Updated: July 31, 2015 12:00:18 am
Mullah Muhammad Omar was an enigma even at the height of the Taliban’s power, when it ruled Afghanistan after overrunning Kabul in 1996. Not seen in public since the Nato bombardment of the country helped the Northern Alliance overthrow the Taliban in late 2001, news of his death had often come in, always to be denied later. Even on Wednesday, the Afghan government initially stated that it was “still in the process of assessing” reports of Omar’s death. On Thursday, two senior Taliban leaders confirmed Omar’s death and named Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, Omar’s deputy, as the successor chosen by the Taliban Shura. Omar is said to have died in April 2013, in Karachi. The question arises as to why his death was officially confirmed on the eve of the second round of talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Pakistan. Those talks have now been postponed, as the Taliban has pulled out of the negotiations.
After Nato withdrew most of its forces in 2014, violence in Afghanistan has only worsened. The Taliban’s insurgency has grown in intensity, despite Washington being compelled to increase the size of its residual contingent of troops. The Taliban’s offensive this year has been particularly strong. Afghan security forces have found themselves out of depth and training in containing the militants’ attempts at winning back territory. Realising there could be no peace in Afghanistan without the willingness of neighbouring Pakistan, former President Hamid Karzai had wanted a peace deal, while incumbent President Ashraf Ghani has begun the talks. This process of reconciliation, seen critically in both Afghanistan’s neighbourhood and sections of Washington, is also the cover the US sought to complete its withdrawal.
On Wednesday, the Afghan government said that “grounds for… peace talks are more paved now than before”. But the Taliban’s withdrawal from the talks on Thursday indicates that certainty about Omar’s death may complicate matters further. The Taliban have long ceased to be united, and there was always severe opposition to the talks within its ranks. It is feared that more Taliban factions will now defect to the Islamic State’s Afghan franchise. Omar’s death may bring closure to the sequence of events that began with the Taliban’s rapid rise in 1994. But a new, much less predictable, era appears to have begun.
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