AL Qaeda Pledges Allegiance To New Taliban Leader
Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour
NEW DELHI: Shortly after the Taliban confirmed that its long time leader Mullah Omar was dead, signs emerged indicating that all was not well in the unwieldy group. Omar’s death removed a unifying figure for the militant cadre, with reports suggesting that the new leader -- Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour -- did not have everyone’s support. Mansour recently however received a much needed pledge of allegiance -- that from the Al Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri allegedly finally broke his silence and promised loyalty to Mansour. "We pledge our allegiance ... to the commander of the faithful, Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansour, may God protect him," said a non independently verified recorded message. "As leader of the al Qaeda organization for jihad, I offer our pledge of allegiance, renewing the path of Sheikh Osama [bin Laden] and the devoted martyrs in their pledge to the commander of the faithful, the holy warrior Mullah Omar."
Al Qaeda has shared a symbiotic relationship with the Taliban, having repeatedly pledged loyalty to Omar. Mansour took over the leadership of the Taliban recently, with a lack of clarity on whether that recently refers to a few weeks ago or a couple of years. The official Taliban position is that Omar died a few weeks ago, but other reports, including those of Afghan officials, state that Omar died at least two years ago. Many believe that Mansour has been effectively running the Taliban for years, whilst Omar was either dead or indisposed.
Mansour was officially appointed leader last month, but not without opposition. Omar’s younger brother recorded a message saying his family did not endorse the successor; reports indicated that over a dozen Taliban members staged a walkout during the council where Mansour was elected; the BBC even quoted a Taliban spokesperson saying that Mansour had not been appointed "by all Taliban", going against Sharia law.
Al Qaeda’s endorsement, therefore, could give Mansour’s legitimacy as leader a boost. This is especially important for two reasons. One, the Taliban had finally agreed -- for the first time in thirteen years -- to talks with the Afghan government. Mansour has ties with Pakistan, and this probably went a long way in enabling the talks, as Pakistan and Afghanistan worked to reapproach ties and the former used its influence over the Taliban leadership to push for dialogue.
Since news of Omar’s death, however, the talks have faced major setbacks, effectively being put on hold. The confirmation of the death would only embolden the cadre that was opposed to talks with the Afghan government in the first place.
This has already had major repercussions, with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani doing a volte face on engagement with Pakistan, itting out at the neighbouring country categorically for the first time. The Afghan President accused Pakistan of sending "messages of war" and harbouring bomb-making camps, adding that Pakistan had failed to reign in the Taliban.
“Pakistan still remains a venue and ground for gatherings from which mercenaries send us messages of war," Ghani said. "The last few days have shown that suicide bomber training camps and bomb-producing factories which are killing our people are as active as before in Pakistan. We can no longer see our people bleeding in a war that is exported from outside."
Ghani’s sharp rebuke of Pakistan signals a change in tactic, and puts in jeopardy the entire peace process -- which was enabled by Pakistan’s improved relationship with Afghanistan.
Pakistan, in turn, turned a cold shoulder toward Afghanistan recently, with a high level designation from Afghanistan being told to resume peace talks when they visited Islamabad to try and engage Pakistan on the issue of cross-border terrorism.
Another indication that all was not well after the news of Omar’s death was the immediate increase in violence, with the weekend following the news seeing a wave of attacks that claimed over a 100 lives. This included three separate bombings in the capital Kabul in one day that killed at least 77 people and a suicide bombing targeting a militia in the northern province of Kunduz that killed at least 29.
All this is significant for a third reason. In recent months, the Islamic State has begun gaining a foothold in Afghanistan. Although it is important not to exaggerate the presence of the Islamic State in South Asia, where it still holds limited influence, the fact of the matter is that disenchanted Taliban cadre who disagree with the prospect of talks now do have an alternative that they could possibly turn to, albeit a very fledgling alternative at this stage.
Recently, the Taliban issued a strong condemnation of a graphic Islamic State video allegedly showing the murder of Afghan prisoners. The video was reportedly shot in Nangarhar, indicating that Islamic State fighters are present in the area. “A horrific video was released yesterday showing kidnappers who associate themselves with Daesh [a derogatory term for IS] brutally martyring several white-bearded tribal elders and villagers with explosives,” the statement on the Taliban website read. “This offence and other such brutal actions by a few irresponsible ignorant individuals under the guise of Islam and Muslims are intolerable.”
Although the extent of the Islamic State’s influence remains unknown, and like mentioned above, exaggerating its presence will be a mistake -- the group has definitely set its sights on South Asia. The Islamic State announced its expansion into “Khorassan Province” and officially appointed Hafiz Saeed Khan as the Wali (Governor) of Khorassan. The group also appointed former Guantanamo Bay detainee and senior Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim as Khan’s deputy. The appointments and announcements followed a video released in January 2015 -- by disgruntled Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants and a handful of little-known Afghan Taliban fighters -- that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
With Omar gone, there is a possibility that these disgruntled defecting fighters may increase -- whether they turn to the Islamic State or elsewhere is a secondary outcome.