How did the Taliban managed to hide the death of Mullah Omar, a man with a $10 million bounty on his head, for more than two years? That may be the most immediate question that comes to mind following the announcement that the Taliban leader was expired. But long time Afghanistan observers said the more pertinent question is: Why did news of his death emerge today?
Wednesday’s announcement comes at a precarious time for the Taliban. The militants are winning on the battlefield—but threatened from within by a new jihadist power.
The Taliban are inflicting heavy casualties on the Afghan security forces. At this rate, Afghanistan’s military and police forces could collapse. Meanwhile, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been courting China to lean on Pakistan to force the Taliban to join peace talks. But with Ghani’s recent battlefield concessions, the Taliban have little incentive to make a deal.
They may also have little ability to forge a pact in their tenuous peace talks with the Afghan government. Taliban has been increasingly fractured, most recently by the rise in Afghanistan of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which is quickly expanding its influence in the region.
Did the news of Mullah Omar’s emerge because of internal strife within the Taliban? Was it an effort to thwart the peace process by making it harder for Afghanistan to know who to negotiate with? Or does it signal that Pakistan no longer needs the Taliban as its proxy in Afghanistan?
It was unclear who held the secret of the mullah’s health quiet for more than two years. Figuring out who let the news out, and why, became the new mystery. Mullah Omar may have taken refuge in Pakistan as far back as just after the 9/11 attacks, where he reportedly died in April 2013. At least, that’s the most popular theory at the moment. Afghan officials spent the first part of Wednesday chasing reports of Omar’s death—only to confirm it later. The Taliban appeared to be caught similarly flat-footed. 16 hours after reports first emerged in the Pakistani press, had the militants had yet to comment.
“That indicates they don’t know how to deal with the news,” retired U.S. ambassador James Cunningham, who served in Afghanistan from 2012-2014, told The Daily Beast.
Of all the top jihadist leaders to emerge in the era of the war on terrorism, Mullah Omar remains exceptional. Unlike ISIS or al Qaeda, which planned for succession, Mullah Omar is not a replaceable leader. His title was commander of the faithful, reserved only for those considered legitimate leaders of sovereign Muslim communities. Indeed, Mullah Omar literally wore a robe believed to have been worn by Prophet Mohammed, called the cloak of the prophet, the only piece of the prophet’s clothing believed to exist in Afghanistan.
Born in Kandahar in 1960 and head of the Taliban for 13 years, a biography published by the Taliban described him as a “charismatic personality.”
Many joined the Taliban because of him. They sought his counsel—years after his death, it turns out. When there were rumors of his death, many militants threatened to leave without word from him. His passing will, at a minimum, fracture an already fragile Taliban.
“There may be people who aspire to the title but no one can replace him,” David J. Katz, a former State Department official who began traveling to Afghanistan in the 1970s, told The Daily Beast. “Everything about the movement rests on legitimacy… We are going to see rifts within the Taliban.
Those fissures are ripe for jihadist groups like al Qeada and ISIS to exploit. There were signs of problems just a few weeks ago when the Taliban put out a message urging ISIS to stay out of Afghanistan. And according to this report, an ISIS recruitment document discovered in Pakistan’s lawless tribal region spells out the terror groups efforts to expand into Afghanistan and Pakistan and trigger a war with India.
In addition to the expanded ISIS threat, experts said, the divisions potentially weaken the Taliban’s value as Pakistan’s proxy in Afghanistan, Katz said.
That creates, at least in the short term, problems for the peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Ghani will have no clear negotiating partner.
“Mullah Omar was the final word,” Cunningham said. “Whether it effects the deal in the longer term it depends on how the next leadership is constituted and how it is oriented” toward the talks.
In the last purported message from Mullah Omar, released this month to mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Mullah Omar endorsed the Afghan peace talks as religiously “legitimate.”
But the message was in the form of a document, not an audio or video message, raising growing suspicions that the elusive leader was dead.
Given how interwoven Pakistan and the Taliban are, both of their reactions in the days ahead will be the best metric of the impact of Mullah Omar’s death. Will Pakistan be more willing to talk to the Ghani government directly? And will other members of the Afghan government, many who rejected Pakistani influence, allow that?
And more immediately how will the Taliban respond as it inevitably will have to? Will they continue to deny it? Or will it name a new, albeit weaker, leader?
Until then, even basic questions remain unanswered in assessing Mullah Omar’s death.
“Is it actually true?” Cunningham asked, even as the Afghan and U.S. government said it was. “There is always a slim chance it is not.”