The Taliban confirmation comes a day after Abdul Hassib Seddiqi, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s intelligence service, told reporters that Omar, the one-eyed Taliban leader who has not been seen in public since the 2001 U.S. invasion sent him fleeing into Pakistan by motorbike, had died in a hospital in the Pakistani city of Karachi in April 2013. “We confirm officially that he is dead,” Seddiqi said, though he offered no explanation for why this information was only being disclosed now.
Some saw the hand of a saboteur in the timing of Kabul's announcement. Analysts believe the Taliban leadership’s decision to sit down for talks with the hated, U.S.-backed government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has fractured an already diffuse insurgency. But dissenting commanders kept the dispute under wraps because the peace process was thought to be sanctioned by Omar. On July 15, the group even released a statement supposedly drafted by the apparently dead Taliban leader that signaled his approval of the process. If Kabul's version of the story is correct (the Taliban said Thursday that Omar had only died recently), it would undermine the legitimacy of those Taliban representatives who agreed to talks and could hint at a power struggle within the group’s higher ranks.
“My sense is that someone wanted to sabotage the peace talks,” said Michael Kugelman, an Afghanistan expert with the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. “Why would the Afghan government, which so deeply wants peace, make this announcement now? It’s a mystery.”
One possible culprit, Kugelman said, was Pakistan’s powerful intelligence apparatus, the ISI, which has long been accused of allowing Mullah Omar and other Afghan Taliban rank-and-file to take refuge within its borders. Though Pakistan’s government has vocally backed the talks, the ISI has leveraged the Afghan Taliban in order to keep its rival, India, at bay. Anti-peace elements within the Afghan government or intelligence apparatus could also have forced the announcement. “The bottom line is that someone wanted to throw a wrench in these peace plans,” Kugelman said. “There’s no other logical explanation.”
Another theory experts have floated is that Kabul either knew or suspected that Omar had died long ago, but needed the Taliban to be more transparent about it in order for talks to succeed. It’s possible “they wanted to flush him out, to end the uncertainty about whether he’s alive and in charge,” said Jonah Blank, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp. think tank. “They need to know who their interlocutor is, because if they’re going to spend time talking to people they need guarantees those people are actually able to deliver.”
On Wednesday Ghani’s office downplayed any potential disruption the Taliban leader’s death would cause the peace process, saying in a statement: “The government of Afghanistan believes that grounds for the Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before, and thus calls on all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity and join the peace process.”
Analysts, however, suspect the exact opposite will occur. Though the Taliban has presented a unified front, the apparent disappearance of their leader is believed to have fomented uncertainty among the ranks. Since fleeing across the Pakistani border in 2001, Mullah Omar has released mostly written statements — the latest just five days ago — never appearing in videos or offering other proof of life. Reports of his death had surfaced several times in recent years, usually traced back to unnamed Afghan or Taliban officials and always denied publicly by Taliban leadership.
It isn’t clear whether Taliban commanders previously believed Omar to be dead or perhaps merely incapacitated — one theory held that he had a stroke, rendering him unable to project his authority in audio or video recordings. But as Blank pointed out, “You can only go on for so long fighting under a chain of command that may or may not even exist.”
The selection of Akhtar Muhammad Mansour as Mullah Omar’s successor was not a surprise, though one of Omar’s own sons was believed to have positioned himself for the role, too. Some say a violent leadership struggle could still take place if various factions loyal to other top commanders contest the Shura Council’s decision. If the group’s leadership crisis explodes into the open, “This could lead to a lot of violence and factionalism, and I don’t think the Taliban would have the time, energy or desire for peace talks,” said Kugelman.
On the other hand, Taliban infighting could, in theory, bolster Afghanistan’s efforts to roll the group back. They are weaker then they were five years ago but still maintain a stronghold in the southern and eastern hinterlands, and have gained a foothold in the north of late. Many doubt the Afghan army’s ability to stamp them out, especially since U.S. and NATO troops formally withdrew from the country last year.
There is another wildcard in all this: the ascendance of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. The group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has called on likeminded insurgents the world over to disavow groups like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and declare allegiance to his caliphate, which now stretches across parts of Syria and Iraq. In addition to satellite affiliates in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, the group is believed to be currying favor among disaffected Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“ISIL should be very happy about this announcement,” said Kugelman. “Many Taliban militants have been unhappy about their leader being quiet for so many years,” especially as the group weakened over the course of the U.S. occupation. With Mullah Omar’s death, their religiously binding vows of loyalty would be void, and they will "have no reason to stick it out anymore. Many will heed the call of the Islamic State," he said. "So I think this could really drive up recruitment in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
With wire services