Further down the rabbit hole

Spearhead Analysis – 31.07.2015

By Abdulla Wasti
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

mullah-mohammed-omarOn July 30th 2015, the Afghan Taliban officially confirmed Mullah Omar’s death and a couple of hours after the announced, the group elected Mullah Akhtar Mansour as the new Afghan Taliban supreme leader. Moreover, the council also elected Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is known as Khalifa, the chief of Haqqani as deputy of the Taliban’s leader. However, a Taliban leader disclosed that a formal announcement of the new leader is to be made shortly. This is not the first time that reports have emerged confirming Mullah Omar’s death; in fact, he has died three times before. But this time around, with the Taliban leaders confirming the news, it seems that the ‘Emir’ with a $10 million bounty on his head bid farewell to this world two years ago in a hospital in Karachi.

One cannot deny that the timing of such a revelation is rather suspicious taking into account how close the second round of talks were between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Expectedly, the news of his death has sabotaged the peace talks for now, and while it is almost confirmed as to who the new leader will be, there are still a number of pressing questions that remain unanswered. Firstly, what does this development signify for the future of the negotiations between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government? It was an established fact that faultlines existed within the Taliban, and that the whole organization was not in favour of talks with the government; especially the on-ground commander and rival to Mullah Akhtar Mansour, Abdul Qayyum Zakir. Nevertheless, it is still too early to predict how Mullah Omar’s death will impact the chances of a political settlement being reached between the militant organization and the Afghan government. This startling revelation could perhaps also speed up the peace process; however there is a caveat, this would only be possible if Mullah Akhtar Mansour is officially announced as the new leader, and even more important is the fact that he continues to possess the same amount of influence and legitimacy after the demise of Mullah Omar.

For quite a while now, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was viewed as the insurgency’s second-in-command. With Mullah Omar in hiding, it was Mansour who had been making the day-to-day decisions and possessed more non-symbolic power than anyone else in the movement. More interestingly, he has maintained working relations with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), something that separates him from the “Taliban Five,” the former Guantánamo Bay detainees released in a prisoner exchange and currently residing in Doha, Qatar. Till 2012, Mansour was considered a hardliner among the leaders as he vehemently opposed any talks with the Karzai government. However, come 2013, his position had changed and this put him directly at odds with Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a Taliban military leader from northern Helmand who has for years commanded arguably the largest organized insurgent front inside Afghanistan. Therefore, taking into consideration Mansour’s willingness to reach a political settlement and the relationship he shares with the Pakistani intelligence, him being the next leader of the Taliban would most likely be good news for all the stakeholders in this peace process.

But the biggest mystery is perhaps that if Mullah Omar died back in 2013, who was negotiating with the Afghan government and under what authority? As a matter of fact, a statement was released earlier this month on behalf of Mullah Omar where he endorsed negotiations to end the conflict in Afghanistan. It comes as no surprise that Mullah Mansour’s integrity is being called into question as many feel that he may have spent most of the past two years deceiving his fellow insurgents by claiming to pass on orders and messages from Mullah Omar. It remains to be seen how much of a negative impact such accusations will have on Mullah Mansour’s legitimacy as the future supreme leader of the organization, and whether he will be able to demand the same kind of devotion and respect from the on-ground troops. This is a key factor if any ceasefire agreement is to be realized successfully.

Thus, Mansour may have important friends in Pakistan and is probably the Afghan government’s best bet if the 13 year long conflict is to be brought to an end, but he is definitely not Mullah Omar. Various competing interests inside the Taliban have remained nominally united due to the belief that Omar is the amir ul momineen. Omar’s spiritual status has long been the only thing holding the Taliban together. As a result, the future of a political settlement being reached is clouded by uncertainty as the group is embroiled in an internal battle to find a sense of direction. The death of Mullah Omar may allow Pakistan to put leaders it controls more fully in charge of the Taliban, however, it may also cause the Taliban to splinter even further. Some may quit fighting and enter the system, while others may join even more extremist groups, such as the Islamic State, and fight the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. As matters become more complex than ever, no one knows what the future holds for the Afghan Taliban, probably not even Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour himself.