Taliban Appoints New Leader
NEW DELHI: The infamous and at one time seemingly indestructible Mullah Omar is dead. Omar has been reported dead several times, only to surface in the form of a statement soon after to prove everyone wrong. This time, however, the Taliban confirmed their leader’s death, appointing in his place long time deputy Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour.
"The shura held outside Quetta unanimously elected Mullah Mansour as the new emir of the Taliban," Reuters quoted a commander saying. "The shura will release a statement shortly." The group appointed Siraj Haqqani, leader of the powerful Haqqani militant faction, as deputy leader.
Mansour has since issued an audio message, calling for unity amongst the Taliban. The message said that the Taliban would "continue our jihad until we bring an Islamic rule in the country.”
Mansour is the group’s second leader, with Omar -- an elusive figure rarely seen in public -- having founded the group in the 1990s. Many believe that Mansour has been running the Quetta shura of the Taliban, and that Omar has long been dead.
The Afghan government, in fact, first reported Omar’s death, with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office saying that it believed "based on credible information" that Mullah Omar died in April 2013 in Karachi. A spokesperson for Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security, Abdul Hassib Sediqi, reiterated the above, saying, “We confirm officially that he is dead.” "He was very sick in a Karachi hospital and died suspiciously there," Sediqi said.
The Taliban immediately released a counter statement, which, surprisingly confirmed that Omar was dead. It, however, disagreed on the details, saying that Omar was never in Pakistan and had died in the last few weeks. “The leadership of the Islamic Emirate and the family of Mullah Omar... announce that leader Mullah Omar died due to a sickness,” the Taliban statement said, adding “his [Mullah Omar's] health condition deteriorated in the last two weeks.” “Not for a single day did he [Omar] go to Pakistan,” the statement reiterated.
The news of Omar’s death comes at a crucial time. The Pakistani government announced that peace talks between the insurgents and the Afghan government -- agreed to for the first time in thirteen years -- have been postponed. Pakistan cited reports of Omar's death as the reason for the delay in negotiations -- in what is a telling development regarding the future of peace in the region.
Here it is worth noting that Mansour seems to have ties with Pakistan, and if the rumours that Omar died at least two years ago are indeed true … it would mean that Mansour has led the peace initiative with the Afghan government.
That said, Omar’s death deals a severe blow to the Taliban, removing a unified figure at a time that the group is riddled with factions -- especially over the prospect of talks with the Afghan government. The BBC, in fact, quoted a Taliban spokesperson saying that Mansour had not been appointed "by all Taliban", going against Sharia law. It is also unlikely that Mansour will command the same loyalty as his predecessor, thereby widening the rift between those who want to make peace with Kabul and those who want to continue the insurgency.
The talks, although at a very initial stage, have seen some progress, with Afghan delegations travelling in Islamabad to talk to the Taliban representatives. However, violence in Afghanistan continues unabated, as the Taliban steps up attacks as part of its “summer offensive.” In fact, the number of civilian casualties have risen high enough to put 2015 on track to become the worst year yet in the conflict torn country.
The above scenario raises two important points: one) given the upswing in violence, talks are more crucial than ever, and two) the ground for peace is more solid under the new government led by President Ashraf Ghani -- who, unlike his predecessor, is open to making concessions that would facilitate talks; this includes the huge concession in the form of improving relations with neighbouring Pakistan.
In regard to the first point, in its annual report released earlier in the year, the UN Mission in Afghanistan has said that the number of civilians killed or wounded in the troubled country climbed by 22 percent in 2014 to reach the highest level since 2009. Figures for 2015 show a similar upward trend. The UN agency documented 10,548 civilian casualties in 2014, the highest number of civilian deaths and injuries recorded in a single year since 2009. They include 3,699 civilian deaths, up 25 per cent from 2013 and 6,849 civilian injuries, up 21 per cent from 2013. Since 2009 -- when UNAMA began tracking casualties -- the armed conflict in Afghanistan has caused 47,745 civilian casualties with 17,774 Afghan civilians killed and 29,971 injured.
The UN says that Taliban militants were responsible for 72 per cent of all civilian casualties, with government forces and foreign troops responsible for 14 percent.
At one point, the peace talks looked set to fail as the Taliban vowed to push through with the “summer offensive” following the White House’s announcement that the United States will maintain its current 9800 troops in Afghanistan through the end of 2015, as opposed to an earlier plan of cutting the number to 5500. The Taliban reacted sharply to the statement with Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid saying, “This damages all the prospects for peace … This means the war will go on until they are defeated.”
Other factors also contributed to making the talks a difficult proposition. For one, the rift between the top two leaders of the militant group. The two in question are political leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who favors negotiation, and battlefield commander Abdul Qayum Zakir, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, who opposes any dialogue with the Afghan leadership. Sources state that the two met recently to address their personal differences, but no headway could be made on the issue of talks, with Zakir of the view that the Afghan government was illegitimate and that real power remained with the US any way.
The announcement of the change in plans of troop withdrawal tilted the position in favour of Zakir, with the Taliban command being clear from the start that the removal of foreign troops would be one of the prerequisites for the commencement of talks.
The talks, however, seemed to have pulled through, albeit only in the form of a start as of now. Months of informal and formal dialogue in Qatar, China, Norway and Dubai paved the way for the meeting in Oslo and the Afghan delegation visit to Islamabad.
Coming to point number two, i.e., Ghani conceding on Afghanistan’s relationship with Pakistan, it is worth noting that the latter is crucial to the talks owing to its leverage over the Taliban leadership. The two countries recently signed an agreement between Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) and Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).
Pakistan and Afghanistan have thus far shared a tense history, which the new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has set to improve, partly because of Pakistan’s influence over the insurgents. This influence, however, has been the main source of ammunition for Ghani’s anti-Pakistan critics, who are accusing the Afghan leader of sleeping with the enemy so to speak.
When Ghani came to power in September last year, he quickly signalled a change in policy. Ghani soon after being sworn-in visited Pakistan, and then Pakistan’s army chief and head of intelligence visited Kabul. Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tense equation had sunk to an all-time low under the presidency of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai had been openly critical of Pakistan -- accusing the neighbouring country of supporting the Afghan Taliban and providing refuge to the group’s leadership.
Ghani, unlike his predecessor, reached out to Pakistan. Delegations from the two countries made visits across the border; six Afghan army cadets were sent to Pakistan for training; military efforts were coordinated across the shared border; and Ghani and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif both issued statements in support of cooperation and bilateral ties.
The shift in policy seemed to be bearing fruit, in the form of talks. Pakistan’s support was the crucial factor in enabling talks. A report in The Express Tribune quoted an unnamed former top commander of the group saying, “Taliban officials, who had been involved in talks with the Pakistanis and the Chinese, and had sought time for consultations with the senior leaders, have received a green signal from the leadership,” adding that “Pakistani officials had advised Taliban leaders to sit face-to-face with the Afghan government and put their demands to find out a political solution to the problem.” The same report quoted another unnamed Taliban source confirming the report and adding that “a small delegation will be visiting Pakistan in days for consultations” to be able to take the discussion with the Afghan government forward.
Then Ghani’s trip to Washington happened, where US President Barack Obama announced the decision to slow troop withdrawal. The Taliban, in turn, issued a statement vowing to continue fighting. "This damages all the prospects for peace, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said of the announcement. “This means the war will go on until they are defeated.”
In fact, Ghani’s predicament -- of needing the US and wanting to begin a dialogue with the Taliban -- is reflected in a statement made by the Afghan President whilst in Washington. Ghani issued an apology -- of sorts -- to the Taliban. He said that peace with the militants was “essential” and that some Taliban members suffered legitimate grievances. "People were falsely imprisoned, people were tortured. They were tortured in private homes or private prisons," Ghani said (as reported by Reuters). “How do you tell these people that you are sorry?" he added.
All this has been the source of much criticism. In an interview with The Guardian, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- said that the country’s historic struggles against British imperialism and Soviet invasion will have been in vain if it succumbs to pressure from Pakistan.
This view was echoed by Karzai’s associates who sat in on the interview. Rangin Dadfar Spanta, a former foreign minister and national security adviser said that the policy amounts to the humiliating “appeasement” of a hostile power who would never change its ways. In a similar vein, Omar Daudzai, one of the most influential officials of the Karzai era who served as chief of staff and interior minister, predicts, “There could be a bloody summer, there will be fighting and there will be disappointments on the dialogue table from time to time.” Daudzai, a former ambassador to Islamabad, added that whilst he thought Ghani’s attempts to woo Pakistan were “courageous,” they would ultimately fail to change the country’s behaviour. “He has taken controversial steps that his predecessor didn’t take, and now we have to wait to see whether the Pakistani side is sincere or not,” he said. “But I am far more sceptical than I ever was before about Pakistan’s sincerity.”
And this is by no means an isolated view. An important figure within Afghanistan, Karzai echoes a distrust that runs deep with the Afghan people. Ghani, therefore, will inevitably -- sooner rather than later -- begin to face pressure in showing that his policy translates into results beneficial to Afghanistan.
Given all of the above, a change in Taliban leadership is more significant now than ever. Will the already fractious Taliban remain ‘united’ (to the extent possible) given Omar’s death? It remains to be seen.