(REUTERS) There are signs of the Taliban leadership “falling apart,” a U.S. military spokesman said on Saturday, citing reports this week that a breakaway faction no longer recognizes Mullah Mohammad Omar.
The one-eyed Mullah Omar became one of the world’s most wanted men for helping shelter Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network until late 2001, when U.S. led forces drove the Taliban militia from power in Afghanistan.
Reuters reported Monday that a dissident group named Taliban Jamiat Jaish-e-Muslimeen (Muslim Army of the Taliban) had broken away, taking with it about one-third of the Taliban’s fighting strength.
“That’s a significant development which demonstrates the Taliban are falling apart a little bit on the leadership side,” Major Scott Nelson told a regular news briefing in Kabul.
Nelson said the military was still assessing what impact the split was having on the Islamist militants’ strategy and operations against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
“That fissure is widening — we see that. Specifically what that means we’re still looking into it,” he said.
The new group was being led by Mulla Syed Mohammad Akbar Aga, a 45-year-old commander from the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, Sabir Momin, who was the Taliban’s deputy operations commander in southern Afghanistan, told Reuters Monday.
The rift within the Taliban comes hard on the heels of a series of arrests of al Qaeda members in neighboring Pakistan, suggesting success on two fronts in the U.S.-led war on terror.
There are around 18,000 U.S.-led troops combing the south and east of Afghanistan for Taliban and al Qaeda members.
Another eight thousand peacekeepers are part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) stationed in Kabul and northern parts of the country.
Friday, one U.S. soldier was wounded in a Taliban ambush of a convoy in southeastern Paktika province, and another was hurt when his patrol vehicle was hit by an explosive device in neighboring Zabul province.
Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi told Reuters four fighters had been wounded.
The U.S. military has lost 98 servicemen in Afghanistan since late 2001, the most recent a soldier killed when the Black Hawk helicopter he was traveling in crashed due to a mechanical problem Thursday. The U.S. military says there was no hostile fire involved in the incident.
The peacekeeping force has been beefed up ahead of Afghanistan’s landmark presidential election in October, as the Taliban and its allies are expected to intensify a campaign of violence. Close to one thousand people have been killed in the past year, including militants.
Taliban remnants are believed to have links with al Qaeda, the group they sheltered from the 1990s, and militant Islamic forces loyal to former Afghan prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.