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The Taliban after Mullah Omar

The story of Afghanistan is one of superpower stupidity accompanied by the hare-brained ‘strategic’ ambitions of neighbouring states and the insatiable lust for power among local warlords. These three factors have, singly and collectively, defined Afghan ground realities. As a consequence, peace has eluded the country for almost four decades.

On December 27, 1979 the former Soviet Union invaded the country with an initial 85,000 troops. This triggered a fierce decade-long freedom struggle that culminated in the humiliating withdrawal of the occupation forces under the Geneva Accords of April 14, 1988.

The Afghans had defeated a superpower. But they did not celebrate their triumph because peace never returned to the country. The local commanders, who had fought against the Soviet occupation army, established themselves in their respective areas. The conflict that followed transformed itself from a heroic war of liberation to an ugly contest for power that continues till now.

It was only during the horrific rule of the Taliban from 1996 to 2001 that a strong central authority controlled most of Afghanistan. But the US-led invasion and occupation of the country, which reflected the collective foolishness of the international community, merely resulted in the ouster of the Taliban regime but ignited a conflict unparalleled in its barbarity even by Afghan standards. In the first six months of this year an estimated 5,000 civilians have been killed.

The bitter but undeniable truth is that, in the past, Pakistan had been interfering in Afghanistan. The Haqqani Network and factions of the Afghan Taliban were ensconced in safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal regions, which became a springboard for terrorist attacks on Afghanistan.

But this is only a half-truth because Kabul is equally culpable. It has been hand-in-glove with the TTP. It therefore did not come as a surprise when US forces intercepted and arrested Latifullah Mehsud, a top TTP commander, from an Afghan intelligence convoy in Logar province in October 2013. This was undoubtedly only the tip of the iceberg as contacts between the TTP and Afghan intelligence became increasingly frequent.

There has been a gradual realisation in Pakistan that hidebound policies are entirely counterproductive and have to be discarded. A decision was taken to go the extra mile in promoting peace talks between the government in Kabul and the Taliban. The two sides eventually met in Murree on July 7 and decided to continue the negotiations after Eidul Fitr. Hopes for the restoration of durable peace in war-ravaged Afghanistan soared sky-high.

It therefore came as a bolt from the blue when the authorities in Kabul announced on July 29 that, “Mullah Omar had died nearly two years ago in Karachi.” The knee-jerk reaction of the Taliban was one of denial, but better sense prevailed later and a statement was released saying: “The leadership of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the family of Mullah Omar Mujahid announce that the founder and leader of the Islamic Emirate…passed away from this temporary world towards the everlasting one.”

On that day, eight members of the Taliban shura had reached Islamabad for the second round of talks that were slated to commence on July 31 in Murree. These have been postponed indefinitely and it is uncertain whether they can be revived.

The timing of the announcement from Kabul was deliberate and the purpose was undoubtedly sinister. The immediate fallout is that the peace process on which President Ashraf Ghani and the Pakistan government had invested so much time and effort has been administered a crippling blow.

The unwarranted presumption that Mullah Omar died in Karachi was aimed at maligning Pakistan. The lie was exposed when the Taliban disclosed that their leader had spent his final days in his village, Chah-e-Himmat, in Kandahar.

Since this was sourced to Mullah Omar’s family, there was no need for further comment. However, for reasons best known to himself, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif thought it prudent to declare in the National Assembly on August 7, “I confirm that Mullah Omar neither died nor was buried in Pakistan…Whether he died now or two years ago is another controversy we do not wish to be a part of.”

Matthew Rosenberg’s report in the New York Times on August 1-2, pointedly mentions a statement posted on the Facebook page of the Fedai-e-Mahaz, a breakaway Taliban faction, asserting unambiguously, “the whereabouts of Mullah Omar is known to everyone, and his grave is in Zabul, may his soul rest in peace.” Subsequently, the spokesman of the same splinter group, Qari Hamza, proclaimed with the self-assurance which typifies semi-educated clerics: “We are confident that after the fall of the Islamic Emirate, Mullah Omar never left Afghanistan.”

Rosenberg claims that “in the winter of 2014 an Afghan with links to top Taliban leaders” tipped off the country’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, that Mullah Omar had died in a hospital in Karachi. If the New York Times report is accurate, it implies that Afghan intelligence kept this under the hat for more than 18 months, and, it is doubtful whether even President Ashraf Ghani or his predecessor, the flamboyant and mercurial Hamid Karzai, were taken into confidence.

The decision to release the information at this juncture was not taken on the spur of the moment but was carefully thought through. It sought to: (i) fragment the Taliban as the Afghan government faces what is cynically known as ‘the fighting season’ for the first time on its own; (ii) derail the peace process; and, (iii) torpedo President Ashraf Ghani’s visionary ‘new-thinking’ as evident from his efforts to mend fences with Pakistan. The three objectives may have been partially achieved but the irony is that the main loser is Kabul.

The sudden announcement of Mullah Omar’s death has impacted on Taliban unity, and, it is uncertain whether his successor, Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, will be able to garner unanimous support. His appointment has been rejected by some of the important commanders, who have thrown their weight behind Mullah Omar’s eldest son, Muhammad Yaqoob. The extent of bitterness is evident from unconfirmed reports that surfaced on August 4 that Yaqoob had either been killed or put under house arrest on the orders of the new Taliban chief.

But despite this, the tempo and intensity of Taliban attacks have increased alarmingly. On August 8 a suicide bomber killed 50 people and injured hundreds in central Kabul, this was replicated the next day in the northern province of Kunduz killing 25 soldiers and 4 civilians, on August 10 a check post near the Kabul airport was suicide-bombed resulting in 5 fatalities, and, the hideous carnage continues.

It was with Mullah Akhtar Mansoor’s help that the Murree peace process had been initiated. But in a complete volte-face he is now beating the war drums, and has declared, “Our enemies say that peace can be restored through deals and dialogue, but they are completely wrong.”

Some analysts believe that he is playing to the gallery in order to muster support from influential commanders. Be this as it may, he will never acquire the stature of his predecessor because he has been downright deceitful. For instance, Tayyeb Agha, the head of the Taliban political office in Qatar, resigned on August 4 saying, “The death of Mullah Omar was kept secret for two years. I consider this a historical mistake.”

The implication is that Mullah Akhtar Mansoor has been lying through his teeth for the last two years. He has lost the moral high ground and has generated a crisis of credibility for himself by issuing concocted statements from Mullah Omar. The most recent example of this was last month’s Eid message in which the former Taliban chief supposedly said: “Political endeavours and peaceful ways for achieving our sacred goals are a legitimate Islamic principle.” Apparently, Mullah Omar has become a pacifist in purgatory!

The Afghan government has succumbed to the habit of blaming Pakistan for its own inability to ward off terrorist attacks. There can be no winners in this futile blame game. Terrorism poses an existential threat to both countries, and can only be conclusively defeated through close cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The writer is a rapper and assistant editor of Criterion quarterly.

Email: mikail.murshed@gmail.com

S Mikail Murshed, "The Taliban after Mullah Omar," The News. 2015-08-21.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political history , Occupation forces , Tribal-Pakistan , Haqqani network , Islamic emirate , Pak-Afghan relations , Qatar Negotiations , War-Afghanista , Mullah Omar , Ashraf Ghani , Afghanistan , Qatar