Barnett Rubin, referring to the movement’s rise as a response to the chaotic civil war among rival mujahedeen organizations that followed the collapse of Mohammad Najibullah’s Moscow-backed regime in 1992, wrote in The New Yorker, “For the first time the Taliban, founded to end factionalism, were speaking with multiple voices, some manipulated by Pakistan more obviously than ever. Since only the hidden Mullah Omar could settle which was the true voice of the Taliban, the question of his authority became pressing.”
The problem was exacerbated by the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as a transnational competitor of Al-Qaeda and its attempted expansion in Afghanistan. The passing of Omar will boost ISIL’s efforts to legitimize its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the paramount authority among transnational fighting groups embracing a like-minded ideology. For Al-Qaeda, which has repeatedly pledged its fealty to Omar, the formalistic attempt to undermine the credibility of Baghdadi has been exposed, further weakening its claims to global leadership.
Omar’s passing is also likely to aid ISIL’s expansion into Afghanistan, particularly in light of the rejection of peace talks with Kabul by more hard-line elements of the Taliban. It is notable that before the official acknowledgment of Omar’s death, those pressing most urgently to know his fate were the breakaway factions that pledged loyalty to ISIL. While the rate of Taliban defections to ISIL has remained quite modest, that pressure has worried the Taliban leadership.
The duplicitous manner in which Omar’s death was concealed by those continuing to invoke his authority will aggravate tensions between them and those Taliban who expressed disquiet about negotiations. The danger that the movement will fracture is now greater than ever.
Although divisions within the Taliban have been readily apparent for some time, adversaries such as the Afghan government and the United States have been unable to exploit them. Omar’s demise further diminishes the likelihood of a best-case outcome of a negotiated settlement with Taliban leaders that carries the support of the broadest number of its members. Having lost the ability to invoke his predecessor’s authority, Mansoor could struggle to impose any move to end the war based on a political compromise.
The possibility of a negotiated solution ending the conflict has therefore become more remote, while prospects have risen for a split in the Taliban between those who believe fighting on will restore the movement’s control over Afghanistan and those who would settle for less in a compromise solution to end the war. But the Afghan government will hope that any such splits would shrink the ranks of the most intractably hostile Taliban and allow a process of de-escalation to draw in others.