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New leader "a modern face among the Taliban"?

ISLAMABAD -- The first time Mullah Nek Muhammad met the man who would become leader of the Taliban was at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1998.

"He was my guest in Germany for almost one month," said Muhammad, who was based in the German city as the then-Taliban government's unofficial envoy to Europe. In that role, it fell to him to host fellow Talib Mullah Akhtar Mansoor for a month of work and pleasure in the West.

"We drove around and visited lots of places in Germany and the Czech republic," Muhammad told CBS News, pausing to sip green tea as he painted a surprising picture of the now-leader of the Afghan insurgency and figurehead to thousands of Islamic extremists.

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Muhammad said Mansoor, who was then in charge of Afghan airports for the Taliban government, was in Europe with him for 25 days.

"He came to Germany to purchase airport equipment, parts for airliners and military choppers for the Taliban air force," Muhammad said.

Few people knew then that there was an unofficial Taliban office in Frankfurt, which Muhammad says he headed up. German officials never acknowledged it, and it started primarily as a place for wounded Taliban fighters who couldn't get treatment in Afghanistan or neighboring Pakistan to seek help. Muhammad himself was brought to Germany after losing half a leg and sustaining severe facial injuries fighting for the Taliban in 1995.

He remained there, and the office he says he ran became the de facto Taliban embassy for all of Europe at the time, Muhammad said.

"We used to issue visas, Afghan passports, Afghan ID cards, papers for verification, marriage certificates," he told CBS News.

From left, Mullah Nek Muhammad, Afghan businessman Haji Farid and Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the last being the current leader of the Afghan Taliban, are seen in a photo taken in Frankfurt
From left, Mullah Nek Muhammad, Afghan businessman Haji Farid and Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the last being the current leader of the Afghan Taliban, are seen in a photo taken in Frankfurt, Germany in 1998.

Muhammad said Mansoor, who was confirmed as the successor to late Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar earlier this year, hadn't been named aviation minister at the time, but was in charge of airport security and management for the fundamentalist regime.

The year after his visit to Germany, Mansoor was tapped by Omar to be his cabinet minister.

"In Prague we stayed with the Afghan Charge de Affairs. He had also switched loyalty to the Taliban regime and we moved around a lot in different parts of Prague," Muhammad said.

They went to the city, he said, so Mansoor could buy Czech-made aircraft parts to repair and update planes seized by the Taliban when it overthrew Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabani in 1996.

In Germany, Mansoor purchased oil tanks, aircraft fuelling nozzles and various other pieces of airport equipment.

"At that time, the Taliban regime was not under UN sanctions, and Mansoor bought about four (shipping) containers full of stuff and a number of oil tanks for the airports," Muhammad recalled.

The official biography of Mansoor released last week by the Taliban makes no mention of his trip to the West; little wonder, perhaps, as it shows what a starkly different figure is to the man he has replaced.

Mullah Omar never traveled even as far as Kabul during his reign over the Taliban. His successor visited Dubai, at least, in addition to his European travels.

Muhammad, who no longer has direct links to the group, praised the new Taliban chief as a "calm leader" who was keen to learn about the "progress in the West and wanted to have the same airport facilities for Afghanistan."

One Western diplomat, who spoke to CBS News on the condition of anonymity, agreed that there are fundamental differences between Mansoor and his predecessor Mullah Omar.

"Omar was never out of his house in Kandahar, and Mansoor has been to the West," he said. "At the moment, he is kind of a modern face among the Taliban."

"Mansoor would be the ideal person for peace talks, but at the moment he is battling to consolidate his command and won't take the risk of going for peace talks very soon," suggested the envoy, a European based in Kabul.

"Peace with the Afghan government is not possible for a weak and divided Taliban," added the diplomat, who said the Afghan government itself was also still trying to solidify its stance under relatively new President Mohammed Ashraf Ghani.

Many in the region believe, however, that once the leaders of both the Taliban and the Afghan government feel they have the required support from underneath, the time could be right, and the leaders could be the right men to push for a peace agreement.

Filed by CBS News' Sami Yousafzai in Islamabad.

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