KABUL (Afghanistan) • If ever there was a Taleban bureaucrat who seemed set on a less-than-stellar career path, it was Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour.
In the 1990s, he was the Taleban government's chief of aviation while Afghanistan had few planes in the air. He also oversaw the tourism department for what was one of the world's most sealed-off countries at the time. In short, there was little hint back then that he would someday emerge as the Taleban's supreme commander, and the successor to the group's legendary founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar.
But in the years since 2001, when the Taleban leadership was driven into exile in Pakistan, Mansour became central to the group's reincarnation as a powerful insurgency that survived Nato offensives to pose a grave threat now to the Western-backed Afghan government.
The insurgent assault that has swept across northern Afghanistan in recent weeks and, for the first time in 14 years, planted the Taleban flag in a major city - Kunduz - has cemented his status as one of the canniest enemies of US interests in decades. Yet he has remained largely a mystery to American and Afghan officials.
He is one of the last senior members of Omar's original government still with the insurgency.
I'll tell you who he isn't. He is not a moderate or extremist Taleb, because his life is not lived according to our categories. People are trying to pigeonhole him into something they understand.
MR BARNETT RUBIN, a scholar of Afghanistan who has worked in the US government on Afghanistan policy, on Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour
Details of his rise - filled in through interviews with current and former Taleban commanders and Western and Afghan officials - paint a portrait of a leader with a distinct flair for intrigue.
As acting leader of the Taleban over the past few years, he guarded the secret that Omar had been dead since 2013. He also wielded that secret powerfully, issuing orders in Omar's name, moving against rival Taleban commanders and steadily consolidating power.
He has also benefited from an alliance with Pakistan's military spy agency - Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI - the original sponsor of the Taleban insurgency. That relationship, along with a hefty dose of cash payouts to fellow commanders, was a crucial factor in his ability to manage the succession crisis this summer after news of Omar's death finally got out.
Even those who have examined Mansour's statements and career closely for clues are hard pressed to say what his long-term intentions might be.
"I'll tell you who he isn't," Mr Barnett Rubin, a scholar of Afghanistan who has worked in the United States government on Afghanistan policy, said in an interview. "He is not a moderate or extremist Taleb, because his life is not lived according to our categories. People are trying to pigeonhole him into something they understand."
NEW YORK TIMES