Dissension has broken out in the top ranks of Afghanistans Taliban. The group has muddled along without an operational head since February, when Mullah Mohammed Omars second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was arrested in Karachi, Pakistan. (It was Baradar who directed the Talibans day-to-day affairs while the Talibans living symbol and spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, stayed safely hidden from the Americans.) But now a claimant to Baradars position has emergedand at least some senior Taliban chiefs are seriously questioning whether he should have the job. The man at the center of the storm is Mullah Gul Agha Akhund. Like Baradar, hes an in-law and long-time confidant of Mullah Omars. He never held a formal position in the Taliban government when it ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, and his only military experience was as a guerrilla fighting the Soviets in the 1980s. Nevertheless, in April word began circulating among the Taliban that he was claiming to be Mullah Omars choice to replace Baradar as head of the Talibans leadership council. Hes said to be in possession of a handwritten letter from Mullah Omar to that effect, and Omars own brother is telling everyone its genuine. A senior Taliban official who goes by the single name Zabibullah says he and other leadersincluding the movements top military commander, Abdul Qayum Zakirare skeptical of Gul Aghas claim to power. During the years of Taliban rule, Zabibullah says, Gul Agha always sat beside or near Mullah Omar in council meetings and before public audiences. But, he says, Gul Agha has also developed a reputation for being close to Pakistani intelligence officials, and may be their pick and not Mullah Omars. Zabibullah worries that Gul Aghas claim to power, with no hard evidence but a letter (which Zabibullah has not seen), is spreading confusion and doubt in the Talibans ranks. Another senior Taliban commander, the deputy leader of the Peshawar shura, recently told mourners at a funeral that Baradars designated successor is one of the groups three top officers, a rear-echelon commander named Akhtar Mohammad Mansoornot Gul Agha. This is no good, says Zabibullah. One man says he has a letter, while another may say he dreamed that Mullah Omar has appointed him. Whats real? Three Taliban sources tell NEWSWEEK they wish Mullah Omar would speak up and settle the leadership question before matters get any worse; with 30,000 U.S. reinforcements arriving on the battlefield, the Taliban desperately need a unified strategy. Since Baradars arrest, leadership responsibility has been divided three ways between Zakir, Mansoor, and Mullah Mohammad Hasan Rahmani, the former governor of Kandahar province. The knives of too many butchers will not kill the cow, says Zabibullah, quoting a Pashtun proverb that warns against too many cooks. No one really knows who is in charge. (NEWSWEEK)