Quo Vadis, Afghanistan?
Only days prior to second round of Pakistan-brokered peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, confirmed the death of Mullah Omar. After some vacillation over the issue, Taliban also admitted the death of their reclusive leader. In view of the reports regarding the death of Mullah Omar and the resulting uncertainty, and at the request of the Afghan Taliban leadership, the second round of Afghan peace talks, which was scheduled to be held in Pakistan on July 31, was postponed.
“Peace talks might be necessary with dozens of factions instead of just one major group. In terms of making a peace deal, Mullah Omar’s death is a nightmare.”
Graeme Smith (Senior Analyst at the International Crisis Group in Kabul)
After confirming Mullah Mohammad Omar’s death, the Taliban also chose Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansoor as his successor. Taliban senior leaders have also pledged their allegiance to Mansoor as the group’s Supreme Leader despite some differences. Mullah Mansoor, who was civil aviation minister during Taliban regime, is believed to be one of the moderate leaders of the Taliban playing a key role in taking the initial steps for starting peace talks with the Government of Afghanistan. His openness to peace talks with the Afghan government and his inclination toward the dialogue process rekindles the hopes of a negotiated end to the 14-year-old insurgency in Afghanistan.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office also announced, on July 29, that the ground for peace talks was “more paved than before” due to the confirmation of founding Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s death. 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.
At this crucial time for Afghanistan when the country is facing an imminent threat from the Islamic State group — the Middle East jihadist outfit that is making steady inroads in Afghanistan — Mullah Omar’s death marks a significant blow to the Taliban, the group that is also threatened by the rise of the self-styled group. With the news of his death, a larger number of Taliban militants may pledge allegiance to the IS group. It is believed that Akhtar Mansoor does not have the charisma of Omar among the Taliban’s ideologues and therefore will not carry much weight – as Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi does among his men. Hence, there are genuine fears that the Taliban leadership and the Afghan government’s peace efforts would nosedive.
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. Although it produced no immediate results, the first round 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.
Mansoor’s Disputed Appointment
There are big question marks over how Mansoor’s appointment will be received by Taliban commanders and foot soldiers, it is unclear whether the group will rally around him and allow him to assume responsibility for negotiations.
Although, the Afghan Taliban published a written statement quoting Jaluluddin Haqqani’s who, purportedly, gave his backing to Mullah Akhtar Mansoor as Omar’s successor and recommended that “all members of the Islamic Emirate should maintain their internal unity and discipline,” yet there are news that the family of the late Taliban leader refused to pledge allegiance to the announced successor and have called the religious scholars and veterans of the movement to choose his replacement.
In a statement issued to the media on July 30, the Taliban gave Mullah Mansoor the title “Amir-ul-Momineen” (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 US bounty on his head, and Haibatullah Akhundzada, former head of the Taliban courts. Each represents a different power base within the Taliban.
However, according to analysts and intelligence that exist, there is a bitter schism between Mullah Akhtar Mansoor on one side, and Mullah Yaqub and Taliban senior commander Abdul Qayum Zakir on the other. Mullah Mansoor is leading pro-talks camp of the Taliban who are willing to enter peace talks with the government of Afghanistan while the other camp opposes arbitrary decision-making of Mansoor and his growing influence in the Taliban leadership. Despite that alleged decision-making of Mansoor regarding peace talks with the Afghan government, the other camp’s opposition to Mansoor is not yet meant opposing peace talks with Kabul.
Possible Breakdown of talks
Nevertheless, it is an unforgettable and undeniable fact that the Taliban have been highly resilient against many such challenges. There are possibilities that the group may overcome the internal differences to stay united. Mullah Mansoor’s best chance for preserving unity of the Taliban is possible unification and unanimous support of members of the Taliban supreme council. If the differences over Mansoor’s selection as Taliban leader are not resolved, the defections of Taliban members to other rival groups may start soon. In this case, it is highly likely that rival groups opposing the Taliban such as the Islamic State or other groups recruit Taliban members and further defy the Taliban. This may bury the corpse of peace talks for ever.
Who is Mullah Akhtar Mansoor?
Like Mullah Mohamed Omar, little is known about Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the new leader of the Taliban. He had been part of the Taliban’s core leadership since the early days when the group was formed under the tutelage of Mullah Omar.
Mullah Akhtar Mansoor was born in 1963 in the Band Taimor village of Maiwand district in southern Kandahar province. He belongs to the Ishaqzai tribe, having received his early education in his hometown and nearby seminaries. At a young age, he joined the Mullah Haji Mohammad group during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and participated in the jihad against the Russians in Maiwand, Sang-e-Hessar, Zangawat and other parts of the city.
Known as one of the prominent warriors, Mansoor joined the Maulvi Obaidullah Ishaqzai group in 1987 but later Ishaqzai surrendered to Anwar–ul-Haq Uloomi, now the interior minister.
Mansoor was in grade 8 in 1995 when he departed with hundreds of other Taliban for Kandahar and joined the Taliban movement. He was put in charge of airport security and later took over as a commander of jet fighters. He served as director of Ariana in 1996 before being appointed as minister of civil aviation and transport and commander of the air force in September 1996 when the Taliban took control of Kabul. He became deputy leader of the Taliban when Abdul Ghani Baradar was captured in Karachi in 2010.
Mansoor also established the Turaya sattelite telephone business in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Mansoor took responsibility as a leading representative of the Ishaqzai tribe in the Taliban movement in 2004 and along with Mullah Gul Agha, Akhtar Mohammad Usmani, Abdul Samad Sani, Maulvi Nani and several other figures developed closer links with Mullah Omar.
With the passage of time, he got closer to Omar.
Like Mullah Omar, he draws his political base from around Kandahar, considered the cradle of the Taliban.
Who Was Mullah Omar?
Mullah Mohammad Omar has been leading the Afghan Taliban for nearly two decades, yet little is known about the mysterious life of this man. According to a 5000-word biography of Omar published, on April 5, by Taliban to mark his 19th year at the helm, he was born in 1960 in the village of Chah-e-Himmat, in the Khakrez district of Kandahar Province, the birthplace of the Taliban in the south of Afghanistan.
Born to Moulavi Ghulam Nabi, a “respected, erudite, and social figure,” Mullah Omar hailed from the Tomzi clan of the Hotak tribe. His father died five years after his birth, leaving the young Omar as head of the family. He became a village mullah and ran his own madrasa, or religious school, when not fighting with Yunus Khalis’s Hizb-i-Islami Mujahideen Party — first against the Soviets and later against the pro-Moscow Najibullah regime.
After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Mullah Omar left school and became a jihadist “to discharge his religious obligation.” While fighting the Russians between 1983 and 1991, he was wounded four times and lost his right eye when a rocket exploded beside him.
In 1994 Mullah Omar took over the Islamic Mujahideen to tackle the “factional fighting” among warlords that followed the collapse of the communist regime in 1992. Then, in 1996, he was conferred the title “Amir-ul-Momineen” thus becoming the supreme leader of the Taliban.
Omar was devoted to the lectures of Sheikh Abdullah Azzam.
He had three wives and five children.