The Pulse

Has the Taliban’s Internal Power Struggle Kicked Off?

Reports from Afghanistan suggest that Mullah Omar’s son has been killed.

Has the Taliban’s Internal Power Struggle Kicked Off?

One of the few public images of Mullah Omar.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Over the weekend, I began hearing murmurings that Mullah Yaqub, the son of the deceased leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, was rumored to have been killed by Taliban forces loyal to Mullah Mansour, Omar’s successor. On Monday, a report published by Afghanistan’s Tolo News confirmed this, reporting that Afghanistan’s first deputy speaker of the Wolesi Jirga (the lower house of parliament in the country’s bicameral legislature) announced Yaqub’s death. The facts remain up in the air considering that neither the intelligence agencies of Afghanistan nor the United States have independently verified Yaqub’s death, but, if true, the death would signal clearer than ever that Omar’s death has sparked a major power struggle with Afghanistan.

As I’ve noted in my earlier reflections on the possible implications of Omar’s death (here and here), which was confirmed to have taken place two years ago in 2013, it was highly likely that the Taliban would fail to coalesce around Mullah Mansour as the group’s new Amir-al-Momineen (Commander of the Faithful). Once it was verified that Omar’s death had occurred in 2013, supposedly at a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, it became clear to outside observers and the rank-and-file of the Taliban, who had largely been kept in the dark about the event, that the coterie of Omar’s close advisers–Mansour key among them–were not to be trusted. Even while Omar’s death remained unconfirmed, there was considerable speculation that Yaqub had emerged as another legitimate locus of power within the insurgent group.

According to the Tolo report, Zahir Qadir, the first deputy speaker of the Wolesi Jirga, noted that Yaqub had been killed. “We were told about Mullah Omar’s death two years back and now his son Mullah Yaqub who was 21 or 22 years old was trying to be appointed as his father’s successor. But Mullah Mansour also tried to become leader of the Taliban, therefore it is said that he was killed some days back,” he told Tolo, adding that “The opposing Taliban and Pakistan had a hand in killing Mullah Yaqub. The reality will be made clear soon.” While we continue to await independent confirmation of this event from a more credible source, Tolo reports that Afghan security personnel have noted considerable infighting within various Taliban factions.

The fissures between those Taliban leaders who carried Omar’s blood, including the young Yaqub himself, have been known sometime now. Credible reports note that Omar’s family refused to give its imprimatur to Mansour’s leadership. Abdul Manan, Omar’s youngest brother, released a statement noting that Omar’s family had not formally given its baiyat to Mansour. However, that same statement, according to Reuters, highlighted Omar’s legacy: “Mullah Omar during his life had always stressed unity among the mujahideen,” it noted. Yaqub’s now-rumored death may be unsurprising also amid reports that he prominently walked out of the shura (leader’s council) meeting in Quetta, Pakistan to elect Mansour as the group’s new leader.

If any of this is true, it will be a huge blow to the ongoing fragile peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which were postponed after news of Omar’s death emerged. Without a credible guarantee that the organization it is negotiating with is hierarchical and stable, the Afghan government can have no guarantees that any ceasefire proclamation or compromise will be honored. Indeed, this has been a problem for the Taliban for some time now–certainly since the failed peace process in Doha a few years ago.