Taliban confirm leader Mullah Mohammed Omar dead after Afghan announcement
Uncertainty about Omar has helped sow divisions within the Taliban
The Taliban also face tough challenge from ISIS, other radical elements
The Taliban acknowledged Thursday that their longtime leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has died, 24 hours after the Afghan government’s announcement that the reclusive Islamic cleric had passed away in Pakistan more than two years ago.
A brief statement from the Taliban in the Pashto language called Omar “the late leader of the faithful” but gave no further details of when, where or how he died.
Omar had not appeared in public since the Taliban regime’s overthrow in Afghanistan 14 years ago and made no video or authenticated audio statements in that time. In fact, many in the Taliban had not known for years whether he was alive or dead, let alone where he might be. And other militant groups had begun to ask what had become of him.
Reuters reported from Pakistan on Thursday that a meeting of the Shura Council, the Taliban’s leadership, had elected Omar’s longtime deputy, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, as his successor.
The agency quoted one commander who had attended the meeting, outside the Pakistani city of Quetta, as saying that the Shura “unanimously elected Mullah Mansour as the new emir of the Taliban.”
So far there’s been no official word from the Taliban about Omar’s successor, but Mansour has been prominent in pushing for peace talks and for confronting the challenge of ISIS – essentially telling it to stay out of Afghanistan.
“If any new effort is made to establish separate Jihadi ranks or leadership, then the ground would be paved for sedition as a result of divisions and disputes,” Mansour wrote in an open letter last month to ISIS leadership.
But Mansour is not the unanimous choice of Taliban leaders. According to some Pakistani analysts, he faces resistance from Omar’s eldest son, Mullah Mohammed Yaqoob, and some military commanders, including the influential Abdul Qayum Zakir.
In Foreign Policy on Thursday, Casey Garret Johnson wrote that “throughout 2014, Mansour and Zakir bickered over the direction of the movement, with Zakir adopting a hard line and eventually being sacked, only to be re-instated.”
There is also a tribal aspect to these divisions, analysts say, with some clans resenting the dominance of the Ishakzai Durrani represented by Mansour.
A report Monday in the Pakistani newspaper The News said that at a recent meeting, “Yaqoob was introduced as the would-be leader of the Taliban movement and Mansour was heavily criticized.”
The divisions within the Taliban
Some indication of how these rivalries are unfolding may emerge when (or if) the next round of peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government occur. That is even less clear now, with the Taliban dismissing media reports that another round of talks was imminent.
“The Islamic Emirate has handed all agency powers in this regard to its Political Office and they are not aware of any such process,” the group said in a curt statement.
And the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the second round of peace talks, slated to begin Friday in Pakistan, have been delayed following the Afghan government’s announcement of Omar’s death.
The last round of talks, at the beginning of this month, set off infighting among Taliban leaders. In The New Yorker, Barnett Rubin, a former senior U.S. official dealing with Afghanistan, wrote, “For the first time the Taliban, founded to end factionalism, were speaking with multiple voices, some manipulated by Pakistan more obviously than ever.”
In an analysis published Thursday, political risk consultancy the Soufan Group said, “The news of Omar’s death will make peace in Afghanistan even more elusive and cause divisions within the Taliban; no new leader will emerge soon, and even if one does he will find it hard to gain control of the movement.”
“It’s very difficult to find in insurgent organizations leaders with certain characteristics,” he told CNN recently. Omar had “No. 1, respect within the organization, No. 2, the experience to deal with the American invasion, to deal with the civil war in Afghanistan, to deal with the Pakistanis. You can’t … build those characteristics overnight.”
If Omar did indeed die some time ago, the fact the Taliban leadership went to such great lengths to hide his death – and continued to issue messages in his name – confirms his irreplaceable influence.
Omar’s authority extended to factions of the Pakistani Taliban, which recently rejected the ISIS “caliphate” and instead lauded the Taliban and al Qaeda – especially “the command of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan led by Emir of the Believers Mullah Mohammed Omar.”
In the view of the Soufan Group, the Taliban may now splinter into “a peace camp and a war camp, as well as many commanders going at it alone in pursuit of their own local objectives. This is not a good result for Afghanistan.”
A further problem, especially for the Taliban’s allies in Pakistan and for the al Qaeda leadership, is that there is now a vacancy for the mantle of the “leader of the faithful” – one that ISIS insists Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi already fills.
In 2001, Osama bin Laden said that Omar’s authority had been accepted by the “scholars” of Afghanistan and, therefore, “it is the duty of everyone to pledge allegiance to him.” Al Qaeda, pointedly, rereleased bin Laden’s statement this year, possibly to shore up Omar’s authority as ISIS challenged it.
The current leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahir, repledged his loyalty to Omar a year ago, which makes him appear seriously out of the loop if the Taliban leader was by then already deceased, as the Afghan government says.
According to the Soufan analysis, the “big winner, therefore, may be the Islamic State. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has argued since the inception of his ‘Caliphate’ that Mullah Omar did not have the pedigree or the necessary credentials to challenge him.”
ISIS a challenge to the Taliban
ISIS has been trying to muscle in on Taliban territory, declaring it part of the “Khorasan Province.” In an interview in the most recent edition of the ISIS English-language magazine Dabiq, a Muslim scholar said jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan should pledge to the self-declared “caliphate” of al-Baghdadi over the “regional” leader Omar.
This month, the Khorasan Province of ISIS released an audio speech from its leader, Hafiz Saeed Khan, suggesting that Omar was dead and that the Taliban leadership was a tool of Pakistani military intelligence. (That speech was released as media reports surfaced that Khan had been killed in a U.S. drone strike.)
Some analysts counter that Omar’s death just might free the Taliban from a damaging limbo, and the claims by others that it is rudderless or a tool of Pakistan. Not only ISIS but a splinter group of the Taliban – the Fidayee Mahaz – had recently claimed he was dead. And the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a significant jihadist group with a long presence in Afghanistan, published a long and scornful commentary on Omar’s years of silence.
The uncertainty helped to sow divisions within the Taliban, as one faction or another competed to speak in Omar’s name and doubts grew about edicts issued in his name.
Neither Mansour nor any other figure in the Taliban seems likely to carry Omar’s authority – at a time when the group is vulnerable to challenges from outside and rifts within.
The Taliban remain an effective fighting force, with recent assaults on Kunduz in northern Afghanistan and a bold attack on the Afghan parliament in June. These too may reflect the internal rifts between those who want to explore dialogue and those who prefer to continue fighting.
Perhaps that is part of the Afghan government’s calculation. In its statement Wednesday on Omar’s death, the government said it “believes that grounds for the Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before, and thus calls on all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity and join the peace process.”
It’s not an invitation the Taliban look likely to accept imminently.
Divining the Taliban’s intentions recalls Winston Churchill’s description of Russia in 1939 as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”