After Mullah Omar, What Comes Next For the Taliban?
In this photograph made on Monday, Dec. 13, 2010, shows Taliban fighters man a checkpoint in an undisclosed location in Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan. (Rahmat Gul/AP Photo)
Before ISIS, there was the Taliban. And before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, there was Mullah Omar. On Wednesday, Afghanistan’s government said it had credible information that the mysterious, one-eyed leader of the Taliban had died in 2013, although it offered few details surrounding his demise beyond the month — April — and the location — a hospital in the Pakistani city of Karachi.
While Mullah Omar has been reported dead several times before, on Thursday the Taliban confirmed that this time it was real. The news comes at a time when the Taliban faces both internal power struggles and an external challenge from ISIS, which has been trying to recruit militants in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Taliban has continued its brutal and deadly fight against the Afghan government, while also taking part in tentative peace talks.
Despite making territorial gains and exacting a high cost from Afghanistan’s military this fighting season, analysts say the Taliban’s cohesion has shown the strains of an absentee leader.
A FRAGMENTING MOVEMENT
While Mullah Omar had not been deeply involved in the day-to-day operations of the insurgency since 2001, his presence was “the glue holding together” the Taliban, according to Anand Gopal, author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, The Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes.
But analysts have noted growing disaffection among the Taliban’s ranks in recent months with Mullah Omar’s continued absence. “It’s been building kind of steadily, this drum beat of ‘Where is Mullah Omar?'” Gopal said.
The Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 with a strict interpretation of sharia law, includes several insurgent groups and factions.
“You’ve seen this kind of growing pressure from factional leaders in the insurgency — splinter Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan groups in the north, former TTP [Tehrik-i-Taliban] commanders waving the [ISIS] flag in the east, breakaway commanders in the south — who are just openly talking about how they believe Mullah Omar’s dead,” Graeme Smith, senior analyst in Afghanistan for Crisis Group, told FRONTLINE. “And [they’re] doing so as a way of freeing themselves from the Taliban organization, because they swore their oaths of allegiance to Mullah Omar. Saying, ‘Well, look he’s dead,’ that makes them free agents in some ways.”
Tentative peace talks with the Afghan government — held earlier in July in Pakistan — may have contributed to further splintering. Some factions of the Taliban, including Omar’s deputy Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, supported talks, while others did not.
“[The Taliban] are divided not necessarily ideologically, but strategically,” Gopal said, explaining that while one faction thinks they can have an outright victory against the Afghan government, the other thinks it should push toward a political solution. However, the Taliban’s long-held grievances against foreign forces and the Afghan government persist.
On Thursday, hopes for a peace process grew dimmer as the Taliban’s official spokesman disavowed talks, which were expected to take place again later this week.
A BLOODY SUCCESSION BATTLE?
The Taliban also announced on Thursday that Mansour had been elected as Omar’s successor. But analysts believe it’s unlikely to quell the internal struggles within the organization.
“The leadership transition and succession in the Taliban will be very messy, drawn out, probably quite bloody, and could perhaps deliver a death knell to the Afghan Taliban as we know it,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Wilson Center.
While Mansour leads the largest faction of insurgents within the Taliban, according to estimates by Pakistani intelligence, there are other factions. Some reportedly support Omar’s son Yaqoob as his successor, while Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a top military commander and former Guantanamo detainee who opposes talks with the Afghan government also has supporters.
The Taliban, Al Qaeda and its affiliates recognized Mullah Omar as “commander of the faithful.” Choosing a successor would require not only “buy-in from the Taliban, but it’s a matter of getting full-fledged support from [militants] across the board,” Kugelman said.
“It could be that the Taliban agrees on a new leader, but that doesn’t mean that Al Qaeda affiliates and others allied with Al Qaeda will necessarily give this replacement their allegiance,” Kugelman said, “And that will undercut the clout of this new leader.”
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri renewed his pledge of allegiance to Mullah Omar just last year, in response to the challenge posed by the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. However, certain factions and splinter groups of the Taliban have already switched allegiances to ISIS, and Mullah Omar’s death could hasten that migration, according to Kugelman.