The Pulse

A Turning Point: Mullah Omar’s Demise and the Future of the Taliban

Make no mistake: Mullah Omar’s death may upend the entire militant landscape in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have confirmed the death of Mullah Mohammed Omar. I discussed Omar’s possible death and its implications in a recent post that was unfortunately published hours before the Afghan government and the White House confirmed, based on credible evidence, that Omar had indeed perished in 2013, in a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan. With his death confirmed by the Taliban, we’re certain to head into an interesting period, both in Afghanistan, where a fragile peace process stands of the cusp of collapse on the news of Omar’s death, and with regard to the broader global jihad, which had over the past year bifurcated around jihadis loyal to Omar as the rightful Amir-al-Momineen (Commander of the Faithful) and the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph in the Levant.

Internally, the public confirmation of Omar’s death will be a seminal turning point for the Taliban. Omar, despite his shy and elusive nature, has stood as a pillar for the Taliban for over two decades. Following his disappearance from the scene after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Omar has been the source of legitimacy for the Taliban’s agenda of violence in Afghanistan. For years, the conventional understanding of the Taliban has a been as as a fairly cohesive organization, featuring a clear command hierarchy with Omar at the top. In reality, the Taliban has long ceased acting as a cohesive group. Part of the reason peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have failed to succeed to this day (including the 2013 Doha talks that took place with U.S. involvement) is the disintegration of the Taliban’s monolithic hierarchy leading up to Omar. The Taliban’s “Islamic Emirate” government-in-exile was but one manifestation of the group. While it sat down to speak with representatives of the Afghan High Peace Council, attacks continued across the country. In effect, a “complex” jihad had emerged in Afghanistan where no leader, not even Omar, the so-called commander of the faithful, could issue top-down directive that would permeate the wide-ranging anti-government militancy.

The succession issue following Omar’s death is being afforded a good deal of attention. The Taliban seem to have handled the issue swiftly and decisively: a statement posted on the group’s website confirms that Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, Omar’s longtime number-two and the favorite to succeed Omar for some time, cinched the leadership of the Taliban. Notably, he’s been given the title of Amir-al-Momineen, giving him the same weighty claim to spiritual leadership that Omar commanded. Meanwhile, however, Omar’s son, Mohammad Yacub has a coterie of supporters who see him as the rightful supporter. For the moment, we’re only seeing the murmurings of discord over succession, but it is possible that Omar’s death could represent the beheading of the hydra: the “Taliban” may bifurcate into two hierarchies around Yacub and Mansour (Mansour has other rivals, including Mullah Zakir, who commands his own following). This will naturally have disastrous implications for the peace talks with the Afghan government; credible negotiations simply can’t take place with a leadership crisis on the other side of the table.

Beyond Afghanistan, the implications of Omar’s death for the broader global jihadi conversation are fascinating and open-ended at this point. As numerous commentators have noted, the Islamic State’s recruitment bid in South Asia (Khorasan as the jihadis call it) was moderated by Omar’s enduring popularity. Relatively few jihadis, mostly low-level militants, were willing to shift their allegiance from Omar to al-Baghdadi, the new self-declared caliph in the Levant. With the news that Omar’s death had been concealed for two years, the Taliban’s senior leaders, Mansour included, and Al Qaeda have suffered a major embarrassment. Whatever legitimacy Omar possessed may soon evaporate with low-level militants coalescing around the black flag of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. For Al Qaeda and its decentralized, non-territorial model of global jihad, Omar’s continued authority was a substantial source of legitimacy versus al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State. That has all largely evaporated now. This means that it may well be prudent to expect an escalation in the burgeoning war between the Islamic State and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and a broader disintegration of Al Qaeda’s appeal in the region. One group well-situated to rally the Islamic State’s recruitment in Afghanistan (and indeed Pakistan) is the “Khorasan Shura,” a council of former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leaders who shifted their allegiance from Omar to Baghdadi earlier this year.

Confirmation of Omar’s death has put into motion a range of issues that significantly complicate the prospects for peace in Afghanistan. Lurking behind all I’ve described above, of course, is the broader question of how long the Pakistani Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has seen this day coming and the extent to which the group exercises influence with Mansour, Yacub, Zakir, and others within the Taliban hierarchy. Given the recent fragile rapprochement between Kabul and Islamabad since Ashraf Ghani became the president of Afghanistan, the ISI may have a considerable leg-up on the Afghan government. For the ISI, which has traditionally commanded influence among the Taliban leadership, a protracted succession crisis would be problematic. If Omar has been dead for two years and Mansour’s been the de facto leader, it is likely that he has Pakistan’s imprimatur. In order to continue its exercise of influence in Afghanistan via the Taliban, the ISI probably wants Mansour to command the sort of authority Omar wielded as soon as possible.

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Omar’s death has kicked up the dust in Afghanistan. When it settles, the United States, the Afghan government, and other regional stakeholders in a peaceful and reconciled Afghanistan may be looking at a very different militant landscape.