ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The battle for Kunduz in northern Afghanistan is now in its third day. Afghan government forces are trying to regain control of the city after it was overrun by the Taliban. The Afghan forces are being helped by NATO special forces advisers and by U.S. airstrikes. And as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, the militants are answering to a new leader who seems to be playing a pivotal role.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Mullah Akhtar Mansour has only been leader of the Afghan Taliban for a matter of weeks. He's already presided over the militants' biggest military victory since they were thrown out of power 14 years ago. The decision to invade Kunduz was not just about seizing territory. It was also all about Mansour, says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a leading political commentator.
HASAN ASKARI RIZVI: The message that the new leader wanted to give - I think it has been communicated. He wanted to demonstrate to Taliban and those who may be quite dissenters that, look; he has full command of the Taliban movement.
REEVES: Mansour used to be deputy to Mullah Omar, the Taliban's founder. In July, the Taliban finally admitted that Mullah Omar had been dead for two years. Mansour stepped into his shoes as the so-called commander of the faithful. His promotion didn't go down well with everyone, says writer and political analyst Taimur Rahman.
TAIMUR RAHMAN: We know that when he was nominated to power in the Taliban that there was a significant split between those who continue to be loyal to Mullah Omar's family and those that were loyal to him.
REEVES: The Taliban says Mullah Omar's family eventually came around and pledged allegiance to Mansour, but reports of rifts within the movement persisted. Rahman thinks the assault on Kunduz was a big gamble by Mansour aimed at finally consolidating his position.
RAHMAN: And it will work. It will work in the sense that the longer he's able to hold the city, the more he'll be able to convince the opposition or at least the wavering elements within the TTA that - which is Tehreek-e-Taliban of Afghanistan - that he is the man for the job.
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REEVES: Within hours of storming Kunduz on Monday, Mansour's aides went on the Internet with footage of Taliban fighters celebrating in the streets. Afghanistan's government promised to take back those streets swiftly. That task is proving difficult. The Taliban today seized a hilltop military position overlooking the city and are reportedly sowing mines and digging in. Politics professor Rasul Bakhsh Rais has specialized in the Afghan conflict for years. He doubts the Afghan government and the U.S. will allow Mullah Mansour's men to stay in Kunduz for very long.
RASUL BAKHSH RAIS: Sooner or later, no matter at what cost, they will have to be evicted.
REEVES: The Taliban's invasion of Kunduz looks like a sign that Afghanistan's heading towards civil war, yet some observers here of the Afghan conflict take a different view. Rais believes Mansour's less interested in conquering Afghanistan outright than in strengthening his hand ahead of possible peace negotiations.
RAIS: He is interested in exploring the avenues that will lead to peace and stability in Afghanistan. He is open to a dialogue.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Lahore.
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