KABUL, Afghanistan—The Afghan Taliban on Friday praised their new leader, saying he was one of the most “trusted” associates of the late Mullah Mohammad Omar — a statement likely meant to rally followers behind the leadership at a time of a deeply fractured insurgency.
On the ground, the insurgency continued with Afghan officials saying the Taliban had blown up a major bridge connecting two districts of Kunduz province the previous day, fought gunbattles with police and been run out of another district when residents took up arms against them.
Afghan forces also retook control Friday of Naw Zad district in Helmand province after three days of fierce fighting with the Taliban, the officials said.
The Taliban statement, which was emailed to The Associated Press, said the group’s new leader, Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansoor, had also been given the title of “Commander of the Faithful,” conferring on him the supreme status held by Mullah Omar.
Mansoor has been an “active director” of the jihad, or holy war, for some years, it added. The statement did not give any details of when Mullah Omar died or from what illness.
The Taliban on Thursday confirmed that Mullah Omar had died of an illness some time ago and said they elected Mansoor as his successor. The Afghan government announced Wednesday that the reclusive mullah had been dead since April 2013.
Mullah Omar was the one-eyed, secretive head of the Taliban, whose group hosted Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaida in the years leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and then waged a decade-long insurgency against U.S. troops after the 2001 invasion that ended the Taliban rule. He had not been seen in public since fleeing the invasion over the border into Pakistan.
The Taliban reacted to the announcement of the Kabul government by pulling out of peace talks that were scheduled to take place on Friday. The Pakistani government, which was to host the meeting, said the negotiations were indefinitely postponed.
The Afghan government said it regretted the postponement of the second formal face-to-face meeting with the Taliban. The Foreign Affairs Ministry said Kabul “as always, is committed to the peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban movement and hopes that the aforementioned meeting will be held in the near future.”
While the future of the peace process, which is a priority for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, is uncertain, the ministry added that “Afghanistan believes that in the current situation, peace negotiations are (more) possible than any time before.”
The new leader of the Taliban is seen as close to Pakistan, which is believed to have sheltered and supported the insurgents through the war, now in its 14th year. This may put him in a position to revive the peace talks.
According to the Taliban, as Mullah Omar’s deputy, Mansoor has been effectively running the insurgency for the past three years and is said to have the loyalty of battlefield commanders who have intensified and spread their insurgency against Kabul in recent months. The statement confirmed Sirajuddin Haqqani as one of its newly-elected deputy leaders. A leader of the Haqqani Network that has ties with al-Qaeda, and is believed to be responsible for numerous deadly attacks in Afghanistan. He has a $10 million American bounty on his head.
Taliban attacks against Afghan officials and forces have intensified with their warm-weather annual offensive and since NATO’s combat troops pulled out of the country at the end of last year, leaving Afghan forces in charge of the security situation in their country.
In Kunduz, insurgents have been active since late April, and are believed to have joined forces with other militant groups in their attempts to take control of the strategic province.
Abdul Wadood Wahidi, spokesman for the Kunduz governor, said the militants had planted explosive beneath the bridge connecting Qala-i-Zal and Chahar Dara districts. “In battles with local security forces, the Taliban lost 20 fighters, including their local commander,” he said.
Governor Mirza Khan Rahimi in Helmand province said Afghan forces on Friday morning recaptured the district of Naw Zad, overrun by militants two days earlier. Provincial lawmaker Mohammad Hashim Alokozai said 16 police and soldiers were killed in two days of fighting. He said that clashes were still continuing in the neighboring district of Musa Qala.