Wednesday&’s announcement of Mullah Mohammad Omar&’s death – two years after his passing – has confounded the Af-Pak region, not least the Taliban. As much is more than obvious from the statement issued by its commander in restive Helmand province – “The morale of the men is very low, there is a lot of confusion. If the Commander of the Faithful is dead then the Taliban have lost someone who is irreplaceable. If he died two years ago, who was issuing the statements, who were we fighting for? Why were we fighting?” The very authenticity of jihadist declarations over the past two years must now be open to question, if not the credibility of the Taliban&’s posturing. By posing fundamental questions, the commander has echoed the bewilderment of the fractious entity, now groping in the midst of a leadership vacuum.
The one-eyed Mullah Omar was almost a cult figure, having protected Osama bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks, most particularly since October 2001 when George Bush sent his forces to “smoke out” Laden from the caves of Afghanistan. The mystery of this incredibly delayed “breaking news” is bound to deepen ahead of the scheduled talks this weekend between the militants and the Afghanistan government … with Pakistan playing the host in Murree. It isn’t only the Taliban that is astonished over the delayed announcement; even Pakistan is bamboozled no less with its military wondering why “this news has come out now, when we are two days away from the peace talks”.
And the successive dispensations of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani will have a lot to answer for, most importantly the incumbent during the negotiations. If Mullah Omar had indeed died in 2013 – as disclosed by the regime in
Kabul and confirmed as “credible” by the White House – the passing happened during the rule of President Karzai. Apparently, the news was kept under wraps as must be the reasons thereof. There is speculation already on whether the subterfuge since 2013 was organised by Pakistan&’s ISI.
The internal struggle over the succession issue is bound to intensify. Rudderless as it now is, the Taliban will have to contend with a sharp division within, specifically between those who are in favour of talks with the government in Kabul and others who want to continue the fight for power. The Taliban is now at the crossroads and it shall not be easy to resolve the leadership issue. And the change of guard, whenever it becomes evident, may or may not be agreeable to the Afghan government, Pakistan, the USA, and also of course, the Taliban generally. Less easily settled is the factional strife. The surge of ISIS renders the scenario still more fearsome.