Quo vadis Taliban – What happens next after the ‘official death’ of its supreme leader Mullah Muhammad Omar?

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At the end of July 2015, in the aftermath of the second round of the ‘official’ peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the Taliban finally verified the death of its creator, commander and spiritual leader Mullah Muhammad Omar (DW, 30.7.2015). Omar was also the ‘Head of the Supreme Council’ of the Taliban during their rule in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 (Waraich, 31.7.2015). Before he died he appeared to give his authorisation for the first round of peace talks earlier this month. However, as his successor, Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, got appointed after a shura held outside Quetta (Pakistan) the Taliban unanimously elected him as the “new emir of the Taliban” (DW, 30.7.2015). Generally he got portrayed as a pragmatic and protagonist of negotiations for a political settlement to end the ongoing armed insurgency of the Taliban and affiliated groups to topple the western-backed government in Kabul (cf. Siddique, 21.4.2014; Withnall, 30.7.2015). This created – temporarily – new hopes for peace in the war-ridden country.

However, the appointment of Mansoor also creates much room for further concerns and uncertainties. Many analysts point out that Mansoor might lack leadership legitimacy and subsequently did not owe full support of the whole Afghan Taliban movement (cf. Crowcroft, 30.7.2015). The major reason therefore is that the new ‘head of the supreme council’ jointed the movement only after the successful war against the occupying forces of the Soviet Union, the elimination of most of the Taliban rivals in the country, and the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. For the moment, the peace talks between the insurgency and the Afghan government have been postponed and no new date is given yet (DW, 30.7.2015; Withnall, 30.7.2015).

However, even before the ‘official confirmation’ of his death several questions appeared: Who is actually controlling the Taliban at the moment? Which impacts has this notification on the cohesiveness of the Taliban movement? Is the power-base of the ‘new supreme leader’ strong enough to keep the Talban movement together? What will happen next to the latest peace initiative?

Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor: Background, standing, and power base

Compared to the legend of Mullah Muhammad Omar, who successfully fought the Soviet troops, vanquished competing armed groups in a decade long civil war, as well as implementing the Taliban’s vision of an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, of course a younger leader like Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor lacks the mystique and prestige of an outstanding veteran battlefield commander (cf. Saifullah, 31.7.2015; Wolf, 31.7.2015). Additionally, Mansoor was always morea political than a military figure within the Taliban movement; a feature which will not help him to improve his socio-political, spiritual status among his compatriots, at least not in a short-term perspective (cf. Johnson, 31.7.2015). However, during the last years he was able to benefit from the leadership vacuum which open up after the fall of the Taliban regime and the subsequent ‘taking out’ of many Taliban top echelons (cf. Johnson, 31.7.2015).

Consequently, he immerged quickly as Omar’s deputy and built-up his position within the movement (cf. The Independent, 30.7.2015). Through a double strategy of placing his loyal allies up and down the ranks as well as successfully eliminating rival Taliban leaders challenging him (cf. Rosenberg, 28.12.2014; Wolf, 31.7.2015), Mansoor cunningly expand his network and powerbase (Johnson, 31.7.2015). There is no doubt that he profited a lot from the absence and silence of Mullah Omar. In fact, during the last three years Mansoor was persistently absorbing decision-making power by taking over most of the day-to-day business (cf. Saifullah, 31.7.2015).

In result, Omar’s influence was waning and reducing him to a symbolic figure, whereas Mansoor were increasingly calling the real shots, at least the political ones (cf. Rosenberg 28.12.2014). In this context, one should also mention that Mansoor obviously enjoys remarkable support from Pakistan intelligence agency, ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence). In contrast to other Taliban leaders, especially the so called ‘Taliban Five’[1] he maintained a working relationship with ISI (cf. Johnson, 31.7.2015). However, one has to wait and see if his power is enough to hold the movement together.

Internal power struggles, the advent of IS and Taliban’s identity Crisis

The start of ‘official’ peace talks with the Afghan government, the confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death and the appointment of Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor are definitely pointing at crucial transitions and significant power shifts within the Taliban movement (cf. Saifulah, 31.7.2015; Wolf, 31.5.2015). Both are processes which started already a couple of years ago. Many Taliban fighters become increasingly confused about the disappearance of Mullah Omar (cf. Sengupta/Sarwary, 29.7.2015). Since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the ‘supreme leader’ was not seen in the public. The – over the years – confirmed rumours that their ‘official commander’ took safe shelter in a reclusive, secret place in neighbouring Pakistan was not well taken by many Taliban at the Afghan battlefield (cf. Rosenberg, 28.12.2014; Sengupta/Sarwary, 29.7.2015). The fact that he continued to be silent in the last two years (and not receiving anybody), whereas the Taliban movement was not only in war with foreign troops and the Afghan government but also suffering from severe internal power struggles and a growing rivalry with IS as a new ideological and military rival was adding to the growing frustration (cf. Rosenberg, 28.12.2014).

There is no doubt that this power shift was also driven by Pakistan’s security establishment, favouring the rise of Mullah Mansoor (as well as competing rivals) in order to maintain and/or regain control over the Afghan Taleban (cf. Johnson, 31.7.2015), which turned out to be relatively reluctant towards Islamabad after their sized power in Kabul in 1996 (cf. Wolf, 20.4.2012). However, Mansoor’s major challenge is to strike a deal with the Afghan government, at the same time convincing the hardliners to stop fighting as well as holding the movement together. This will be even more difficult with the advent of the IS in Afghanistan and the import of a total new level of violence and brutality (cf. Crowcroft, 30.7.2015). All these events together are creating an extremely toxic atmosphere in which it will be very difficult to avoid crucial frictions within the movement.

Being disenchanted about the future course, goals and strategies of the Taliban movement, many of the Taliban fighters are convinced that Mullah Omar as leader is irreplaceable (cf. Sengupta/Sarwary, 29.7.2015). In this context, it is important to note that the Taliban movement consists of a relatively small group of highly motivated activists which functions as the ideological leadership which holds together the more or less loose social base. Undeniably, the Taliban consists of numerous groups and task forces with differentiation in armed organization, tactics and local interests. Therefore, one can state that the Taliban movement is not stringently organised. But despite the highly decentralised character, until recently the Taliban possesses a discernible organizational structure based on informal personal networks of fighters, workers, and supporters created by reputed, charismatic leaders. These networks can be found on different levels: from local to district, province and national level up to the top leadership also called the Quetta Shura (cf. Siddique, 21.4.2014). These individual leaders, who are positioned on different levels within the Taliban’s ‘hierarchical order’, gather fighters and supporters and therefore form the scaffolding of the movement. It is important to understand that each of the subordinated level pays respect and obedience to the higher level. At the top of this hierarchical system of loyalty-based personalised structures is the spiritual leader, the Amir ul-Momineen Mullah Mohammed Omar cf. Siddique, 21.4.2014). However, after the confirmation of his death, the movement is finding itself in a deep identity crisis (cf. Saifullah, 31.7.2015), questioning the whole leadership and organisational structure of the Taliban. After losing their spiritual leader, as such the major source of collective identity, there is a growing confusion about who were the Taliban fighting for and why they are fighting (cf. Sengupta/Sarwary, 29.7.2015).

However, one should not misinterpret this ‘identity crisis’ as the willing of giving up the armed struggle. In contrast, in search of a new, strong leadership and a clear ideological orientation, they are getting increasingly attracted by IS. In consequence, one can most likely experience severe fragmentation, an increasing number of defections and split ups from the (main) Taliban movement (cf. Saifullah, 2015; Ahmad, 31.7.2015). The success of IS in Pakistan by winning over Taliban fighters shows that Mansoor can’t take the loyalty of his fighters for granted.

If Mansoor is not able to solve this identity crisis by establishing him or one of his trustworthy, loyal compatriots as new spiritual leader or to find another source which could serve as ‘kit and glue’ for the movement, there will be the imminent threat that the Afghan Taliban will fall apart in individual splitter groups or factions (cf. Wolf, 31.7.2015). These groups could operate either independently from each other, perhaps with different changing alliances and/or they continue as more or less loose ‘confederation’. Also the option that many of them are getting absorbed by IS, or other regional power centers, militias, etc., is very likely.

The Taliban movement in transition? Mansoor in a ‘catch-22’ situation

Since Mansoor has the reputation of a pragmatist, the Afghan government of Mohammad Ashraf Ghani as well as the international community is hoping that the new Taliban leader believes in peace (cf. Saifullah 31.7.2015). However, there are several reasons to be cautioned about such statements: First of all, he still needs to prove himself as the ‘unchallenged’ leader of the Taliban. Second, in this context he has to convince his critics as well as the substantial numbers of hard-liners who rather prefer to fight than to talk. Third, Mansoor has an unfortunate record when it comes to peace negotiation: his alleged involvement in first secrets meetings with US officials in 2010 turned out to be farce.

Finally, one has to be aware that Mansoor has a history of being a ‘hard-liner’, especially by opposing any talks with former Afghan president Hamid Karzai and his ‘foreign puppet government’ (cf. Johnson, 31.7.2015) Besides he is known for more moderate, limited demands in former initiatives for ‘peace talks’, he only ‘soften’ his view points within the movement in late 2012 (cf. The Independent, 30.7.2015; Filkins/Gall, 22.11.2010).

Furthermore, one should always keep in mind that he is a ruthless, stone-hard ‘political strategist’. When he is convinced that a more radical stand would serve to manifest his position within the movement’s inner- and outer relations, it can be expected that it take him not too long to switch again to a more hard-line stand. However, he is also aware that his strength within the Taliban movement is heavily depends on the support from Pakistan. As such, he will most likely not depart from Pakistan’s position. Against this backdrop, one must also take into account China’s new active role in the Af-Pak region (cf. Small, 2015; Domínguez15.1.2015).

Beijing’s pressure on Islamabad to exercise its influence in favour of peace and stability as first priority (instead of establishing a pro-Pakistani government and keeping India out) will limit Mansoor’s room to manoeuvre too. In view of the on-going China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the massive Chinese financial support for Pakistan, one can expect that Pakistan’s establishment will make sure that Mansoor continues to keep the hard-liners at bay (cf. Small, 2015; Domínguez15.1.2015). Nevertheless, when Mansoor is not able to get the hard-liners, who want to continue the armed struggle, under his sway, there is the likelihood that he might be rather sooner than later in a kind of ‘catch-22-Situation’: In order to stabilize his position he needs the support from Pakistan which seems it changed his calculus towards the support for peace negotiation. However, this will bring him in direct confrontation with the ‘radical pole’ of the movement which could lead to severe fragmentation and defections of Taliban fighters to IS (cf. Saifullah, 31.7.2015). Latter phenomenon would make any peace deal even more difficult and a ceasefire impossible.

Conclusion – No peace for Afghanistan

There is a ‘theoretical chance’ for a peace agreement, at least on paper. However, the remaining questions are:  what concrete impacts have the confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death had on the coherence of the Taliban and who will benefit from fissures within the movement. Taking into account that the ‘peace talks’ got immediately postponed can be seen as an indication that the negation process for political settlement of the conflict will be hampered rather than strengthen by Omar’s ‘official death’ (cf. Haider, 30.7.2015). Nevertheless, even if Mansoor is able to work out a deal with Ghani’s administration, one must doubt if all significant Taliban groups will respect the deal and hold the ceasefire. Last but not least, since the IS and other terrorist groups are not interested in any non-military solution, any potential, positive results of a peace process by Afghan government and Taliban remains as an illusion.


Bibliography:

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[1] Former Guantanamo Bay detainees (cf. Wolf, 31.7.2015).

Photo credit: Wikipedia

About Author

Dr. Siegfried O. Wolf

Dr. Siegfried O. Wolf is guest contributor at the International Security Observer. Dr. Wolf, Senior Researcher (member) at the South Asia Institute (SAI), Heidelberg University, and Director of Research at SADF (Coordinator: Democracy Research Program). He was educated at the SAI and Institute of Political Science (IPW) in Heidelberg. Additionally he is a visiting fellow at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST, Islamabad), affiliated researcher at the Pakistan Security Research Unit (PSRU, Durham University), and a former research fellow at IPW and Centre de Sciences Humaines (New Delhi, India). Before starting his academic career, Dr. Siegfried O. Wolf worked for various consultancies specializing in political communication, e.g. promoting the interaction and cooperation between academic, political and economic spheres. He is the co-author of ‘A Political and Economic Dictionary of South Asia’ (Routledge: London, 2006), co-editor of ‘Politics in South Asia. Culture, Rationality and Conceptual Flow’ (Springer: Heidelberg, 2015), ‘The Merits of Regionalisation. The Case of South Asia’ (Springer: Heidelberg, 2014), and ‘State and Foreign Policy in South Asia’ (Sanskriti, 2010), and Deputy Editor of the ‘Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics’ (HPSACP). Furthermore, he has worked as a consultant for the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Germany, and is member of the external experts group of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Task Force, Federal Foreign Office, Germany.

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