Death Divides the Taliban
The death of Mullah Omar has caused rifts in succession, the peace process, and internal loyalties that signal dangerous times ahead for Afghanistan.
Though rumors of his death have been circulating for years, the Afghan National Directorate of Security announced on July 29, just two days before the second round of peace talks with the Taliban, that Mullah Omar had succumbed to an illness in April 2013 while being treated at a Karachi hospital — an accusation first made by CIA Director Leon Panetta in 2011. The Afghan Taliban finally broke the silence issuing their own version the very next day announcing that Mullah Omar did indeed die two years ago but in Afghanistan.
Mullah Omar was considered the binding force for an organization formed in 1994 that has grown increasingly fractured in recent years. Although he had not been seen since 2001, as the ideological figurehead he maintained a legendary and spiritual reputation; one that remained unchallenged until it faced contestation from the Islamic State’s (ISIS) self-appointed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in June 2014.
With their spring and summer offensive, the Afghan Taliban have mounted their bloodiest year yet and have had to adapt and plan for changing geo-political developments, such as U.S. troop withdrawal and the recent change in Afghan political leadership, all the while trying to maintain unity within their ranks. The aggressively ambitious rise of ISIS in Khorasan (Af-Pak) is both dangerous for the region and for the Taliban that has already seen tremendous deflections of senior Taliban commanders; the leading reason for which was the failure to prove that Omar was alive.
The quick appointment (or delayed public announcement) of Omar’s longtime trusted deputy and former Taliban minister of aviation, Mullah Akhtar Mansour has gained tremendous criticism and already affected the momentum of the now postponed peace talks. A leadership crisis will allow Taliban hardliners opposed to the peace talks to gain a firm grip. While it is believed that Mansour has effectively been leading the organization for the past two years, in the traditional Eid message on July 15, “Omar” indirectly endorsed the Murree Talks. Despite maintaining a reputation of being in favor of the peace process, after publicly assuming the post of leader, Mansour in his first audio message to his followers urged unity and rejected the peace talks. Whether he is playing to the hardened militant gallery or whether he always wanted to hold peace talks independently without representation from any other country, this position will undoubtedly be bolstered further to gain support.
With the symbol of unity gone, Mansour finds himself at a tough spot and will have to heavily play to the gallery to gain support and gain it quickly. Fissures are inevitable but dragging out a war of succession could prove detrimental to the Afghan Taliban’s future. Unlike the reclusive, ideologically focused Mullah Omar, Mansour is a lot more ambitious, vocal, and present. Emerging as a charismatic, calculated, and pragmatic leader who utilizes his military knowledge from field experience he will be challenged by the fact that he does not enjoy the unanimous legitimacy, support, and admiration that Omar commanded. While veteran Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai claims that from a fifteen member Shura, Mansour had the support of at least ten members, critical support from some senior Taliban members at this stage is severely lacking.
Mansour faces tremendous opposition from Omar’s loyalists who feel betrayed as well as Omar’s family who consider themselves the legitimate heirs. Two days before Mullah Omar’s death was announced, Yusufzai wrote of rifts within the group and pitted Omar’s son Yaqub and former Guantanamo Bay prisoner and military strategist, Abdul Qayum Zakir against Mansour. Mansour was accused of dominance and possible accession to top leadership. Both Yaqub and Zakir are the most likely rivals who will now vie for influence. However, according to Afghan media, Afghanistan’s first deputy speaker of the Wolesi Jirga (the lower house of parliament) announced on August 3 that Yaqub had been killed in Quetta a few days before. The claims remain unconfirmed but if true could point to a far greater power struggle than anticipated. A splinter group of the Afghan Taliban, Fidai Mahaz, has further muddied the waters by issuing its own statement claiming that Omar was killed by Mansour and Taliban commander, Gul Agha in July 2013.
Mansour’s deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who leads the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network, is bound to create a strong partnership and could potentially usher in a deadlier and more ruthless future if Haqqani’s past alliances with militant groups and ideologically extremist mindset is anything to go by. He will have tremendous reach in recruiting foreign fighters yet it is likely that he will remain uninterested in engaging in peace talks in the near future. Many believe that Haqqani’s appointment as second-in-command by the Taliban Shura was an attempt to reorganize its structure to minimize internal differences. Eventually, whether Mullah Omar’s family supports Mansour or whether further fragmentation occurs, if Mansour and Haqqani command large numbers and flex military strength on ground, they will prevail.
Nonetheless, major deflections are expected. Saiyed Tayeb Agha, a close confidante of Mullah Omar and chief of the Taliban political office, recently resigned from his post in Qatar over strong differences with Mansour and his supporters. Those unquestionably loyal to Mullah Omar, finding themselves duped and betrayed, question Mansour’s decision to delay the announcement of Omar’s death. With a dramatic shift in the central command that had Omar at the apex and the appointment of a new chief without wide consultation has led to natural jealousy, deep animosity, and above all, betrayal by a politico-ideological structure that many were ready to lay their lives down for.
Omar’s death has brought to the fore severe infighting within the ranks and threatens to further fracture an organization that already faces an external threat from ISIS. The Taliban and ISIS differ in their ambitions, with ISIS aiming for a global revolutionary agenda and the Taliban stressing on a strictly Afghan movement. However with Omar gone, ISIS may have an opening for its largest recruitment pool in what is an enabling environment with tremendous militancy infrastructure ripe for jihadi recruitment. ISIS is already waging a battle against the Taliban in Nangarhar province and in an effort to prove his worth to younger disaffected recruits, the Taliban have recently mounted attacks in Kabul, injuring hundreds. The Taliban in the eastern provinces (including Nangarhar) have felt increasingly marginalized and under-represented within the Taliban leadership and hence remain important and vulnerable to ISIS propaganda. Eastern provinces are also of tremendous strategic and tactical value due to their proximity to Pakistan’s tribal areas accessible through a porous border.
In terms of timing, there is certainly much controversy. If the Afghan government, the highest beneficiary of the peace talks, felt the announcement would weaken the Taliban and bring them to the table on the government’s terms, it has played the wrong card. The talks have been postponed at the Taliban’s request with little likelihood of revival any time soon. Some analysts opine that Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency tried to sabotage the peace talks in order to maintain leverage over the Taliban, exploit the threat of ISIS in the region and keep Pakistan’s rival, India, at bay. Others believe that anti-peace elements within the Afghan government could have made the announcement to thwart any upcoming progress. Another possibility is that with peace talks illustrating some success and involvement by the Taliban, keeping Mullah Omar’s demise a secret would become increasingly difficult and may have yielded far greater and negative consequences should it have been revealed later or towards the end of the talks. From what appeared to have been a committed move towards negotiation, the Taliban leadership may have decided that further delay could bring the legitimacy of the talks into question and could open doors to tremendous discord, backlash, and immediate retreatment after a guarantee has been made.
The Taliban’s Qatar office also sees its role and legitimacy being bypassed by leaders of the Quetta Shura who participated in the peace talks instead. The political role falls under the purview of the Qatar office while it sees the Shura as more of a military wing. Clearly hostility and unwillingness (though not outright disapproval) at the developments of the Murree Talks were evident last month when members of the Quetta Shura instead of those from the Qatar office participated in talks. The ambiguity and diplomatic undertones are meant to prevent resentment in the field where most fighters are not interested in peace efforts.
The Taliban certainly find themselves in a disarray and only time will tell whether this is a minor hiccup from which the organization will recover or whether it will deal a greater blow leading to permanent fragmentation. Severe infighting exists between those who want to remain engaged in a military approach and those who favor the peace process. Accustomed to their lifestyle and psychologically hardened, militants will likely move from one extremist group to another (especially if there is a variety to choose from) rather than abandon militancy altogether. The current environment, a weak Taliban, and an opening for ISIS, will only make matters worse for the Afghan government. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has made it clear that he will speak to a united opposition and not Taliban individuals. If better sense were to prevail, the Taliban would unite rather than grow isolated. That will however depend on Mansour’s leadership and ability to form cohesion within ranks.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
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