The son of the Afghan Taliban's late founder has been appointed as the insurgents' military chief in a political reshuffle to check the power of his predecessor, senior militant figures have said.
Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob has been announced head of the military commission for the movement trying to overthrown the internationally-backed government in Afghanistan.
His appointment was confirmed as the militants have significantly ramped up attacks following a withdrawal agreement with America.
The appointment of the son of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the late Taliban founder, reins in the former military leader Sardar Ibrahim as the movement closes in on negotiations with the Afghan government.
Two senior Taliban figures told the Telegraph that the decision had been made at the insistence of factions in the Taliban and among Pakistan's military who still have influence over the insurgents. Ibrahim had been considered too hostile to Pakistan and too close to Iran, the sources said.
Zabiullah Mujahid, spokesman for the Taliban, confirmed the appointment but would not comment on the reasons for it.
The post of military chief has formally been vacant for several years, but Ibrahim has been de facto nationwide leader while officially deputy in charge of southern military operations. Ibrahim will remain as Mullah Yaqoob's deputy. Mullah Omar died in 2013, though the insurgent movement continued to release statements in his name until it finally admitted he was dead in 2015.
Sources said Ibrahim blamed Pakistan for the death of his close friend, the former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor.
Mansoor was killed by a 2016 US drone strike in Pakistan's Balochistan province, after crossing the border from Iran.
The Taliban sources claimed that since then, Ibrahim, originally from Helmand, had refused to base himself in Pakistan where many of his senior comrades reside. His insistence on staying in Afghanistan, or Iran, and his refusal to attend meetings in Pakistan had angered some comrades.
Pakistan denies supporting the Taliban or providing safe havens, but Western officials say the country maintains influence over the movement.
A former Taliban minister now in Kabul said Ibrahim had used his fortune from opium and marble smuggling to build internal support in the Taliban and was supported by Iran who had have significant dealings with the Taliban in Western Afghanistan.
He has overseen significant military success for the Taliban in recent years as a growing tide of attacks forced America to the negotiating table. The insurgents signed a landmark deal in Qatar in February, securing the withdrawal of American troops if the Taliban agreed to negotiate with the Kabul government and cast international terrorists out of Afghanistan.
“By appointing Mullah Yaqoob, the leader of the faithful [Taliban leader] Haibatullah wants to send a clear message that he can remove or appoint Taliban leaders,” said the former minister. “But Ibrahim already holds strong local and Iranian support, so let's see how this moves ahead.”
Ibrahim had also been notorious among aid agencies for his opposition to the polio vaccination campaign. He banned vaccinators from conducting door-to-door polio drops campaigns in Taliban territory, after accusing them of gathering intelligence for drone strikes. The decision, two years ago, is feared to have created a pool of hundreds of thousands of children vulnerable to the crippling virus.
America this week renewed its calls for the Taliban to curb violence.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy who brokered the February 29 agreement with the Taliban, was due to hold talks with the militants to “urge support for an immediate reduction in violence,
accelerated timeline for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations, and cooperation among all sides in addressing the Covid-19 pandemic in Afghanistan," a State Department statement said.