Perhaps it is fitting that Mullah Omar’s end is as shrouded in mystery as his beginnings. Did he live and die exclusively in Afghanistan, as the Taliban claimed in its saccharine eulogy? Or did he spend his last decade in Quetta and Karachi, dying in the latter city’s hospital as a ward of the intelligence service that had propelled him to the heights of spiritual and temporal power in the 1990s? Either way, there is little to mourn. Omar was an intolerant fundamentalist, a war criminal, and a man whose recalcitrance in 2001 directly led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Afghans in a war that still rages. Yet his continued existence in a state of limbo — not alive and not dead — served important purposes, not just for the Taliban but also for those who hoped to persuade them to put down their arms. The Taliban’s newly chosen leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, finds himself leading a restive organisation whose rank-and-file he deceived for the past two years over Omar’s death. The result could be greater disintegration, uncertainty, and instability.
Over the past year, both the Taliban and their environment have changed a great deal. The Taliban are engaged in a successful spring offensive, imposing massive casualties on Afghan forces (a third higher in May than the previous month), attacking in larger formations than before, and seizing key territory in both the north (Kunduz) and the south (Helmand). But they face severe pressures from within and without. Internally, a power struggle is unfolding at the top of the organisation, triggered by China-brokered and Pakistan-hosted peace talks. At the same time, the Taliban face new competitors on Afghan soil, the most dangerous of which could be the jihadists of Islamic State (IS).
The changing Taliban In many ways, the Taliban’s fragmentation is not a new story. The authority and legitimacy of older Taliban leaders, who established the emirate in the 1990s, had been waning for years. The US-led campaign to kill and capture vast numbers of mid-level commanders has had a profound affect on the organisation. The researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn have noted in their book An Enemy We Created that those who filled the gap were “more ideologically motivated and less nationalistic than the older generations and are therefore less pragmatic. They are not interested in any negotiations or compromise with foreigners. They do not remember nor were they present during the Taliban’s government of the 1990s; as such, they have little incentive or desire to compromise. They have never lived in an Afghanistan that was at peace”. We treat the Taliban as a monolithic, structured, and hierarchical group. The truth is that it has become less coherent and more fluid.
More recently, the Taliban have also looked less coherent at the top. Outsiders have played a role in this, too. Over the past year, China has cajoled Pakistan to press the Taliban to talk to the Afghan government. In parallel, President Ghani was reaching out to Islamabad and — more controversially — Rawalpindi. The culmination of these two tracks was a breakthrough meeting, several weeks ago on 7 July, in the Pakistani town of Murree. But much as Ghani’s rapprochement with Pakistan placed him under immense strain at home, so too did the Taliban’s leadership — notably Mansour — face pressure from their rivals. Mansour’s opponents, including Mullah Omar’s 26-year-old son Mullah Yaqub and former military commander Abdul Qayum Zakir (whom Mansour had previously sacked), have reportedly been unhappy at the direction of talks. Once this dispute intensified, the awkward question of Mullah Omar’s status was bound to arise.
The power of the corpse The truth appears to be that many in the Taliban were exploiting the moral authority of a corpse. It is not hard to see why they would persist with the hoax. As Vali Nasr once told the journalist Steve Coll, Omar was “the Ho Chi Minh of the war”. “If you have him, if you hold him, you control the whole organization”. As Felix Kuehn observed, “he is more than a man, he is an institution”.
And so, on 15 July, the dead man, the institution, “endorsed” the peace talks in his regular Eid message, smoothing over a disagreement between the Taliban’s Political Commission in Qatar and other leaders. The myth mattered. Omar’s perceived imprimatur of individual leaders and for the talks themselves lent the process a degree of coherence and credibility. It suggested there was a chance, however slim, that something agreed in Pakistani hotels could, in due course, translate into changes on the ground. To be sure, even with Omar “alive” it’s unclear how many commanders and fighters would abide by a settlement. But acknowledgment of his death would challenge the legitimacy of those who claim to speak and act on their leader’s behalf. Those who leaked news of Omar’s death to the Afghan authorities may have done so precisely for this reason.
What happens now is uncertain. With Mansour’s succession, those in favour of talks are in nominal control. They might seek to ride out the consequences and try and continue the dialogue with Kabul. The ISI, which will seek to shape the leadership transition to its advantage, might support these factions. This isn’t necessarily to Ghani’s disadvantage. Whether one approves of his strategy or not, it is clear that, from the start, he viewed this dialogue as primarily an Afghanistan-Pakistan one rather than an Afghanistan-Taliban one. However, it’s hard to see how Mansour is anything but weakened. The Doha faction will stiffen their opposition and Mansour can no longer draw on ghost-written Eid messages to mollify them. He might also see increasing dissent, and even defection, from his commanders in the field. This is where IS casts a particularly dark shadow. It has increasingly sought to challenge the Taliban’s authority on the ground in the south and east. It has made few inroads so far, in part due to a radically different sectarian and political environment to the one they exploited in Syria and Iraq, although a splintering of the Taliban could change that.
It should also not be forgotten that Mullah Omar, Amir al-Muminin (commander of the faithful), enjoyed the personal bayah (allegiance) of both Osama bin laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri. When Zawahiri announced the formation of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent (AQIS) last year, he emphasised Omar’s supremacy. He did so to undercut the authority of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called “Caliph” Ibrahim. Omar’s loss may therefore undercut Zawahiri’s authority further, with implications for the global competition between al-Qaeda and its newer rival. The irony is that, after hunting him for over a decade, Mullah Omar’s enemies might come to regret the death of his myth.
(Shashank Joshi is a research fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London and a PhD candidate at Harvard University.)