Secretive Taliban Leader Mullah Omar Emerges in Power Struggle

The Pakistani Taliban today is like a mafia family whose don has just been whacked -- leaderless, with blood flowing in the streets between rival factions.

U.S. and Pakistani officials now predict that the consiglieres who will stabilize the region's strongest terrorist network are the very people the U.S. has been fighting since 9/11: al Qaeda and Mullah Omar, the head of the Afghan Taliban.

Pakistani Taliban commanders have been bickering since a CIA drone strike killed their charismatic leader, Baitullah Mehsud, who over the last year and a half managed to pull together at least 13 fractious Taliban factions into a network blamed for the deaths of more than 1,200 people.

Their bickering turned violent over the weekend when Mehsud's most likely successors shot at each other during a meeting to pick the next Pakistani Taliban chief.

In response, Mullah Omar and his allies in North Waziristan, according to people who have spoken with Pakistani intelligence agents there, called a meeting with leading Taliban commanders to try and stop the infighting. A successor to Mehsud could emerge from that meeting in the coming days.

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Mullah Omar was deposed as the leader of Afghanistan in 2001 when U.S. special forces troops invaded and helped rebel Afghan forces route the Taliban. The attack was in retaliation for Mullah Omar harboring Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in the years before the 9/11 attacks.

The U.S. has been hunting Mullah Omar since, but the secretive one-eyed Taliban leader has eluded his enemies while presiding over a growing Taliban force that has battled the U.S. in the southern part of Afghanistan to a stalemate.

Omar has intervened with the Pakistani Taliban before. He was the only person, according to Aftab Sherpao, Pakistan's interior minister at the time, who could break a deadlock when Mehsud was chosen in 2007.

Al Qaeda's Arab commanders have also been angling to install their own "chief terrorist" as head of the Pakistani Taliban, says Pakistan's current interior minister, Rehman Malik. U.S. and Pakistani officials believe al Qaeda is strongly trying to push the Taliban to choose a leader who will protect their safe havens in the Pakistani tribal areas and continue to allow al Qaeda plans to be executed by Taliban fighters.

Both al Qaeda and the Quetta Shura, which Omar heads, "need a support base and they need hide outs," says Amir Rana, head of Pakistan's Institute for Peace Studies. "It will be difficult for them to sustain their operations in Afghanistan if they lose this."

Shifting the Focus Back to Afghanistan

If Omar -- likely with the assistance of Sirajuddin Haqqani and his family's network in North Waziristan -- does choose the next Pakistani Taliban leader, he will likely choose someone who will shift the network's focus from Pakistan back to Afghanistan, where 100,000 international troops are currently fighting a war widely believed to be a stalemate.

That could make Pakistan safer, analysts say, but make the war in Afghanistan more dangerous for U.S. troops. It would also be akin to the militancy during the 1980s and 1990s, when fighters from many countries all fought together in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. When the Pakistani fighters crossed the border home, they would target minority Shiite Muslims or Indian targets in Kashmir instead of Pakistani targets.

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