Now that Mullah Omar’s death is confirmed, what remains to be seen is how the Taliban movement can survive through the disagreements following the passing of its founder and spiritual leader.
Afghan Islamist groups have mostly been individual-driven than programmatic. Islam being the religion of 99 percent of the population, no single party can monopolize religious ideology as its own and only charismatic leaders can inspire loyalty to their particular group. Strong reliance on individual actors has made these parties susceptible to gradual dormancy following the death of their iconic leader. For instance, the most influential Islamist party in at least half a century in the country, Jamiat-e Islami is today largely non-existent only four years after its leader, Burhanudin Rabbani’s assassination. Other smaller parties, including the party under which Mullah Omar, as a battlefield commander, fought against the Soviets, met a similar fate.
Non-Afghan jihadi groups have also experienced waning influence following their leader’s death. The fate of the Al-Qaeda group after the death of Osama bin Laden is a good case study. Ayman Al-Zawahiri is a much less charismatic leader and his steering of the decentralized extremist organization an obvious failure to some. The Taliban movement is poised to follow the same path, a predicament further propelled by the fact that they even lack a consensual leadership figure like Zawahiri to keep the movement’s flow of operations unhampered.
While Al-Qaeda in Iraq – the AQI – made a formidable come-back in the form of ISIL despite the death of its leader, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, in June 2006, the recovery was realized through the unprecedented brutality of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s leadership, something the Taliban’s prospective leader will not be able to afford if he is at all wary of deeper estrangement of general public with his movement.
Despite the overall impact Omar’s death could have on the Taliban insurgency, it would be misleading to say that it will undermine their recent advances in the battlefield. Surely, the areas where the Taliban movement has transformed into a concentric amalgam of extremists, opportunists, criminal bandits and drug traders, the insurgency is tied closely to the social context and is less likely to wane anytime soon.
As a sure outcome of Omar’s death, however, his unifying role has been replaced overnight with squabbles over who should run the movement, a scenario seemingly predicted by the Taliban–they meticulously kept the matter of his death hidden for over two years.
Since his death was made public, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, Omar’s deputy since 2010 was proclaimed his successor by a leadership Shura of the Taliban. Not all leaders attended the Shura. Some, including Omar’s 26-year-old son, Mohammad Yaqoub and his brother, Mullah Abdul Manan, were present until they realized that Mansour’s ascent to leadership was orchestrated and left the meeting feeling betrayed. The faction opposing Mansour’s leadership is led primarily by the influential Abdul Qayoum Zakir and is grooming Yaqoub, a graduate of Pakistani seminaries, to occupy his father’s place.
Further complicating the rift, Mansour’s swiftly appointed first deputy, Mawlawi Haibatullah, is from his Ishaqzai tribe, enraging Zakir who belongs to the staunchly rival Alizai tribe. The tribal feud between them stretches back to the 1980s. Also, the leadership of the Taliban, Mullah Omar included, has mainly rested with the Ghilzai confederation of Pashtun tribes. The rivalry between the Ghilzai and Durani tribal confederations – the two main overarching groups among the Pashtuns – sometimes defines the very Taliban insurgency, pitting the often marginalized Ghilzais in the South against the Duranis who have usually dominated the central government. Given that Mansour’s Ishaqzai tribe belongs to the Durani confederation, it will be hard for him to assert himself as the leader of a group that Ghilzais have traditionally prided on leading.
Signs of division grew in recent days with the resignation of the Taliban’s top man, Sayed Tayed Agha, from their office in Qatar, the group’s main negotiating channel with the Afghan government since 2013. Agha resigned in protest to Mansour’s election as leader of the Taliban and denounced keeping Mullah Omar’s death a secret, calling it a historic mistake. In a telephone conversation, Mansour Dadullah, the notorious Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah’s brother who got killed by the British and American Special Forces in 2007, also warned of further fragmentation in the Taliban movement unless a council of elders truly representative of the Taliban chose a new leader. Dadullah, who is in-charge of Taliban operations in some parts of Southern Afghanistan, also announced his support for Yaqoub taking over his father’s place.
Moreover, conditions are ripe for groups like the Islamic State to further expand their presence in Afghanistan using the divide among the Taliban leadership.
Perhaps to their advantage, the Taliban in the beginning had a distinctly tribal structure of leadership, less reliant on individual cults, usually with a council of elders called a Jirga – in Taliban’s case the Rahbari Shura or Quetta Council – and a leading figure as its chief representative running the affairs. However, the Taliban as a politico-military group became much larger than its initial tribal form. Mullah Omar’s rule over Afghanistan is usually referred to as “the Taliban regime” and never the “Mullah Omar regime,” showing that he was not seen as a singular identification of the regime or its overarching central authority. He was later glorified as a leader in conventional terms by the group following its post-2003 resurgence as an insurgency in order to keep battlefield unity strictly bound to loyalty to Omar; his disappearance from the political scene meanwhile transformed him into a near mythical figure among his fighters.
The sway of his leadership could also be felt in the way his reluctant gestures toward peace were received by Afghan presidents. More recently, Ashraf Ghani welcomed Mullah Omar’s Eid statement that was thought to carry signs of agreeing with the ongoing peace talks that saw its first round last month, a statement that was later taken down from the Taliban website as its credibility was clear following Omar’s death announcement.
The Taliban’s deep-rooted presence in southern and eastern Afghanistan, backed by its stakes in the lucrative drug trade, has presently made it difficult for the Afghan government to disentangle the insurgency from the civilian domain.
However, a similarly pervasive insurgency continued for decades. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka enjoyed a large base among the disenfranchised Tamil minorities of the country. It took a bloody war, resulting in the deaths of some 20,000 civilians, to wipe out the group. Yet, the biggest blow to the group came with the death of its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, in 2009.
Paradoxically, an abrupt attempt by the Afghan government to hammer down on the Taliban at this point might force the insurgents to unite their ranks and forget their differences. But if left to their own devices, the Taliban will get busy taking down the pretenders to Omar’s legacy. Mullah Omar’s revered leadership was a blessing to the group until recently; the wide open vacuum he has left behind might be the biggest threat to the group and could swallow it whole.
Kambaiz Rafi is a political economy analyst and researcher. He writes on issues ranging from political economy to Human Rights, democratisation and political Islam. He has a Master of international political economy from King’s College London.