What Could Mullah Mohammad Omar’s Death Mean for the Taliban Talks?
This article was originally published by The New Yorker on July 28.
Since he fled Kandahar on the back of a motorcycle, in December, 2001, Mullah Mohammad Omar, whom the Taliban he led called “Amir al-Mu’minin,” Commander of the Faithful, never appeared in public. If he was trying to elude pursuers, he succeeded: no one took up the U.S. on its offer of ten million dollars, under the Rewards for Justice Program, for information leading to his location or capture. He communicated publicly with his followers and the world only through statements issued twice a year, on the festivals of Eid al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, at the end of the Hajj. Whether or not Mullah Omar wrote or approved these statements himself, they constituted the most authoritative statements of Taliban policy. The most recent statement, a few days before this year’s Eid al-Fitr, which fell on July 17th, attracted even more than the usual attention, as it endorsed negotiations to end the conflict in Afghanistan. Such talks had seemed to start at a meeting in Murree, Pakistan, between delegations of the Afghan government and the Taliban, on July 7th. But then, on July 29th, news filtered out from multiple sources that Mullah Omar had died more than two years earlier. So who was negotiating with the Afghan government and under what authority?
The U.S. held intermittent meetings with the Taliban Political Commission from November, 2010, to January, 2012. Mullah Omar had reportedly authorized this political commission to carry out both international and domestic outreach when it was founded, in 2008. The Taliban suspended the talks in March, 2012, after U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales killed sixteen people in their beds, including nine children, in the Panjwai District of Kandahar Province, home to many in the Taliban leadership. An attempt to open an office for the political commission in Doha, Qatar, on June 18, 2013, and restart negotiations failed. When the Taliban displayed symbols of their deposed government at the inauguration, the United States asked Qatar to close it. The commission remained in Doha, however, working unofficially.
Along with the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), Jim Dobbins, I met with Mohammed Umer Daudzai, then the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, on June 25, 2013. (I had been senior adviser to the SRAP since the late Richard Holbrooke, the first to hold the office, brought me on board, in 2009.) With the Qatar office closed, Daudzai offered some ideas on how to continue the search for a political settlement. A man with a trim beard and a mischievous sense of humor, he recounted his efforts to persuade the Pakistani military to arrange a meeting between the Afghan government and Taliban leaders in Pakistan. The Pakistanis, he said, claimed they did not control the Taliban. Daudzai prodded them, saying that was too simple—There are some Taliban you don’t control at all and who hate you. There are some you can influence, even if they don’t trust you. And there are some Taliban you do control. At least, Daudzai asked, organize a meeting between the Afghan government and some Taliban you control. That seems to be what Pakistan did on July 7, 2015.
Ashraf Ghani was inaugurated as the second president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on September 29, 2014, after a disputed election that was resolved only when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a power-sharing agreement between Ghani and his competitor, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Ghani, who had left Kabul to study at the American University of Beirut and then Columbia University, where he earned a doctorate in anthropology, was a co-author of the book “Fixing Failed States,” which drew on his experience working at the World Bank and as a special adviser to the United Nations.
Ghani approached the challenge of peacemaking in Afghanistan as, first, an issue between states. “The problem, fundamentally, is not about peace with Taliban,” Ghani told an audience in Washington, D.C., in March, 2015. “The problem is fundamentally about peace between Pakistan and Afghanistan.” He immediately set about shaping the environment for negotiations with Pakistan.
Ghani’s first two official visits were to the two countries with the most influence in Pakistan, having provided financial and technical assistance to the country’s nuclear-weapons program. Less than a month after his inauguration, he went to Saudi Arabia, which had been waging an internal war against Al Qaeda for ten years and sought to weaken it further by encouraging the Taliban to renounce its alliance. A few days later, he touched down in China, where the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region had been the site of terrorist attacks connected to a separatist movement, some of whose fighters received training in Pakistan and Afghanistan. China had subsequently come to regard the stability of Afghanistan as crucial to its internal security, as well as its economic future. The first wave of Chinese growth was based on labor-intensive exports from the Pacific coastal region, but as it slowed the leadership sought to invest in the central and western regions of the country, including Xinjiang. These landlocked areas could not develop without direct access to energy and raw materials, through routes that instability in Afghanistan or Pakistan could disrupt. At the end of the summit between Ghani and Xi Jinping, in October, 2014, China pledged to support an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace and reconciliation process.
Two weeks later, Ghani visited Pakistan, where he told Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif that it was time to end “thirteen years of undeclared hostilities.” He offered to address all the concerns the Pakistan military had about Afghanistan. Ghani would withdraw a request his predecessor had made for heavy weapons from India, and he proposed unprecedented transparency and cooperation between the two states’ military and intelligence agencies. He ordered the Afghan Army into battle against elements of the Pakistani Taliban that had taken refuge in Afghanistan, and he agreed to a long-standing Pakistani request for Afghanistan to send officer cadets to be trained at the Pakistan Military Academy, in Abbottabad. He also proposed establishing jointly operated border checkpoints, to promote the regulated movement of people and goods.
These concessions went far beyond what Afghanistan’s public, with its visceral distrust of and anger at the Pakistani military, was prepared for. As Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai has said, “People in Afghanistan believe that whoever launches attacks on the security forces, kills tribal elders, and burns schools has roots in Pakistan and they view this as an undeclared war.” Ghani needed equal concessions from Pakistan, including military and intelligence operations to blunt the Taliban’s planned spring offensive and put pressure on the group to negotiate directly with the Afghan government.
But the Taliban leadership avoided and delayed answering Pakistan’s request to enter into direct talks with the Afghan government. Its consistent position had been that it would enter into talks with “other Afghans,” including the government, only after completing confidence-building measures with the United States, including the official opening of the political office and the removal of the Taliban from lists like Rewards for Justice. Instead of complying with Pakistan, on April 24th of this year the Taliban announced its largest spring offensive ever, with no apparent opposition from Pakistan. Former President Hamid Karzai called Ghani’s proposed memorandum of understanding on intelligence cooperation with Pakistan “an atrocious betrayal of the people of Afghanistan.” Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, and Army Chief General Raheel Sharif rushed to Kabul on May 12th in an attempt to halt the rapid deterioration of relations.
Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (I.S.I.) hastily did what Ambassador Umer Daudzai of Afghanistan had proposed back in 2013: it flew three former Taliban leaders under its control to Urumqi, China, the capital of Xinjiang. The three—Mullah Abdul Jalil, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Rahmani, and Mullah Abdul Razaq—had formerly served as deputy minister of foreign affairs, governor of Kandahar, and minister of the interior, respectively, but they had no connections to the Taliban Political Commission and no current influence in the Taliban hierarchy. On May 19th and 20th, with observers from the I.S.I. and China’s Ministry of State Security present, they met a delegation from Kabul. The Taliban were quick to disavow the meeting, posting an official statement on their Web site rejecting “rumors” that a “delegation of Islamic Emirate met with representatives of Kabul administration’s fake peace council in Urumqi city of China.”
Even as the I.S.I. put increasing pressure on the Taliban leadership in Pakistan to meet with the Afghan government, the Taliban’s official Pakistan-based spokesman reasserted, on June 24th, that the political office in Doha “is responsible for handling all the internal and external political activities related to the Islamic Emirate.” But the Taliban’s deputy leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, eventually felt the weight of Pakistan’s pressure and authorized senior Taliban leaders to meet with an official Afghan delegation, on July 7th, at the Golf Club, in the resort town of Murree, outside of Islamabad. The Afghan delegation was led by Haji Din Muhammad, a senior member of the High Peace Council. The Taliban present were Mullah Abbas Akhund, who headed the delegation, Abdul Latif Mansur, and Ibrahim Haqqani. Abbas and Latif Mansur were reputed to have belonged to the Taliban’s liaison committee with the I.S.I., while Haqqani represented a part of the Taliban that Admiral Michael Mullen, the American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had called“a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency” in Congressional testimony on September 22, 2011. No member of the Taliban political office attended. The meeting was chaired by a Pakistani diplomat, with observers from the top ranks of the I.S.I. and mid-level observers from the U.S. and China.
According to the Afghan and Pakistani governments, the two sides agreed on the need for confidence-building measures, and scheduled another meeting for after Ramadan. China, the U.S., and the U.N. described the meeting as a breakthrough, the first direct meeting between “authorized” delegations of the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Taliban spokesman based in Pakistan did not comment. Instead, the day after the meeting, the Taliban announced that the Political Commission had been granted “full capacity and agency powers” over negotiations. The commission then issued a tweet stating that it alone was authorized for talks, and had not met with representatives of the “Kabul administration.” In an interview with the pro-Taliban Pashto-language Web site Nun.Asia (Asia Today), the commission’s spokesperson, Naim Wardak, said that the Taliban delegates had participated in the talks as “hostages” of Pakistan. On July 9th, an article was published on the Taliban Web site, only to disappear four hours later. “When the dust settles,” it said, “the much hailed talks between Taliban officials and Ghani-administration officials in Islamabad will be revealed as nothing more than Pakistan delivering a few individuals from the Islamic Emirate to speak in their personal capacity.” The Political Office, too, wanted negotiations, but on the Taliban’s terms, and without the involvement of Pakistan.
For the first time the Taliban, founded to end factionalism, were speaking with multiple voices, some manipulated by Pakistan more obviously than ever. Since only the hidden Mullah Omar could settle which was the true voice of the Taliban, the question of his authority became pressing. Some Taliban leaders, notably Akhtar Muhammad Mansur’s rival Zakir, whom he dismissed as military chief in April, 2014, had for years contested Mansur’s claim to lead in the name of Mullah Omar. On July 1st, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which had long recognized Mullah Omar as its amir, issued a public statementasserting that Mullah Omar was dead and shifting its allegiance to the Islamic State. On July 23rd a Taliban splinter group, Fidai Mahaz, posted on Facebookthat Mullah Omar had been killed by Akhtar Muhammad Mansur and Taliban finance chief Gul Agha Ishaqzai in 2013. Several Afghan researchers and journalists reported that “a majority of Quetta Shura members have demanded that Mansour should take their representatives to meet Mullah Omar,” to quell doubts about whether he is alive and in command; on July 29th, multiple reports from Afghanistan and Pakistan claimed that he died in a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2013. The Quetta Shura reportedly was meeting to choose a successor, but it is questionable whether any successor, especially one chosen in Pakistan while the leadership is under such pressure from the I.S.I, would be accepted as legitimate.
Amid these controversies, Afghanistan and Pakistan appear to have tussled about the venue of the next meeting. A spokesperson for the Afghan High Peace Council announced that the next round of talks will take place on July 30th or 31st, probably in China, but ultimately Pakistan announced that it will be in Pakistan, on Friday, July 31st. Holding the talks outside Pakistan would make it much more likely that members of the Political Commission would attend, making the Taliban delegation more credible. That might be needed to deliver Ghani’s main objective, some kind of reduction in violence, such as a ceasefire. A ceasefire, even of limited duration, would enable Ghani to show Afghanistan’s war-weary but skeptical population that they will benefit from his concessions. The credibility of the delegation would make less difference if, as many Afghans think, the I.S.I., and not the Taliban leadership, controls Taliban military operations. In that case, Pakistan could deliver a cease-fire itself with the face-saving appearance of an agreement.
The death of Mullah Omar may allow Pakistan to put leaders it controls more fully in charge of the Taliban. It may also cause the Taliban to splinter. Some may stop fighting and enter the system, while others may join even more extremist groups, such as the Islamic State, and fight the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. If the two governments cannot gain the willing participation of most of the Taliban in the peace process, Kabul may demand that Islamabad use force to shut down whatever part of the Taliban’s military machine it does not control directly. But the Pakistani Army, which is already overstretched by its posture toward India, and by battles against the Pakistani Taliban, Baloch nationalists, and armed gangs in Karachi, will be reluctant to take on a battle-hardened Afghan group, some of whose members it hopes to use as future agents of influence.
These issues may at least temporarily draw the attention of high-level U.S. decision-makers back to Afghanistan, where they will find that they now need to coöperate closely with China. Till now, Washington has seemed stuck in 2009, entirely obsessed with troop numbers and timetables. U.S. mid-level officials have assisted and supported these talks, but at the highest levels the Administration still seems to view a settlement in Afghanistan as an exit strategy from an area where our interest is declining in step with our troop numbers. If the death of Mullah Omar draws high-level attention back to Afghanistan, Washington might realize that it is impossible to execute a “pivot to Asia” without continuing engagement in Afghanistan.