• This is the third time in five years that there has been news of Mullah Omar’s death
• This time the Taliban have confirmed the news. Some of them have declared Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor as the successor to Mullah Omar, precipitating a leadership crisis and intense factional politics in the movement.
• The acceptance of Mullah Omar’s death will have a significant impact on Afghanistan and the region as a whole
• This comes at a time when the Afghanistan government is in the process of negotiating with the Taliban
• The Islamic State, earlier known as ISIS, is also on the rise in Afghanistan
• Mullah Omar was a unifying factor for Taliban. If he is dead, it could break into factions, competing to prove which is more hard line
• IS could also end up absorbing Taliban militants
• Negotiations will become even more difficult with multiple factions to deal with and perhaps the main Taliban faction opposed to real negotiations
Mullah Omar is dead, once again. This is probably the third time in the last 5 years that news of the Taliban supremo’s death surfaced in the media. Taliban in Quetta moved with remarkable speed to announce that they had appointed a successor, before most members of the movement had even absorbed the news of Omar’s death.
Senior members of the movement, including Hassan Rahmani and Mohamamd Rasool have gone public in denouncing the elevation of Mansoor to the position of Ameer. It is now out in the open. There is a power struggle in the Taliban.
However, no one, including his close comrades, had seen Omar after the collapse of the notorious Taliban regime in December 2001.
This news comes at a time when the second round peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban were about to begin. They have promptly been postponed sine diem.
On the other hand, the insurgency in Afghanistan has entered a critical and violent phase, especially with the Taliban losing ground to fighters loyal to the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS and ISIL).
The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have never been under such military pressure in the last 14 years. The southern and northern provinces are under serious threat from IS-led terrorist groups, which are waving their black flags in the areas that lie beyond the government’s writ.
Given this context, what will be the impact of Mullah Omar;s death?
Impact on peace talks
The Taliban had always been reluctant to talk to the regime in Kabul, calling it a western puppet created by the US to undermine Islamic values. But after the end of the international military mission in December 2014, the buzz about a negotiation gained momentum.
A major question for Kabul was whom it should talk to. There have been many Taliban groups fighting in various parts of Afghanistan having no coordination with each other. But even then, all the groups broadly accepted Mullah Omar’s leadership.
His name at least had a symbolic importance which helped keep the Taliban united. He wasn’t just a mere commander leading a campaign against Kabul, but the Amir-ul-Momineen (leader of the faithful).
What will be the political and military impact on the Taliban of the loss of Omar? Will they be able to participate in the peace talks with the necessary legitimacy? Will the Qatar group side with the newly proclaimed Ameer or will it too be split among the rival claimants? What is in the deal between the Haqani group and the Kandaharis which has seen Seraj Haqani declared deputy of the movement? Is this a pro-negotiations deal or an anti-negotiations deal?
On its part, will Kabul be confident enough to continue with result-oriented negotiations? And if, after the talks, the National Unity government of Afghanistan has to share power, which faction of the Taliban will be part of it?
It is because of these questions that many feel the news of Omar’s death will have a negative impact on the peace talks. Some in the Afghan regime even say that it could be a trick to sabotage the negotiations.
Will Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, newly proclaimed Ameer, be able to stamp his authority on the movement or will he face an open revolt?
Kabul will soon have to decide whether it is worth spending time and money on the dialogue or if it is better off focusing its energies on the battlefield.
Impact on the battlefield
Districts in the north are falling to the insurgents one after the other. Although, the ANSF has been able to recover some ground, the overall scenario shows that the Ashraf Ghani administration may be vulnerable.
Mullah Omar’s death may end up creating space for the IS. Many Taliban militants may get absorbed into it
The defection of 200 soldiers from Afghan National Police in Northeastern Badakhshan this week is an alarming sign. It shows that even soldiers are beginning to lose faith in Kabul. Analysts and even some politicians believe that the unexpected growth of IS in Northern Afghanistan is a bigger threat than Taliban. Far from a localised phenomenon, it seems to be a project to destabilise the whole region from Middle East to Central Asia and even beyond.
The fighters in the north have ambitions of crossing the border into the Central Asian republics. In northern Afghanistan, Taliban is subordinate to the IS. Omar’s demise will provide a further boost to the IS in Afghanistan. Many Taliban militants might even get absorbed into the IS.
In Ghazni and Zabul provinces one hardly sees the Taliban’s white flag. It has already been replaced by the black flags of IS, even before the news of Omar’s death.
A number of experts believed that Taliban and IS can’t go together because of structural and geographical differences. Some also said that Afghans will never accept the supremacy of foreigners. However, this seems an outdated belief rather than a fact on the ground
The news of Mullah Omar’s death isn’t necessarily positive for Afghans. Jihadi politics will determine whether the eventual outcome is positive or negative. If Taliban fighters especially in the North, defect to the Islamic State and intensify their jihad, this will further undermine Afghanistan’s security. If the faction which seems to have grabbed power in the Taliban movement pursues an even more hard line policy, opposing meaningful peace talks, that too will be a bad outcome for Afghanistan. But perhaps the worst outcome for Afghanistan would be if the break down in Taliban unity meant that one part of the movement kept the Afghan government busy in peace talks, while other Taliban factions try to outdo each other in intensifying the conflict. Tough times are ahead for Afghanistan and the Unity Government needs to strengthen the understanding between its component parts to be ready to face the violence and tricky politics we can expect from the heirs to Mullah Omar.
Dr. Hussain Yasa is the Chief Editor of the English daily Outlook Afghanistan, published from Kabul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org