The death of Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar is being seen as good news by many around the globe who aspire for peace, but those aware of the political situation in Afghanistan sense troubled times ahead, with infighting among emergent Taliban factions and the strengthening of more ruthless groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
With their charismatic leader no more among them, the Taliban may not be able to continue the “exemplary unity” they had demonstrated so far. “His name was enough,” says Zubair Babakarkhail, a noted Afghan journalist. “Even those who had never seen him would never question his authority.”
But the appointment of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor as his successor has been questioned by many among the Taliban ranks. Mullah Omar’s brother Mullah Abdul Manan declined to pledge allegiance to him until the differences were resolved. According to a report by Jibran Ahmed, the Reuters correspondent in Peshawar, he and Mullah Omar’s son were among the key leaders who walked out in protest when the council of Taliban leaders chose Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. According to veteran Islamabad-based journalist Tahir Khan, senior Taliban leaders have set up their own council.
On the other hand, Jalaluddin Haqqani, the powerful head of the Haqqani network, is supporting the new emir. The influential former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir is also supporting Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, according to a statement released by the Taliban. Taliban’s media men have been very active in the last few days, releasing videos and statements in support of their new chief.
“The fact that a Taliban leader had to stress unity indicates a growing divide,” says Babakarkhail. “Such statements had never been required in the past.”
Many Taliban commanders who resisted the charm of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria because of their loyalty to Mullah Omar – who had the title of Ameerul Momineen, or the leader of the faithful –
may now switch sides, analysts say.
“After the death of Mullah Omar, disputes among the Taliban will intensify,” says Kabul-based journalist Javed Hamim Kakar. “Some of them will join the peace process, others will continue fighting, and a few others will join the IS,” says Kakar, who is a senior editor at Pajhwok, an independent news agency in Afghanistan.
With the Taliban already losing some ground to IS, the insurgency in Afghanistan has entered a critical phase. “If Taliban fighters, especially those in the north, defect to IS and intensify their fighting, that will further undermine Afghanistan’s security,” says Kabul-based analyst Dr Hussain Yasa. The outcome of the internal politics of Jihadi fighters will determine the impact of Mullah Omar’s death on Afghanistan, he says.
“In Ghazni and Zabul, Taliban’s white flags have been replaced by the black flags of 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 Mullah Omar’s death,” Yasa writes.
Sami Yousafzai – a BBC correspondent who has been reporting militancy for 15 years from the heart of its epicenter – doubts IS will make any significant inroads.
“I don’t see much attraction for IS among the Afghan Taliban,” he says. “Those who have joined the IS in Afghanistan are mainly Pakistani, or from areas in Afghanistan with Wahabi influence.”
Mullah Omar’s death may not have been news for many in the Taliban cadres. Pakistani and Afghan Taliban commanders who have recently pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi knew he was dead, says Faizullah Khan, an ARY reporter who spent almost six months in an Afghan jail for an illegal venture to interview Taliban leaders on the Afghan side of the Durand Line. “Former Pakistani Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid, and Hafiz Saeed Khan had expressed it during my interaction with them in Afghanistan,” he says. The head of the Uzbekistan Islamic Movement, Usman Ghazi, had also demanded Mullah Omar show himself if he were still alive, says Faizullah.
If Mullah Omar died two years ago, the way the Taliban handled their affairs in his absence may indicate his death would have very little impact on their organization. But it is the formal announcement that may compel many local commanders to change their mind.
“Most likely, some Afghan Taliban will change sides and there is an even greater possibility that a large number of Pakistani Taliban will refuse to follow Mullah Akhtar Mansoor because he is allegedly close to Pakistani intelligence agencies,” Faizullah Khan says.
He believes that will not stall the peace process. “The talks were in fact started by none other than Mullah Akhtar Mansoor,” Khan claims.
Regardless, the new Taliban leader may not renew the negotiations before has consolidated power and wields influence over those commanders who oppose negotiating with the Afghan government. “Mullah Akhtar Masnoor will have to muster strength and influence before he can discuss peace talks,” says Sami Yousafzai. “That will take at least six months.”
Javed Hamim Kakar believes the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death at this time is part of the strategy. “If the Afghan government would reach a deal with the Taliban and there would be no Mullah Omar to endorse it, questions would be asked,” he says.
Amid fears of infighting, derailment of peace talks and the emergence of more lethal groups, analysts believe there is some good news for the Afghans. “Divisions among the insurgents will boost the morale of the Afghan government forces,” according to Yousafzai.
“Even if some Taliban join the peace process, those who continue to fight will become weaker,” says Kakar. “If Pakistan really helps, everything will change.”
The writer is a freelance journalist