Will Mullah Omar’s Death Help the Islamic State?
The Taliban leader's death only means a new chapter in the fight against jihadist violence.
The death of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, confirmed by Taliban spokesmen on Thursday, introduces an element of uncertainty to Afghanistan’s future at the same time that the Afghan army and government prepare to go without U.S. support for the first time since 2001.
Omar leaves behind a unique legacy. As leader of a brutal and criminal totalitarian movement, Omar shares the infamy of the 20th century’s demons — including the likes of Pol Pot and Kim Il-sung. But while Omar shared their taste for tyranny, he was never as successful, never as intelligent and effective.
As head of state, Omar was incompetent. He presided over the most failed state on earth, and managed to make it even worse. Omar ensured that Afghans would never flock to the banner of the Taliban: By living under his rule for six years, Afghans saw just how bad the Taliban were.
Remarkably, Omar was even worse as an insurgent leader. He was, in fact, something of a gift to the U.S. and the Afghan government. Insurgency is competitive state building; insurgencies succeed by constructing a superior government in place of the one they are trying to overthrow. The Taliban have been notable for their lack of a political program. All Omar could promise was to return Afghans to the misery and dictatorship they knew in the 1990s.
Much as Britain refused to back assassination plots against Hitler because his erratic and irrational leadership was an asset for the Allies, so Omar’s incompetence and brutality kept the Taliban insurgency isolated and unpopular.
It’s unclear how Omar’s death will affect Afghanistan. Omar was naturally a hardliner who opposed negotiations with the Afghan government for years. Even if talks had ever really gotten off the ground under Omar’s leadership, his negotiating position almost certainly would have been incompatible with the United State’s and with President Ashraf Ghani’s. With Omar gone, the hardliner faction is a little weaker.
Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, was not heir-apparent until recently. Mansour served in the relatively unimportant post of minister of civil aviation in the Taliban movement. Other leaders, like Mullah Berader and Mullah Dadullah were more experienced military and political leaders with stronger claims to inherit Omar’s mantle. Dadullah was killed in 2007; Berader was arrested in 2010 and is probably under some form of house arrest in Pakistan. Mansour starts out in a relatively weak position.
That does not mean peace talks with the Afghan government are imminent. The Afghan government’s negotiating position is also weak, and getting weaker by the day because of the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2016. The Afghan government will be weak after the U.S. withdrawal and more prone to make concessions to the Taliban, and they know it, almost certainly why peace talks have made little progress since Obama announced his withdrawal plans.
Additionally, there is the problem of the Islamic State. The movement, headquartered in Iraq and Syria, aspires to wider regional and even global leadership of the jihadist movement under the mantle of the self-appointed caliph, or successor to Mohammad, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Well before al-Baghdadi, in 1994 Omar claimed the mantle of “Commander of the Faithful,” or military leadership of all Muslims worldwide, and literally wrapped himself in the cloak of Mohammad. Theologically speaking, Omar and al-Baghdadi were rivals for leadership of the Umma.
Most Muslims didn’t take either claim seriously, but Omar’s claim was a thorn in the Islamic State’s efforts to make inroads among Afghan and South Asian jihadists. With Omar out of the way, the Islamic State may have an easier time recruiting Taliban and even al-Qaida foot soldiers to its banner. If that happens, in turn, the Islamic State could effectively supplant the Taliban and al-Qaida as the preeminent jihadist group in South Asia, and peace talks with the Afghan government are a dead letter.
Regardless, there is no prospect for the end of jihadist-inspired political violence in Afghanistan or Pakistan — or anywhere else — in the foreseeable future. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region without the establishment of a sustainable political settlement there makes likely Afghanistan’s descent — and possibly Pakistan’s — into the same chaos that has gripped Iraq and Syrian since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from that region in 2011. Omar is gone, but the war against his followers and fellow travelers will continue for a long time yet.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images