Stress mounts in Af-Pak pressure cooker

With reports now confirmed of the death of its commander and spiritual leader, the Taliban is experiencing rifts within its ranks that could diminish its strength. Rahimullah Yusufzai looks at the challenges facing the movement’s new leader, and its impact on Af-Pak peace talks.

The belated confirmation of the Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar’s death not only caused divisions in Taliban ranks over the succession issue, but it also resulted in suspension of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and deterioration in the already uncertain Pak-Afghan relations.

The Taliban movement reluctantly confirmed on July 30 that Omar had died way back on April 23, 2013 due to complications caused by tuberculosis. It claimed he passed away in Afghanistan and was secretly buried there.

This was preceded by a statement issued by Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the NDS, that he had died more than two years ago in a hospital in Karachi. However, the Taliban denied the claim and Islamabad insisted that Omar had not died in Pakistan.

In fact, indirect confirmation of Omar’s death came a day earlier on July 29, when his deputy Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was chosen as the movement’s new head. The Taliban’s top decision-making Rahbari Shura (leadership council), in a secret meeting at an undisclosed place on the evening of July 29, also selected Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani network declared terrorist by the US and wanted with a large price on his head, and religious scholar Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, as Mansour’s deputies.

Taliban figures who knew their hawkish supreme leader couldn’t believe that he would support peace talks with the Afghan government.

Eyebrows had been raised some weeks earlier when Mansour, rather than Mullah Omar, wrote an open letter to the Islamic State (IS) ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to ask him to stay away from Afghanistan as the Taliban were already engaged in fighting there against the US-led NATO forces. Such an important letter should normally have come from the Taliban movement founder and longtime head instead of Mansour, who was Omar’s deputy. Senior Taliban members began asking questions of Mansour about Omar’s whereabouts when his customary Eid message, released to the media on the eve of Eid ul-Fitr, contained comments backing the July 7 peace talks held in Murree between Afghan government and Taliban delegations. Many doubted that it was Omar’s message, as Taliban figures who knew their hawkish supreme leader couldn’t believe that he would support peace talks with the Afghan government. Demands were made to provide a recording in Omar’s voice to establish that he indeed was alive and had sent the Eid message.

In the end, Mansour had no choice but to formally admit to Omar’s death. Apparently, only seven top Taliban figures, including three religious scholars and Omar’s younger brother, Mullah Abdul Mannan, and eldest son, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, were aware of his death and had decided not to reveal it to avoid triggering differences in Taliban ranks over the succession issue. Another reason for hiding Omar’s death was the concern that it could demoralise the Taliban rank and file, particularly the fighters, at a time when the drawdown of NATO forces from Afghanistan had begun.

A weakened Taliban could indirectly benefit the Islamic State group, which is trying to gain a foothold in the Af-Pak region.

The secret was closely kept, but predictably there was strife among the Taliban when his death was announced. The rift hasn’t ended, despite hectic mediation efforts by a group of pro-Taliban clerics because those opposed to Mansour refused to accept him as the new head of the Taliban in place of Omar. Failure to heal the rift could split the generally disciplined Taliban movement and weaken its military strength. This could indirectly benefit the Islamic State group, which is trying to gain a foothold in the Af-Pak region. The Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi-led Islamic State recently lost some of its top commanders, almost all defectors from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban groups, and is now struggling to survive in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar Province.

IMMOBILISED: The Taliban stood up to NATO forces for 14 years and fought them to a standstill
IMMOBILISED: The Taliban stood up to NATO forces for 14 years and fought them to a standstill

Mansour had hurriedly convened the meeting of the Taliban Rahbari Shura to appoint him as the new head of the movement and pre-empt any move to prolong the succession issue. His decision to appoint Sirajuddin Haqqani as one of his two deputies was a smart move to gain the support of arguably the most powerful Taliban faction and also bring it into the proposed Afghan reconciliation process.

The resourceful Mansour was the frontrunner to succeed Omar as he was already the de facto head of the Taliban movement and had been running its affairs for almost six years, including the period since Omar’s death and earlier when the Taliban supreme leader was in hiding. He gained sufficient experience in the job and personally knew and interacted with all the field commanders fighting on the frontlines in Afghanistan. Mansour also endeared himself to the Pakistan and Afghan governments by agreeing to give up the old Taliban stand not to recognise or hold peace talks with Kabul. His decision on Pakistan’s persuasion to enter into peace talks with the Afghan government also pleased the US and China as both sent their diplomats to observe the first round of the negotiations on July 7. Though Mansour spoke out against the peace talks with Kabul after his appointment as the new Taliban leader, it was largely seen as a political statement meant to win over Taliban factions opposed to the dialogue.

However, Mansour’s troubles are far from over as he has yet to win over Omar’s son Yaqoob, who, despite being only 23 years old and inexperienced, is popular among the Taliban rank and file due to his father’s sacrifices for the movement. Without the support of Omar’s family, Mansour will remain controversial and unacceptable to a large number of Taliban members. Disunity rather than defeat in the battleground would demoralise and weaken the Taliban, who stood up to the modern and better-equipped US-led NATO forces for 14 years and fought them to a standstill.

There are also other challenges facing Mansour. His decision to elevate Sirajuddin Haqqani to the post of the Taliban deputy leader could cause problems because the Haqqani network has been declared a terrorist organisation worldwide. In fact, the US recently warned Pakistan that it could cut the Coalition Support Fund that Islamabad is getting for counter-terrorism operations if the Haqqani network sanctuaries in Pakistan weren’t adequately targeted. The recent series of bomb explosions in Kabul also focused attention on the Haqqani network, as Kabul blamed it for the attacks and accused Islamabad of abetting its presence in Pakistan. It appeared that Kabul and Washington had coordinated their move to put pressure on Pakistan to act against the Haqqani network, which was founded by the Afghan mujahideen commander Mullah Jalaluddin Haqqani in the early 1980s and later became known for harbouring al-Qaeda operatives.

WILL TO SUCCEED: The late Mullah Omar (l) and his successor Mullah Akhtar Mansour
WILL TO SUCCEED: The late Mullah Omar (l) and his successor Mullah Akhtar Mansour

Strangely, though, the Haqqani network was represented in the July 7 peace talks in Murree between the Afghan government and the Taliban and apparently no objection was raised by Kabul or even the US diplomat who attended the meeting, along with two Chinese diplomats as observers. It was felt both the Americans and the Afghans would be relieved if the Haqqani network, considered by the US as militarily the most powerful Taliban faction, were to disarm and join the political mainstream under the terms of a likely peace agreement with the Taliban movement. As the peace talks are on hold and there is no indication when they will resume, due to the acute differences that have emerged in the Taliban on the succession issue, Afghanistan and the US could have decided to apply further pressure on Pakistan to take action against the Afghan Taliban leadership, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, to join the peace process or stop use of its territory to plan attacks across the border in Afghanistan.

President Dr Ashraf Ghani’s outburst against Pakistan on August 10 indicated that his patience had finally run out following his efforts, since his installation on September 29 last year, to improve ties with Islamabad and seek its support in pursuing the peace process with the Taliban. His allegations angered Pakistan, which argued that the agreement with Afghanistan not to publicly air complaints against each other had been breached by President Ghani. Pakistan was also upset that Ghani no longer wanted its help to hold peace talks with the Taliban without realising the snags the process had hit after Omar’s death due to the strife in Taliban ranks over the succession issue. A border clash that caused the death of soldiers in the two neighbouring countries fuelled tension on the Durand Line border, and matters weren’t helped when a group of Afghan clerics in Kabul, angered by alleged Pakistan support for the Afghan Taliban, gave a fatwa (decree) that waging jihad (holy war) in Pakistan was legitimate. It led to verbal sparring between Afghan and Pakistani clerics as they accused each other of being ignorant.

As if this wasn’t enough, young Afghans started a campaign on social media to boycott Pakistani products, which dominate the Afghanistan market, and this received support from businessmen. A slanging match was triggered on social media between Afghan and Pakistani bloggers. Pak-Afghan relations had never been friendly, but the marked improvement since Ghani’s installation as president in place of Hamid Karzai, after an inconclusive presidential election in 2014, had brought signs of relief and raised hopes that the two governments could make joint efforts to restore peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan and bring stability to the region. That is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.

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