PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - A senior Pakistani cleric widely known as the “Father of the Taliban” offered on Thursday to mediate to resolve a leadership dispute that threatens to split the insurgent movement in Afghanistan after confirmation of founder Mullah Omar’s death.
Maulana Sami-ul Haq, an influential figure among members of the Taliban on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, said he had urged the newly declared head of the group, Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansour, to sit down with rivals who have challenged his right to the leadership.
“I would arrange for members of the two rival factions together to sit down in front of each other, and in the presence of other leading religious scholars, we would listen to both sides and overcome this issue amicably,” he told Reuters.
He said by telephone that both sides had expressed their trust in him and appealed to him to help resolve the dispute.
The comments underline efforts within the movement to patch up a potentially dangerous rift that could split the Taliban, open the door to more defections to Islamic State and threaten the future of peace talks with the government in Kabul.
Some senior Taliban figures support the fledgling negotiations, while others are opposed to talks.
Meanwhile, the movement is pressing its insurgency against government forces in Afghanistan which has claimed thousands of lives since 2001 and intensified since most NATO troops left the country by the end of 2014.
Mansour, longtime deputy to the movement’s reclusive founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, was named leader last week after Taliban officials confirmed Omar was dead. Afghan officials and some senior Taliban say he died two years ago but his death was kept secret.
Mansour’s swift appointment by the Taliban leadership council in the Pakistani city of Quetta has angered many within the movement, including members of Mullah Omar’s family who have denounced Mansour and called for a new leadership council.
Haq, who backs Mansour’s leadership, said he had met members of Omar’s family and others in the faction opposed to the new leader and urged them to overcome what he called “minor differences”.
“I told them that people would never forgive you if you wasted sacrifices of thousands of Afghan Mujahideen by creating divisions within the Taliban movement,” he said.
Taliban sources said a group that supports Omar’s son Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob told Haq that they would not accept Mansour as leader until his appointment was approved by a larger leadership group backed by religious scholars.
Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, a spokesman for the group opposed to Mansour, confirmed that Haq was mediating in the dispute and said a large group of as many as 300 religious scholars or ulema had met to try to find a solution.
“We have a clear-cut stance that Mullah Mansour would have to resign, hand over the Emirate of Afghanistan to the ulema council and the ulema will then choose the new leader,” he said. “Anyone appointed as leader by the council would be acceptable to us.”
The dispute has set off a series of tremors within the Taliban leadership.
Syed Mohammad Tayab Agha, director of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, resigned his post on Monday, criticising the decision to make the appointment outside Afghanistan and backing calls for a new leadership council.
He has since been replaced by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai, a senior negotiator in preliminary peace meetings with Kabul government officials in May and a former deputy foreign minister in the Taliban government toppled in 2001.
Additional reporting by Jessica Donati in Kabul; Writing by James Mackenzie