What Becomes Of The Taliban After Mullah Omar's Death?

This interview was originally publised by the Huffington Post on 1 August 2015.

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with the Center on International Cooperation's Barnett Rubin about the future of the Taliban.

Afghanistan's government confirmed reports on Wednesday that the reclusive leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, was dead, and has been since 2013. The announcement came just days before peace talks between the Taliban and the government were scheduled to begin in Pakistan. The talks were postponed after the news of Omar's death. 

Omar's disappearance had cast uncertainty on the future of the Afghan peace process and even the Taliban itself. The negotiations were a divisive topic among the militants, with Pakistan attempting to pressure Taliban members it can influence to attempt a settlement, while hardliners were balking at the talks. 

The WorldPost spoke with Barnett Rubin of the Center on International Cooperation about the possible fallout of Omar's death. Rubin is is a former senior adviser to the special representative of the president for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the U.S. Department of State, and recently wrote on the impact of Omar's death for The New Yorker. 

How would you describe Mullah Omar’s role in the Taliban after his disappearance in 2001?

All Afghan political organizations have a problem of fractionalization and competition for leadership, which is aggravated by tribal competition among groups.

The Taliban overcame that problem by having a leader in Mullah Omar who had a religious role -- he was “Amir al-Mu’minin,” commander of the faithful, -- and the members of the Taliban swore a religious oath of loyalty to him. He had a kind of authority that no other Afghan leader had.

So, even during the period when Mullah Omar was not alive, they could keep issuing statements from time to time, and those statements were authoritative.

There are reports they appointed a new leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. It remains to be seen whether people will follow him in the same way they followed Mullah Omar.

What do we know about Mansour?

Well apparently he’s quite fat. The most important thing about him may be that he comes from the Ishaqzai tribe.

That tribe didn’t have a lot of land or strong tribal leaders, so many of its members went into the clergy and it became powerful within the Taliban. Mansour has support from that Ishaqzai network within the Taliban, which is significant. 

He was also the person to whom the Taliban's political office in Doha was directly reporting, so he’s been committed to a political settlement on the Taliban’s terms for some time.

How might Mullah Omar’s death affect the unity of the Taliban in Afghanistan?

There is a big tendency to overstate the fragmentation of the Taliban. Their operations are decentralized by necessity, but they have always had centralized policy guidance that commanders followed, by and large. 

If Mansour is able to exercise authority in a way comparable to Mullah Omar, that will be an antidote to fragmentation. 

If Mullah Omar has been dead for years, what group stood to benefit from releasing that information now, right before the peace talks were set to begin?

I would guess it would be the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They could believe that the Taliban's leadership will be weaker without Mullah Omar and that the Taliban's political office might not have the same kind of legitimacy to resist Pakistan as it previously did under Mullah Omar.

After Afghan President Ashraf Ghani came to Pakistan and really made concessions, the two countries started working on bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.

However, the leadership of the Taliban said that while it wasn't against negotiations, it wanted to do things its own way and only work through the group's political office in Doha. So Pakistan brought some Taliban leaders it controls to the meeting. But while they were authorized to attend, they weren't authoritized to negotiate anything.

That made it seem the Taliban was speaking different voices, and that may have been one reason that they finally couldn't avoid revealing that Mullah Omar had died. People were saying, ‘We want Mullah Omar to come and say what is the true position of the Taliban.’

Afghanistan and Pakistan could be thinking Mullah Omar's death will make it easier for those high-ranking Taliban members who support a negotiation process to participate in talks, even amid opposition from the political office.

What are some possible routes the peace process could take from this point on after Mullah Omar’s death? 

If Pakistan were willing to relinquish a certain degree of control and allow meetings to take place outside of Pakistan, in say China or Qatar, then there’s a pretty good chance that the political office of the Taliban would participate.

They're the entity that has the authority to negotiate on behalf of the Taliban, and that will presumably continue under Mansour. There could be potential for a meaningful agreement if Pakistan applies the right kind of pressure.

On the other hand, it could also be that the Taliban does not accept Mansour’s leadership and a kind of power struggle breaks out.

As an insurance policy against that, Mansour has two deputies. One of them is from the powerful Haqqani network of the Taliban, and the other is Mullah Omar’s 26-year-old son. So they have, much like the Afghan government, a kind of national unity leadership.

This interview took place on Thursday. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Aug 01, 2015
Barnett Rubin