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Mullah Omar's death splinters insurgents

Farhad Peikar
The alleged death of the Taliban's one-eyed leader could complicate ongoing peace talks and disperse the unity of local and regional militant groups.
31.07.2015  |  New York

 The death of Mullah Mohammad Omar, Taliban’s elusive leader, would inevitably deal a great blow to the unity of insurgents in Afghanistan. His death, which is by now confirmed by the Taliban and the Afghan government, would also damage the unison of other militant groups in the region including al Qaeda, whose late leader Osama bin Laden and the current chief, Ayman al-Zawarhiri swore allegiance to Mullah Omar and regarded him as a spiritual commander-in-chief.

Any rupture in Taliban movement and its associated Afghan and regional militant groups would make it hard for the Afghan government to strike a peace deal with a leader that represents all Taliban factions. It could also provide militant groups like the Islamic State the opportunity to ally with hard-line Taliban commanders and foment conflict inside Afghanistan.

However, the demise of one-eyed leader, who had a $10-million bounty on his head by the US government, could present the Afghan government with an unprecedented opportunity to finally divide the Taliban into those who are willing to negotiate and those who are not. Of course, Mullah Omar himself belonged to the latter group.

The future of insurgency

 Many leading counter-terrorism experts and academics in the world thought that al-Qaeda had become an ideology that would thrive with or without its founding leaders. However, the death of bin Laden in May 2011 proved the group's dependence on charismatic leaders.  Without bin Laden and under al-Zawarhiri, al-Qaeda has managed to exist as an organization, but it has divided into several groups in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa - with each acting as independent entity. The power vacuum left by Al-Qaeda’s diminished clout has also enabled the formation of IS.

 The same is true about the Taliban. Although Mullah Omar has rarely been seen in public, photographed or met by many of his own followers, he managed to maintain the Taliban movement as a unified force both against internal opposition forces in the 1990s and later against the US-led military forces and the current Afghan government.

 While the Taliban’s coordinated insurgency in Afghanistan would not have been possible without the backing of Pakistani intelligence, it was still Mullah Omar’s name that led the Taliban rank-and-file to carry out thousands of attacks, including hundreds of suicide bombings, since the ouster of their regime in 2001.

 The Taliban will not be the same after Mullah Omar. Even before the confirmation of his death, reports emerged that senior Taliban commanders were struggling to select a replacement. One group threw their supports behind Taliban’s second-in-line, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who is a former civil aviation minister under the Taliban regime. Another group supports Mulla Mohammad Yaqoob, Mullah Omar's 26-year-old son. 

 Mullah Mansour, who reportedly authorized a three-member delegation to meet with Afghan officials for the first round of peace talks near Islamabad on July 7, is supposedly in favor of talks with President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani’s government.  However, the group that centered around Mullah Yaqoob, a recent graduate of a Karachi madrasa, are more hardline and want to continue the war.

Taliban spokesmen on Friday confirmed that the Taliban leadership council selected Mullah Mansour as their new emir and tapped Sarajuddin Haqqanni, the leader of Haqqanni network, and the little known Maulawi Haibatullah Akhundzada as his deputies.

 While Taliban try to demonstrate unity in transition of leadership to new emir, there are reports of infighting within the leadership about the successor of the late leader. Several Taliban leaders, including Mullah Qayum Zakir, Taliban's military operational commander, Mullah Habibullah, member of Quetta Shurra or Taliban's leadership council and Mohammad Tayyab Agha, former aide to Mullah Omar and the current head of political office in Qatar, opposed Mansour's appointment. They reportedly called his ascension to the leadership as a “coup d'é·tat”.

 Several other militant groups, including field commanders who at least publicly obeyed Taliban leadership in the past, could now operate more independently. In fact, Fidai Mahaz, a Taliban splinter group, has already announced its independence from the Taliban movement. In a Facebook statement on July 23, Fidai Mahaz was the first alleged Taliban source that confirmed the death of Taliban leader, and accused Mullah Mansour and his associates of his murder.

 Prior to that, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan severed its ties with the Taliban in a statement on July 1 after claiming that Mullah Omar was dead and the Quetta council was lying about his status. The statement said that the group could no longer live “under politics of lies and illusion” and was shifting its allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baqhdadi. Several disgruntled Taliban leaders have raised Islamic State’s black flags in their areas  in Afghanistan and Mullah Omar’s departure could push more hard-liners to join IS ranks.

Peace talks

Mullah Omar’s death will reframe the newly started peace talks between President Ghani’s government and the Taliban. The second round of peace talks, which were slated for this Friday in Pakistan, have been postponed after the reports about Mullah Omar’s death emerged. Now without the blessing of the Taliban's founder, the legitimacy of Taliban representatives attending any negotiation is in question in the eyes of many Taliban foot soldiers. A Taliban statement on Thursday said that the group’s political branch based in Qatar, was not aware of any upcoming talks in Pakistan or China.

Many experts believe that the Afghan government has lost its chance to negotiate with a leader who could represent a united insurgent group. That maybe partly true, but  Mullah Omar was never in favor of any political settlement and wanted to return to power through military victory. If it is proven that Mullah Omar really died in a Karachi hospital in April 2013, as stated in Afghan presidential statement, then it is clear that the Taliban political overtures began shortly after his death. The Taliban finally agreed to release a US soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in May 2013. It was also in June that year that the Taliban officially opened its political office in the Gulf state of Qatar in order to start negotiations with the Afghan government.

 Now that Mullah Omar is gone, the Afghan government could try to weaken the Taliban militarily by reconciling with those willing to settle their differences politically, even as it fights remaining hard-liners in the battlefields. Kabul could use its recently improved relations with Islamabad to demand from Pakistan to crack down on all remaining safe havens inside its territory that are used by hard-line insurgents.  

 Pakistan’s cooperation to end the Taliban insurgency is crucial. Without the direct assistance of Pakistani military and its intelligence service, the Taliban would have not been able to take control of Afghanistan in late 1990s, or wage a bloody insurgency in the past 14 years. Unless this scenario changes, Mullah Mansour could become just another name for Taliban insurgents, who would continue to wage the same proxy war on behalf of Pakistan.