End of a chapter

Print edition : September 04, 2015

Outside a mosque in Karachi, Pakistan, on August 2, supporters of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa offer funeral prayers for Mullah Omar. Photo: Fareed Khan/AP

Mullah Omar, an undated photograph.

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the new leader of the Taliban. An undated photograph. Photo: REUTERS

Peace talks between the Afghan government and the dominant faction of the Taliban may take a hit with the Taliban confirming that its reclusive leader, Mullah Omar, is not alive.

THE Taliban’s confirmation, after some initial hesitation, that its supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was no longer alive, brings to an end another interesting chapter in Afghanistan’s recent history. The remnants of the Taliban leadership located in Pakistan had no alternative but to issue the confirmation after the government in Kabul announced in the last week of July that it was certain that the head of the Taliban government that ruled the country from 1997 to 2001 was no longer alive. The Afghan government was probably tipped off by Pakistani intelligence services because they could no longer keep the demise a secret.

Various factions of the Taliban, especially those based in Afghanistan and Qatar, were demanding proof that their leader was alive. Mullah Omar’s immediate family, too, had been kept in the dark and they were getting restive. The demands of the Taliban leaders based outside Pakistan became more urgent as tentative peace talks, brokered by Pakistan and China, had started between the representatives of the Afghan government and the dominant faction of the Taliban. Until recently, the Taliban was issuing communiques in the name of Mullah Omar, continuing with the charade that he was alive and well.

Statements supporting peace talks with the Afghan government had the imprimatur of Mullah Omar. In fact, the last message in Mullah Omar’s name was sent a few weeks before his death was formally announced. In that message, Mullah Omar indicated that he was not averse to talks with the Afghan government. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani had seized on the purported statements of Mullah Omar in recent months and said that the Taliban leader was for negotiations with the government in Kabul. American and Pakistani officials also did nothing to dispel the notion that Mullah Omar was indeed the man behind the statements issued in his name.

Unifying factor

The personality of Mullah Omar had kept the Taliban united until recently. After rumours of his death started circulating, there have been serious splits in the group. Many Taliban leaders have already joined the Islamic State (I.S.). The veteran warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an ally of the Taliban, has now switched his loyalty to the I.S.

Mullah Omar’s close associates and his family members were kept in the dark about his death. His former personal secretary, Tayyeb Agha, who runs the Taliban office in Doha, Qatar, said that it was a “historical mistake” to keep the news of his death a secret for so long. It is now more or less certain that the Taliban leader passed away sometime in 2013.

The Pakistan Defence Minister Khwaja Asif and other top officials in the country have denied the Afghan government’s claim that the Taliban leader, said to be in his mid-fifties, died in a Karachi hospital. They claim that he died in Afghan territory. The Afghan Intelligence Services insist that Mullah Omar spent most of his years in hiding in the Pakistani port city of Karachi. Western intelligence agencies had earlier suggested that he was located in Quetta in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, which is situated near the border with Afghanistan.

Many Taliban leaders and fighters found refuge in Pakistani cities and the tribal areas after the overthrow of its government. The Taliban leader had dropped off the radar after the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001. According to reports, the reclusive leader, whose face has been captured only once and that too in grainy footage, escaped the U.S. military dragnet by riding pillion on a motorcycle from Kabul to the Pakistani tribal areas. Mullah Omar had a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head.

The one-eyed Mullah Omar, a former madrassa (seminary) student, had led a group of young seminary students into battle against venal warlords in the mid-1990s under the banner of the Taliban. He had earlier lost an eye on the battlefield as a young man in the jehad against the Soviet-backed government in Kabul.

The seminary students under Mullah Omar’s leadership were angered by the widespread lawlessness that had characterised Afghanistan after the takeover by the U.S.-supported mujahideen warlords in the early 1990s. The Taliban takeover of most of Afghanistan was no doubt facilitated by the generous help provided by Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus.

The Taliban was initially welcomed by the populace fed up with the rampant anarchy unleashed by the warlords. The Taliban also tried to tackle the drug menace by curbing the production of opium. Though the Taliban government in Kabul was recognised by only three countries—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—many other countries, including the U.S., had started doing business with the Taliban-led government in Kabul.

Even the government of India had established initial contacts with the Taliban regime. The U.S. had calculated that political stability in Afghanistan, albeit under harsh Taliban rule, could expedite the construction of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan that would go through Afghanistan. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline was much talked about in the mid-1990s.

Events after 9/11

But things started going awry in the late 1990s. The formation of Al Qaeda under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, a comrade in arms of Mullah Omar during the U.S., Saudi and Pakistani-sponsored jehad in Afghanistan and the subsequent terror attacks leading up to 9/11, dramatically changed the scenario for Mullah Omar and the Taliban. Mullah Omar had given sanctuary to bin Laden after he left Sudan in 1996.

After the events of 9/11, Mullah Omar had the option to hand his guest over to the U.S. and avoid the military overthrow of his government. Senior Pakistani and Saudi officials had tried to convince the Taliban leader to do so, but he refused and pointed to the well-established traditions of Pashtun hospitality that prevented an honoured guest from ever being banished. All the foreign jehadis, including bin Laden, had recognised Mullah Omar as their spiritual guide and leader.

Under Mullah Omar’s stewardship, the Taliban government declared an Islamic emirate. The government was quick to implement a feudal and regressive policy that discriminated against women and minority groups such as the Shias and the Hazaras. In their zeal to establish a “pure Islamic state” strictly governed by sharia, beheadings and amputations became common. The destruction of the historic Bamiyan Buddha statues invited international opprobrium.

Two days before the 9/11 Al Qaeda attack in the U.S., a suicide attack killed Ahmad Shah Masood, the leader of the Northern Alliance, which was battling the Taliban with the support of Russia, Iran and India. When the U.S. finally invaded the country, the Taliban government was friendless, though subsequent events showed that the Taliban continued to have highly placed sympathisers in Pakistan and Qatar and some of the other Gulf countries.

New leader

After Mullah Omar’s death was announced, the Taliban leadership was quick to designate Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, a long-time confidant of their late leader, as the new leader. Mansour had held ministerial positions in the Taliban government.

As Civil Aviation Minister, he played a key negotiating role in the release of the hijacked Indian Airlines plane that the Taliban had given permission to land in Kandahar in 1999. The Indian side had alleged at the time that Mansour was acting more as a negotiator for the hijackers.

The hasty selection of Mansour has caused further divisions in the Taliban ranks. Like many other senior Taliban leaders, Mansour has been staying under Pakistan’s protection. It was reportedly under Pakistan’s pressure that the section of the Taliban leadership based there attended the July 7 talks with the officials of the Afghan government.

Those against the continuation of peace talks seem to be getting the upper hand after the new Taliban leader was anointed. Tayyeb Agha, the head of the de facto Taliban mission in Qatar, resigned in protest against the selection of Mansour.

His close associates told the media that the peace talks with the Afghan government had been “hijacked” by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). In his resignation letter, Agha said the timing of the announcement of the Taliban leader’s death was linked to the beginning of negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Pakistan under pressure

Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khwaja Asif told the National Assembly in the second week of August that Islamabad had only “limited influence” over the Taliban and that it was using this influence to bring them to the negotiating table. Pakistan is also under pressure from the U.S. and China to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. China fears that the increasing turmoil in Afghanistan could spill over its borders and impact adversely its grandiose economic plans for the Central Asian region.

The Taliban factions opposed to the peace talks have upped the scale of attacks after the death of Mullah Omar was announced. In the second week of August, there were four attacks in Kabul on a single day, killing more than 50 people and injuring hundreds. More than 4,500 Afghan soldiers and policemen have been killed this year alone.

The I.S. has also joined the fray, with many Taliban fighters flocking to the murderous outfit, especially in eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership based in Pakistan had warned the I.S. to stay away from Afghanistan or face dire consequences. The I.S. has retaliated by targeting Taliban leaders opposed to them.

After Mullah Omar’s death was confirmed, jehadi activities have increased in Kashmir too. The Taliban, unlike the I.S., never had a global agenda and had confined itself to Afghanistan. With the I.S. on the rise, jihadi groups like the Laskhar-e-Taiba, have been encouraged. The I.S. already has a close working relationship with the Pakistan wing of the Taliban. Infiltration and attacks against Indian security forces have noticeably increased in recent weeks.

It may be in India’s interest to support Pakistan’s exertions on behalf of the “moderate” Taliban to kick-start peace talks with the Afghanistan government.