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Life after Mullah Omar: For Taliban, Afghanistan, and the peace talks

There is a view that the post-Omar situation in the Taliban — especially if the divisions within grow sharper — might provide an opening that New Delhi could use to engage with independent-minded factions.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian |
Updated: July 31, 2015 7:45:16 am
Mullah-omar-759 The Taliban leader who had anointed himself Amir-ul-Momineen — commander of the faithful — had not been seen in public since 2001, when he is thought to have fled Kandahar on a motorcycle during the post-9/11 US attack.

The announcement by the Afghan government that Mullah Omar, founder-leader of the Taliban, is dead — that in fact, he died two years ago — brings no resolution to Afghanistan’s problems, or for the issues the situation in that country raises for the region and beyond. Instead, it may have made the Great Game more complex.

On Wednesday, President Ashraf Ghani’s office said it could confirm on the basis of “credible information” that Omar died in April 2013. A spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security said he had “died suspiciously in a hospital in Karachi”.

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The Taliban leader who had anointed himself Amir-ul-Momineen — commander of the faithful — had not been seen in public since 2001, when he is thought to have fled Kandahar on a motorcycle during the post-9/11 US attack. In 2006-08, it was rumoured he lived in Quetta or Karachi. Through the last 14 years, he has been reported dead several times, but his followers took assurance from the statements that regularly appeared on the Taliban website under his name.

The most recent of these statements came on July 15, ahead of Eid, and a week after Pakistan hosted talks between an Afghan government delegation and a three-member Taliban team at the hill station of Murree. The talks, which were watched over by officials from Pakistan, China and the US, exposed the factionalism within the Taliban.

The talks were preceded by contact between the two sides in May in the Chinese city of Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, and in Kabul later that same month, with Pakistani and Chinese officials present on both occasions. Both Pakistan and China said they were ready to become “guarantors” and play a “constructive” role in the Afghan peace process.

These negotiations excluded altogether the Taliban representatives with whom the US had on-again, off-again contact in 2011-12. The representatives, based in Doha, Qatar, were seen as more uncompromising and independent-minded, which did not endear them to Pakistan. They had said that they would negotiate only with the US, as that was the main power in Afghanistan.

After the Murree talks, the Qatar Taliban made it known that they remained in charge of negotiations, and had not taken part in any talks with the Afghan government.

In this background came the statement issued in Omar’s name, backing the talks. It quietened the opposition, at least publicly.

On Friday, Pakistan will host the next round of talks. They were earlier scheduled to be held on July 30 in Beijing, and the change in venue excited some speculation. Reactions from Taliban factions to this round of talks are likely to provide clues on how the leadership succession will unfold — and what it holds for Afghanistan and its partners.

Much will depend on how clean the succession is, as there is more than one contender. Akhtar Muhammed Mansur, who led the Quetta Shura, the body of political, military and religious heads that runs the Taliban, and derives its legitimacy from Omar, is seen as the main contender. Mansur was regarded as Omar’s deputy, and is seen as close to Pakistan. But there are others in the running, including Omar’s son Mohammed Yakub.

Mansur will also have to contend with accusations that he had kept Omar’s death under wraps all this time. A splinter group called Fidai Mazhar, which is opposed to Mansur, has accused him of being behind Omar’s death.

Another contender is Mullah Qayum Zakir, who fell out with Mansur about two years ago. It is unclear if he is an independent contender or is backing a faction.

Like the rest, the Qatar-based group has not issued any statement on the Afghan government’s announcement.

Kabul believes the ‘confirmation’ of Omar’s death would help the talks along. “The Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before,” it has said. The assumption seems to be that Pakistan might be able to pull them all together, by bringing around the dissidents. But analysts in India are not sure things would go quite that way.

“[Mullah Omar’s death] is going to intensify the factionalism within the Taliban,” said Anand Arni of the Takshashila Foundation, a former intelligence officer who dealt with Afghanistan and the Kandahar hijacking.

According to Arni, the extent to which Pakistan is able to control the Taliban will depend also on how acceptable Mansur is as a leader to the various Taliban factions.

“There are many disgruntled senior- and middle-level Taliban who resent Pakistan’s interference, and they are not going to be easy to get around,” Arni said.

Another possible contender is Mullah Baradar, who was arrested by Pakistan in 2010, to the anger and dismay of the US, who then saw him as a possible interlocutor. He, however, has not been in the public eye since his release in 2013.

It is possible that India might see the factionalism as an opportunity to get back in the Afghan game. With Islamabad and Beijing taking centrestage in the Taliban-Afghan talks, New Delhi has felt entirely excluded from any say in the future of a country with which it has close ties, and regards as strategically vital to its interests. It has rankled that President Ghani has played an important role in marginalising New Delhi.

Vivek Katju, a former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, says, “Ghani bent over backwards to assure Pakistan that he was willing to downgrade the country’s relations with India, even though India and Afghanistan have a security partnership agreement.”

There is a view that the post-Omar situation in the Taliban — especially if the divisions within grow sharper — might provide an opening that New Delhi could use to engage with independent-minded factions.

But in Afghanistan, nothing is simple. There are signs of ISIS presence in the country, and in April, it even claimed responsibility for a bombing. There is concern that a Taliban without the central leadership that Mullah Omar provided, albeit in absentia, could see a bandwagoning with the ISIS. And with ISIS flags and graffiti making an appearance in Jammu and Kashmir recently, for India, there isn’t much to choose — between a weak Taliban taken over by the ISIS, or a united Taliban under Pakistan’s control.

nirupama.subramanian@expressindia.com

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