Reports on Wednesday that reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Omar had died will be rightly hailed by some as the demise of an American nemesis. But the death of the one-eyed Afghan commander may also scuttle the most promising peace talks in Afghanistan in a decade.
Omar’s direct role in day-to-day Taliban operations had been declining for years, according to Western diplomats in Afghanistan. Even if he is alive, the former leader of Afghanistan is believed to be severely ill.
But the myth that surrounds Omar is a key element in determining whether peace talks can succeed. With the Islamic State and other jihadist groups vying for the loyalty of young Taliban fighters, it is unclear whether any leader except Omar can hold the movement together and then get its members to accept a peace settlement.
“The nightmare is if nobody respected the leadership anymore in the Taliban,” said Graeme Smith, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group who is based in Kabul, “because then you have no one to talk to.”
After decades of using Afghanistan as a battleground for proxy war, the major powers that exacerbated the country’s internal divisions are finally on the same page. Two weeks ago, as Chinese and U.S. diplomats stood by, Pakistani officials convened the first direct peace talks between senior Afghan and Taliban officials in a decade. A second round of negotiations is scheduled on Friday.
But the emergence of actual negotiations has placed enormous strain on the Taliban and widened a dangerous rift inside the group. In the past few weeks, two different militant groups once allied with the Taliban have issued statements declaring Omar is dead. Their goal was to call into question the authority of his deputy, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor, to lead the group. Omar’s 26-year-old son, Yaqoob, and other hardliners oppose the peace talks, according to arecent story by a veteran Pakistani journalist with close ties to the Taliban. The hardliners opposed Mansoor’s decision to send a delegation to direct peace talks on July 7. Mansoor later issued a statement purported to be from Omar that supported the talks. On Thursday, one Taliban spokesman said the group would no longer participate in the negotiations.
The worrying trend is that this dispute reflects deep tribal divisions within the Taliban that could divide the entire movement. Ideological rifts exist as well. Some hardline factions that have declared allegiance to the Islamic State now often engage in gun battles with traditional Taliban groups.
At the same time, the Obama administration’s withdrawal of the vast majority of U.S. troops from Afghanistan has bolstered the efforts of the Taliban hardliners. The insurgents have made sweeping military gains in the country’s north. Afghan government forces are experiencing a 50-percent increase in casualty rates. Roughly 4,100 Afghan soldiers and police were killed and 7,800 wounded in the first six months of this year, according to news reports.
Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, has also come under withering criticism from fellow Afghans for a bold diplomatic gamble. Since taking office, the U.S.-educated anthropologist has openly wooed Chinese and Pakistani officials. He made many concessions in hopes they could help bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. In a piece of rare good news from Afghanistan, Ghani’s gambit has paid off. After sheltering Taliban leaders for the past 14 years, Pakistani military officials are putting intense pressure on the Taliban to attend the talks.
Pressure from China, the Pakistani military’s most important ally, appears to have played a central role, according to Barnett Rubin, a former senior State Department official and expert on Afghanistan. Chinese officials increasingly see militancy in the region as a threat to Beijing’s plans for economic growth and political stability in western China, which borders both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As Rubin wrote in The New Yorker on Wednesday:
An increase in terrorist attacks connected to a separatist movement in the Xinjiang Autonomous region, some of whose fighters received training in Pakistan and Afghanistan, had led China to regard the stability of Afghanistan as crucial to its internal security as well as its economic future.
As odd as it may seem to some Americans, reports of Omar’s death could not come at a worse time. Omar’s brutality was medieval. But for two decades, he has served as the unifying force of the Taliban.
The talks on Friday and their progress in the weeks ahead could help determine whether Afghanistan follows the route of Syria, Yemen, and Libya toward state collapse. As the rise of the Islamic State has shown, an even more radical group could emerge out of the disintegration of the Taliban.
A rare moment of consensus among international powers and their longtime Afghan proxies exist. But it may be too late to halt the centrifugal forces unleashed in Afghanistan by both internal and external actors over the past 40 years.