The Pulse

Will Mullah Omar’s Death Change the Taliban?

Recent Features

The Pulse

Will Mullah Omar’s Death Change the Taliban?

Anand Gopal, a veteran journalist who embedded with the Taliban, speaks with The Diplomat about Mullah Omar’s death.

When the journalist Anand Gopal wrote the book No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes in 2014 , it was hailed as a landmark narrative of Afghanistan. The book tells the story of how the United States, which defeated the Taliban, also paved the way for its eventual revival. Gopal learned the local language and went deep inside Taliban-controlled territory to embed with the insurgents. The resulting book lays bare Washington’s longest war and the mistakes the West made after its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, which revived the Taliban soon after the war started.

The Diplomat’s Sanjay Kumar spoke to Gopal and tried to understand the meaning of Mullah Mohammed Omar’s death.

The Diplomat: How do you look at Mullah Omar’s death?

Anand Gopal: Mullah Omar is unique. Mullah Omar is in a different league in the Taliban. He represents a legacy. Nobody can match that, and anybody who is going to assume control is going to face lots of rivals, particularly on the question of peace talks. One side believes that peace talks are futile and the gun can ensure total victory. This group is emboldened by recent advances in Kunduz and other northern areas. The other side believes that total victory is not possible and there needs to be a negotiated settlement. This is the main division. As long as Mullah Omar was there and as long as the myth or idea of Omar was there, the group was united. But with him now dead, the real fissures have opened.

What about Omar’s successor?

Mullah Mansour is an old school Talibani. He has been in the group right from the beginning. He fought in the jihad in the 1980s, so he is from that group. He was the head of the air force during the Taliban government. After 2001, he was one of the many Taliban leaders who tried to reconcile with the government, but his reconciliation effort was rebuffed. His Ishakzai tribe was particularly targeted in places like Maiwand, Kandahar, and, because of the aggression, he fled to Pakistan and rejoined the Taliban. He is seen by some members of the Taliban as too close to Pakistan. It is because he lives in Pakistan but others who are in the political committee no longer live there. They live in the Gulf, in places like Doha.

The other part of the problem is that even among the pro-talks camp there is a division on the question as to who should lead the talks, whether it should be the political committee, which is independent of Pakistan, or the Quetta-based Mansour faction, which seems to be closer to Pakistan.

Have you interacted with any Taliban recently?

I have spoken to some people who are inside the Taliban. There is a lot of nervousness. You know, the majority of the Taliban don’t know that Mullah Omar is dead. This was an intensely guarded secret and a very small number of the people knew the truth. This can lead to fragmentation and internal fighting, allowing groups like ISIS to gain strength. So there is concern among the section of the Taliban that Mansour’s leadership would be challenged. Some people say that Mullah Omar’s son (Mullah Yacub) should be the claimant. Some would say that others should lead the group. There is going to be period of uncertainty, which is not good and it might affect the nebulous peace talks.

So you don’t see much of a future for the peace talks?

I think there are lots of challenges that are going to come. I think it will be very difficult. Most likely nothing is going to come out of the peace talks. If the peace talks are not pursued wholeheartedly, the alternative is the status quo, which means continuing the war, which means more death for innocent Afghans every year. Unfortunately, Afghanistan has been put in a great dilemma.

Is the Taliban going to sustain itself as a movement?

The real danger is of it breaking up. It might turn into different factions. Surely there would be a movement that will still call itself the Taliban. Whether those groups would be cohesive or unified or representing anything closer to the core Kandahari leadership desires, we have to see. I will not be surprised if four or five groups emerge and claim themselves to be the Taliban, similar to Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is divided into different factions, groups, and tribes.

Do you feel that Pakistan will now have greater control over the Taliban?

It is difficult to say that the group is fully under the command of Pakistan. This is the issue. Pakistan does have a degree of control over the Taliban. Pakistan kills some who don’t follow its command and don’t do what they want the Taliban to do in Afghanistan. It remains to be seen. One possible way in which it may backfire is that Pakistan wants the Taliban leadership to come to the negotiating table and other factions oppose the talks and turn against Pakistan. That’s also possible. Right now there is a process in place under which the Taliban has been trying for years to come out of the stranglehold of Pakistan. They have succeeded in some cases and failed in some. It is one of the reasons the political committee is opposed to the talks the way they are going so far.

With the Taliban’s factionalism on open display now, do you think the Islamic State will be strengthened in Afghanistan?

Yes, it is possible. It’s all about branding. ISIS is a global brand and a faction might take the name of the ISIS. Others might declare themselves Taliban, seizing the legacy of Mullah Omar.