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Can The Taliban Survive Mullah Omar's Death?

  • Frud Bezhan

Even before news broke of Mullah Omar's death, there was mounting speculation of a power struggle within the Taliban, which has had only one leader since its formation in the early 1990s.

Even before news broke of Mullah Omar's death, there was mounting speculation of a power struggle within the Taliban, which has had only one leader since its formation in the early 1990s.

The death of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, could mark a significant blow not only to the militant group's long-standing insurgency, but to its future as a united and potent force.

The Afghan government's confirmation that Mullah Omar died in April 2013 in Pakistan comes amid deepening divisions within the Taliban and the growing influence of rival militant groups like the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. Without its reclusive, one-eyed leader, the Taliban will find it difficult to prevent potential recruits from joining IS and other militant groups.

Power Struggle

Even before news broke of Mullah Omar's death, there was mounting speculation of a power struggle within the Taliban, which has had only one leader since its formation in the early 1990s.

The leadership struggle centers on two competing commanders: Taliban deputy leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur and Mullah Omar's eldest son, Mullah Mohammad Yuqub.

According to reports, the 26-year-old Yuqub is said to be ready to take over the reins. Yuqub is said to have the backing of field commanders and the Taliban's rank-and-file. Standing in his way is the powerful Mansur, who is said to have considerable clout among the political wing of the militant group.

"There is already a nasty power struggle within the Taliban," says Graeme Smith, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Kabul. "That power struggle will get more vicious after Omar's death."

Recruitment

In recent months, a growing number of disaffected Taliban field commanders have called on the leadership to provide proof that Mullah Omar is still alive.

Years without any video or audio recordings had led to growing speculation that the shadowy militant leader might be seriously ill, if not dead. The Taliban, in an apparent attempt to dispel speculation that he had died, in April published a biography of Mullah Omar on its official website to commemorate Mullah Omar's apparent 19th year as supreme leader. The bio described Mullah Omar as being actively involved in "jihadi activities."

But the absence of proof that Omar was indeed alive apparently led several senior Taliban commanders to defect to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an extremist group that is based in northern Afghanistan and earlier this year pledged allegiance to the IS group, as well as to IS itself.

Splinter groups have also grown in number and have become emboldened in recent years. In fact, Fidai Mahaz, one of the extremist Taliban splinter groups, announced a week before Kabul's July 29 announcement that Mullah Omar was dead and had been replaced by his deputy.

"We've seen a number of defections to the IMU in the north, former TTP [Pakistani Taliban] flying IS flags in the east, and defections of some factions in the south," Smith says. "Different Taliban groups are breaking away from the central Taliban organization. His death is going to fuel the factionalism that we are already seeing."

Smith predicts that for this reason the Taliban is unlikely to confirm Mullah Omar's death, and will try to maintain the myth of his existence.

Change The Battlefield

Mullah Omar's death could have an adverse effect on the Taliban's military campaign. The loss of field commanders and rank-and-file fighters to splinter groups and rival militant groups could deprive the Taliban of troop numbers and leadership on the battlefield.

"Mullah Omar's death loosens the command and control over the insurgency," Smith says. "It's likely to make field commanders feel more independent. The political behavior of the mid-ranking Taliban military commanders becomes much more important because they're no longer just following orders but thinking for themselves."

Despite Mullah Omar's death more than two years ago, the Taliban has waged a fierce offensive against government forces in the country's north, making impressive military advances.

Abdul Waheed Wafa, the director of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, says that if Mullah Omar is dead, then the Taliban must receive "huge credit" for weathering the potential pitfalls of his death on the group's military campaign.

"Three years ago, the Taliban were under more pressure but today it's a different story," he says. "His death will weaken the Taliban movement but it is up to the Afghan government to make use of the divisions in the group."

Peace Talks

Mullah Omar's death comes just days before a second round of peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government is scheduled in Pakistan.

But his death could delay or even jeopardize the talks aimed at ending the 14-year insurgency. Some observers have suggested that it would weaken the Taliban's bargaining position and give the upper hand to Kabul.

But others suggest it would remove a figurehead for the group to rally around and take collective responsibility for the negotiations.

"It will make the peace process complicated," says the Afghanistan Center's Wafa. "It will be difficult for this process to find a central party to negotiate with."

There are deep divisions within the group over a potential political settlement with Kabul.

The split within the Taliban between those for and against talks has been worsened by the emergence of a leadership tussle within the group. Mullah Omar's son is believed to be against the talks while rival Mansur is credited with bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table in Pakistan last month.

In his last purported message, made on July 15, Mullah Omar recognized the peace talks as "legitimate," saying that the goal of the process was an "end to occupation" by foreign forces.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to bezhanf@rferl.org

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