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Can A Dead Mullah Omar Kill Taliban Peace Talks?


Afghan authorities have announced that Taliban leader Mullah Omar died in 2013.

Afghan authorities have announced that Taliban leader Mullah Omar died in 2013.

Having finally confirmed Mullah Mohammad Omar's death, the Taliban has chosen a successor said to be open to peace talks with the Afghan government.

Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansur’s inclination toward dialogue has raised hopes of a negotiated end to a 14-year insurgency after his takeover of the leadership was announced on July 30.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's office announced on July 29 that the ground for peace talks was "more paved than before" the confirmation of founding Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar's death, reportedly due to illness two years ago in Pakistan.

But while the news could stop some Taliban militants from fighting and encourage them to join the peace process, some observers say the absence of the charismatic and unifying Mullah Omar could jeopardize recent peace efforts with the group.

Bad Timing

The death announcement came just days before a planned second round of peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, scheduled for Pakistan on July 31.

The Pakistani Foreign Office on July 30 said those talks had been postponed "in view of the reports regarding the death of Mullah Omar and the resulting uncertainty, and at the request of the Afghan Taliban leadership."

Although it produced no immediate results, the first round held last month near Islamabad was widely described as being a breakthrough in the 14-year war. It marked the first time senior officials from both sides met face-to-face and agreed to meet again.

Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, warns that a leadership vacuum could seriously hobble the peace effort.

"This confirmation of Mullah Omar's death will cause all sorts of problems for the Taliban," Kugelman says. "It will spark a leadership crisis that could get bloody, and it will distract the Taliban from focusing on the peace talks. I don't think the talks will be canceled completely, but they have certainly lost their momentum.”

No Precedent

With question marks over how Mansur's appointment will be received by Taliban commanders and foot soldiers, it is unclear whether the fundamentalist Islamist group will rally around him and allow him to assume responsibility for negotiations.

There is reportedly opposition from within to the newly elected leader, with some Taliban factions wanting Mullah Omar’s eldest son, Mullah Mohammad Yuqub, to take the reins.

"Peace talks might be necessary with dozens of factions instead of just one major group," says Graeme Smith, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Kabul. "In terms of making a peace deal, Mullah Omar's death is a nightmare."

The Taliban has had only one leader since its formation in the early 1990s.

Speculation about the succession had centered on two competing commanders: Mullah Mansur and Mullah Yuqub.

Yuqub is believed to oppose the talks, and he is said to have the backing of field commanders and the Taliban's rank-and-file.

Mansur, who is said to have considerable clout within the Taliban's political wing, is credited with bringing the group to the negotiating table in Pakistan last month.

Fragmentation

In a statement to the media on July 30, the Taliban said Mullah Mansur had been given the title "Commander of the Faithful," conferring on him the supreme status held by Mullah Omar.

The Taliban also announced his deputies -- Sirajuddin Haqqani, who leads the Haqqani Network faction and has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, and Haibatullah Akhundzada, former head of the Taliban courts. Each represents a different power base within the Taliban.

Barnett Rubin, a former U.S. State Department official and leading specialist on Afghanistan, wrote in The New Yorker on July 29 that Mullah Omar's death could "cause the Taliban to splinter."

"Some may stop fighting and enter the system, while others may join even more extremist groups, such as the Islamic State, and fight the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan," he wrote.

With indications intensifying in recent months of Mullah Omar's death, several senior Taliban commanders defected to the Islamic State (IS) militant group, which controls territory in Syria and Iraq and has threatened to expand its reach beyond the Middle East, as well as to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an extremist group based in northern Afghanistan that earlier this year pledged allegiance to IS.

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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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