Up Close With the Taliban’s Next King
Over the last 21 years, I’ve had many encounters with the man who will now head the Afghan Taliban fighting the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. What lies behind his dark glasses?
The first time I met Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor, the new leader of the Afghan Taliban, was in 1994, as the movement was just taking shape and before he’d decided to join. He came to my father’s Islamic bookshop in the Jalozai refugee camp for Afghans near Peshawar, Pakistan. He was about 25, appeared serious and was not so slender as the other students with him. He wore a big shalwar kamiz, the typical Pashtun clothing, and he wore sunglasses, which was not really typical at all. In this part of the world, people like to see each other’s eyes.
This was the same man, you will recall, who hid the death of the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, for more than a year. But of course that was much later.
Mansoor in those days was a student at the madrasa in the camp, poring over the holy texts during the day, sleeping in a room in the mosque at night. Even then, he stood out among the other taliban, which means “students” after all. He seemed a natural leader. He had fought against the Russians after the collapse of the Najibullah regime, and although he was devoted to his studies, he never finished them.
Once in the stifling heat of July in Pakistan, I saw Mansoor carrying dozens of Pepsi bottles to his class to kill the thirst of his fellow students. In the world of the camp, that simple gesture showed him to be rich, by comparison with others, and generous. He became a leader in Harkat Islami, a jihadi student union, but when Mullah Omar started the Taliban movement in 1994, he was not one of the first to join. He decided to wait.
Then in June 1995 Mansoor came and told me the madrasa would end the next day. “I hired five buses and about 150 Taliban will be going to Kandahar tomorrow to join Mullah Omar,” he said. “Can you come with your journalists to cover it?”
The next day at the Peshawar Kohat Road bus terminal Mansoor hired the vehicles and hit the road, and soon after caught Mullah Omar’s attention. He was appointed as a security officer in charge of the Kandahar airport. After that, he was picked by Mullah Omar as the Taliban minister of civil aviation and put in charge of the airports all over Afghanistan.
In 1997 when the Taliban tried for the first time to capture the northern city of Mazar-e-sharif, but failed, Mansoor was captured by an Uzbek warlord and thrown into a fetid lockup as a prisoner of war. For two months he remained there before Mullah Omar traded him out. Mansoor by then was an important commander with many fighters following him.
Over the years I have always found Mullah Mansoor acting in the manner of a tribal elder, neither conspicuously silent nor overly talkative, a man who weighs his words, is reasonable and eloquent.
In 1997 I met Mullah Mansoor again in Peshawar, and he had shed some of his weight. I asked him if he had had enough food in prison and he said yes, but he was also seeing a doctor regularly. He did not say why.
According to a high-ranking UN official who once worked with Mansoor on aviation issues, a milestone on his path to power occurred in 1998 when an Indian passenger plane en route from Katmandu to New Delhi was hijacked and landed at Kandahar airport. Indian commandos wanted to land there to rescue the plane and at first he was going to let them do so. But he got a call from Pakistan and changed his mind, denying them permission, according to the UN official, who was working with him to try to end the hijacking.
“From that day on he was seen as a positive and valuable person in the record books of Pakistani intelligence,” the UN official told me.
But Mansoor’s ascendancy to the top ranks only came with the death of others above him. He was not high on the Taliban seniority list until, between 2007 and 2009, Mullah Osmani and Mullah Dadullah were killed and Mullah Baradar and Mullah Obidullah Akhond were captured by the Pakistanis. Only then did he find himself on the first team with growing responsibility as a top leader of the Taliban movement.
According to one of his friends, Mansoor hid the death of Mullah Omar so he could handle the transition to his authority with no apparent vacuum in leadership. “By keeping the death of Mullah Omar secret for a year he made a fool of the CIA and made everyone else look unintelligent,” said his friend. “That is a brilliant entry in his ledger. He got the responsibilities of the leadership while the Taliban were in crisis and there was in fact a void. He built up strong resistance [to government forces] and was in contact with commanders on the ground.”
Mullah Mansoor’s precise date of birth is unknown but he is now about 50. He was born in a small village called Kariz in the Band Taimor area of the Maiwand district of Kandahar. Mullah Omar was from the same area. Mansoor's father, Muhammad Jan, was a normal farmer.
Not surprisingly, given the way things work in Afghanistan, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor has been criticized for giving many Taliban leadership positions to members of his Ishaqzai tribe. A senior Western diplomat in Kabul told The Daily Beast that Mansoor and his business partner, Mullah Gul Agah Akhond, are deeply involved in the opium trade and in smuggling expensive marble from Afghanistan to Pakistan.
In 2012 one of the Taliban commanders, Abdul Qayum Zakir, challenged Mansoor’s authority, but Mansoor was able to have Zakir sidelined and silenced, ultimately firing him from a position as head of the Taliban military council.
The last time I saw Mansoor face to face in 2006 was near Quetta, Pakistan, on a cold winter day. He was sitting outside a café in the dusty town of Kuchlak and sipping green tea. We exchanged glances, but he did not respond. For my part, I thought better not to mess with the Taliban and disappeared into the windblown dust of Kuchlak.
What will become of the Afghan Taliban now, under Mansoor? Most of them seem to believe Mansoor has firm control over their movement. But it would be odd, many of them say, to call him the leader of the faithful. That is a title, finally, that has to be earned, and whether he aims finally to achieve it through war or through peace is, at this point, impossible to tell.