This week the news media buzzed about the Afghan government’s announcement that the Taliban’s long time leader Mullah Omar died from illness. In fact, some sources claim that he had died in 2013. There are conflicting reports about whether he died in Afghanistan or in a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan. Of course, Pakistan is denying the latter version. If true, then that would be yet another huge embarrassment for Pakistan, following the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and the U.S. targeted assassination of the Al Qaeda leader. The timing of announcing Mullah Omar’s death, and the internal wrangling among senior Taliban leaders that followed the announcement, are all very telling.
First, it begs the question: Is this a major intelligence failure? Or, have world powers including the U.S. been aware of Mullah Omar’s demise in 2013? If so, then why keep it a secret for so long? Second, why should Pakistan’s denials be taken at face value, given the bin Laden legacy? Third, who leaked this news about his death? Fourth, no doubt the source of the leak is aware of the fragility of the current Afghan-Taliban peace talks taking place. Does that mean the leak is intended to derail the so-called peace talks? Fifth, Mullah Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, a close confidant to Mullah Omar, is also very close to the Haqqani Network, which the U.S. considers a dangerous terrorist organization, and frequently targets its leadership with drone strikes. In fact, Siraj Haqqani has been appointed as Mullah Mansour’s deputy, which is a major chess move.
The situation in the Af-Pak region is extremely complicated, and it’s only getting worse with the changing dynamics and configurations involving a mindboggling number of militias, warlords, religious extremists and militants, drug traffickers, criminal elements, and corrupt officials. And now thrown into the mix we have, supposedly, an ISIS cell opening shop there too. Hence, what we see on the surface is much more complex underneath. Mullah Omar’s death and the belated announcement is not only the tip of the iceberg; it’s a symptom of the massive and violent glaciers and fault-lines that lie underneath, ready to explode or implode at any moment.
Consider the internal dynamics of the Afghan Taliban. According to the BBC News, Mullah Mansour’s appointment as the new Taliban leader did not come from consensus, which means that the Taliban are very divided. A Taliban faction prefers Mullah Omar’s son, Yaqub, to take his father’s mantle. Sounds familiar, no? That echoes the split between Sunnis and Shias that happened some 1400 years ago. The patterns and trends that drive schisms within Islamic extremist groups never grow old.
Mullah Mansour favors the peace talks with the Afghan government. Not all Taliban members agree with this move. And, interestingly, unlike Mullah Omar who held the title “Emir al-Mu’mineen” (“Commander of the Faithful,” a very important appellation in Islamic history), Mullah Mansour is called the “Supreme Leader.” To make matters more confusing, Iran’s Ayatollah Khamene’i bears the title Supreme Leader, and the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi calls himself Emir al-Mu’mineen.
Competition among Islamic militant/terrorist groups is fierce, clearly both between and within them. However, while this configuration might seem ideal for the divide-and-conquer strategy that many governments employ, we should not be fooled to think, for a moment, that this is the end of the Taliban. They will regroup, they might have break-off factions appear here and there, but in general the Taliban are not going anywhere in the Af-Pak region. If anything, the fact that the Afghan government is engaging in peace talks with the Taliban indicates that they are a force and entity to contend with, warts and all.
Oh, and one more thing about Mullah Mansour, during the Taliban reign in the mid-1990s, he was actively serving as a minister in the Taliban government, and, according to BBC News, “he had an active role in drug trafficking” (“Mullah Omar: Taliban choose deputy Mansour as successor ,”BBC News, July 30, 2015).
In light of this, consider the following passage excerpted from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) April 30, 2015 Quarterly Report (page 46):
“The U.S. government has spent over $8 billion since 2001 on a diverse set of counternarcotics initiatives aimed at reducing the amount of opium poppy that is grown in Afghanistan; reducing the assistance insurgent forces receive from the proceeds of opium trafficking; and reducing the consumption and export of opium products. Counternarcotics initiatives include eradicating opium poppies in farmers’ fields; seizing and destroying harvested opium and refined heroin; arresting and prosecuting drug traffickers; providing alternative crops and income sources to the people who rely on poppy cultivation for their livelihood; campaigning to reduce local demand for opium; and building Afghan capacity to reduce poppy cultivation with less international assistance. However, these efforts have not achieved the overarching objective of reducing the supply of opium in Afghanistan. In fact, opium poppy cultivation has risen dramatically from 8,000 hectares in 2001 to 224,000 hectares in 2014.”
The playing field for the variety of militants and warlords in the Af-Pak region has only expanded in recent years. The Taliban recognize their competition – both internal and external – yet they remain active in carrying out violent attacks in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Also, Mullah Mansour is shrewdly allied with the Haqqani network, which could be highly beneficial for both.
Plus, Afghanistan and the U.S. and ISAF/NATO allies have numerous Achilles heels when it comes to their efforts in Afghanistan. For example, on the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) side, the picture is far from rosy. The SIGAR report (pages 3-4) tells a troubling set of facts:
“SIGAR has issued two audit reports that highlight the challenges the United States faces in gathering reliable information about the total size of the ANSF, reported as of February 20, 2015, to number 328,805 personnel. A new SIGAR audit of the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) personnel and payroll data, as well as one released in January of the Afghan National Police’s (ANP) personnel and payroll data, found no assurance that these data are accurate.
Without reliable data on ANSF strength, the United States cannot determine whether the billions it has spent on recruiting, training, equipping, and sustaining the ANSF since fiscal year (FY) 2002 has been spent properly, or accurately calculate what additional funding may be needed.
… Numbers provide a basis for budgeting and planning—including planning the pace of U.S. and other Coalition forces’ drawdown from Afghanistan.
SIGAR’s audit of ANA personnel data illustrates the cause for concern. A team of SIGAR auditors made unannounced visits to the headquarters of the Afghan National Army’s 207th Corps in Herat Province and the 209th Corps in Balkh Province, and the Afghan Air Force (AAF) air wing based in Kabul. The auditors collected information on 134 service personnel present for duty. Of these, the identities of only 103 could be verified against ANA personnel data. One in nine had no ANA identification card. Of 35 persons present at Balkh, only 23 had an ANA ID card, and five were not listed in the ANSF human-resources database.”
There is much hope and support pinned on Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to turn the security situation around, which would allow U.S. and Coalition troops to draw down significantly. In that spirit, President Ghani has conveyed a message to the Taliban. He is quoted as saying, “The Taliban need to choose not to be al Qaeda, and be Afghan.” For now, Mullah Omar’s death announcement has thrown a wrench into that process, while countless other ominous militant groups wait in the wings. Don’t hold your breath.
Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in National Security Affairs.
The views expressed are personal.