By Waheed Rahimi*
The death of Mullah Omar, who was the supreme commander and spiritual leader of the Taliban, is a major issue for both the Afghan government and Taliban militants. Omar was the 11th head of state from 1996 until his regime was toppled by US-led military intervention in 2001. The fallout of his death has added uncertainty to Kabul’s fledgling peace efforts. The Taliban leaders are faced with a legitimacy crisis as no one has the outright legendary unifying force to fill Omar’s vacuum.
The death of an elusive one-eyed leader left the Taliban mired in a leadership struggle and opened new ground for the Afghan government to create further factionalism among the Taliban and intensify their military campaign to push them for peace talks. The dispute among the Taliban is not only due to tribal divisions but also due to ideological rifts, which adds to the dissension and also creates new opportunities for the Afghan government to force the Taliban movement to the edge of dissolution.
Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who named himself as leader of the Afghan Taliban on July 30, 2015 faces disapproval from different groups of Taliban. Omar’s younger brother and son, Mullah Abdul Manan and Mohammad Yaqoob, did not endorse Mansour as the new emir and appealed that a successor should be from Omar’s clan. Even the Taliban political chief in Qatar, Tayyeb Agha, resigned due to tensions over Omar’s successor. These internal disagreements have raised concerns over the likely dissolution of the Taliban as a powerful insurgent group.
The national unity government of Afghanistan should seize the opportunity, before any possible reunification of Taliban and their collective agreement on a successor of Mullah Omar, and push for peace talks with the opposition group of Akhtar Mansour, who is a close ally and subservient of the Pakistani intelligence. The tussle over election of a new emir should not be allowed to halt the Afghan-led promising peace efforts, but it should be taken advantage of to take forward the process quickly; and the break should be used intelligently.
Neglect in exploiting this opportunity will have two possible consequences. Either the reunion of Taliban, or the factions separated from Akhtar Mansour will pledge loyalty to the Islamic State, which is a concern for Taliban as well. The reunification would help Taliban to resurge and continue their existence with the support of their host-country, Pakistan. If they swear allegiance to IS or there is a rift through the middle, this would not only signal the end for Taliban, but will also decrease significantly the ISI’s (Inter-Services Intelligence) aggressive influence and their proxy war in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, Taliban fighters in the battlefield accuse their senior leaders of keeping them in the dark about the death of their long-standing leader. At the same time, Afghan intelligence said that Mullah Omar was poisoned and died in a Karachi hospital. Later, a former key member of Taliban who is now leading, Fidai Mahaz, claimed that Mullah Omar was murdered by his deputy – Akhtar Mansour – after a dispute over his election to succeed Omar as emir ul-Momineen – commander of the Faithful. Deceiving the Taliban fighters (by concealing news about the death) and the mysterious death of Omar in Pakistan would not only add to the tension and division among the Taliban but also lessen Pakistan’s sway on the Taliban leadership.
In the wake of the deep tribal divisions among the Taliban, the Afghan government should change its medieval gambit of beginning peace talks involving Pakistan since it did not pay off. As an alternative, the government should focus on Afghan-led peace talks with the Afghan militants who are not under Pakistan’s intelligence influence and those who are in favor of resuming peace talks. In addition, the government must put intense pressure on the insurgents and Pakistan through regional and international stakeholders to end the ISI’s undeclared prolonging of the proxy war and to change its approach towards Afghanistan. If Pakistan does not change its behaviour, it will be an alarming situation for the entire region.
Another alternative for Afghanistan could be tit-for-tat diplomacy in order to survive in this war. In doing so, Afghanistan should be allying with great powers such as India; just as Pakistan chose China – its enemy’s rival – to strengthen its existence and sway in the region.
In any case, it’s a critical juncture for the Taliban to survive as a movement due to its internal fragmentation, leadership crisis and ideological rift. Such challenges will either lead it to join peace talks or the factions will separate. Splitting through the middle will also encourage some militants to pledge allegiance to the Islamic state, the emir of Al-Qaeda, and spell the end of the Taliban movement, and probably the beginnig of another nightmare under Islamic State and Al-Qaeda leaderships.
*Waheed Rahimi writes on current political, security and social affairs of Afghanistan. He holds a Masters in International Relations and Diplomacy from ADA University, Azerbaijan. He is based in Kabul and tweets at @wrafg. He can be reached at [email protected]