secrecy, the reclusive one-eyed Mullah Omar had served as a unifying figure in the Taliban. But experts have long spoken of a divide in the movement between those who favor the peace process and those who still believe they can overthrow the government.
Analysts and diplomats said those divisions could hamper progress in the short term. Further splintering within the Taliban could see more local commanders defect to other extremist groups, such as the Islamic State group, which has taken control of large parts of Iraq and Syria and is believed to have recruited some Taliban as it tries to establish a presence in Afghanistan.
The Taliban said Thursday that Mullah Omar’s family had confirmed his death from an unspecified illness, though no time frame was given. In a statement emailed to media, the Taliban quoted Mullah Omar’s brother and one of his sons as asking for forgiveness for “mistakes” he made at the helm of the militant group.
The statement, issued in the name of Mullah Omar’s brother, Mullah Abdul Manan, and his son, Mohammad Yaqub, came after the Afghan government announced Wednesday that Mullah Omar had died more than two years ago in a Pakistani hospital.
Senior Taliban figures also told the AP that Mullah Omar had died and his son, Yaqub, confirmed in a telephone call that his father was dead, but did not provide any further details.
In the statement, Mullah Omar’s family praised his dedication to jihad, or holy war, against the U.S.-led coalition and said it was the “duty of all Muslims” to follow his example by establishing Sharia law in Afghanistan. They also maintained Mullah Omar never left Afghanistan after his government was toppled in 2001 — an assertion that contradicts the widespread belief that he fled to Pakistan, where he received refuge as he led the insurgency for a number of years.
“During 14 years of jihad against the U.S., Mullah Omar never left Afghanistan for one day, even to go to Pakistan or to any other country,” the statement said, adding that he remained in Afghanistan through two weeks of serious illness before passing away. It provided no details.
Following Mansoor’s election, the Taliban chose Sirajuddin Haqqani as its new deputy leader, the Taliban sources said. Haqqani has a U.S. bounty of $10 million on his head as a leader of the brutal and extremist Haqqani network, which is allied with al-Qaida.
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 its base in the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan, including a 19-hour siege at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in September 2011.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday it was postponing the peace talks due to the “uncertainty” surrounding Mullah Omar’s death and gave no new date for the negotiations, saying only that it hoped they would be held “in the near future.”
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.
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.
Gannon reported from Timmins, Canada. Associated Press writers Humayoon Babur in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad contributed to this report.