What does Mullah Omar’s death mean for the Afghan peace process?

Mullah Omar governed the country with an iron fist from 1996 until his government was overthrown by the U.S. military invasion

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Only days prior to the resumption of the second round of peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, President Ashraf Ghani confirmed the death of the Taliban’s elusive leader Mullah Omar.

Mullah Omar governed the country with an iron fist from 1996 until his government was overthrown by the U.S. military invasion of Oct. 2001 following his refusal to hand over Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to face justice over the 9/11 attacks. It was believed that the Taliban leader had since been hiding in the lawless, rugged terrain of western Pakistan.

Adding to the mystery surrounding Omar and his whereabouts was the Taliban’s failure to broadcast his messages for propaganda purposes, despite predictably and consistently claiming responsibility for nearly every terrorist attack on NATO troops or Afghan government institutions.

However, the Mullah endorsed the nascent peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in honor of the recent Eid al-Fitr holiday. Although Ghani welcomed the statement, which was posted on a Taliban website, Omar said political means to achieve “sacred goals” could be pursued “concurrently with armed jihad,” while calling for the establishment of an “Islamic system,” referring to his absolute rejection of the legitimacy of the Afghan government.

Given the complexities surrounding Omar’s revered status within the Taliban, and his near-mythological presence within Afghan society, it was not surprising that several conflicting accounts of his death surfaced immediately after Ghani pronounced him dead. Among them, an unnamed former Taliban minister told The Express Tribune, a Pakistani outlet, that he died of tuberculosis in early 2013.

Omar was born in a Pashtun stronghold in Afghanistan’s rural southern Kandahar province in 1960. He rose to prominence fighting the occupying Soviet army in the 1980s along with his fellow Afghan Mujahideen, before returning to his home province where he used his position as a village cleric to unify Pashtun tribal support for what eventually become the Taliban movement.

Despite Omar having not been seen in public since 2001 after narrowly escaping U.S. special forces, the Taliban has over the past decade proven its resilience by targeting high-profile Afghan government institutions, including its recent attack on parliament in the heart of Kabul.

Taliban representatives from their Doha bureau have nominally participated in proximity talks with Afghan government officials in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Norway. However, it was arguably only after Ghani secured Pakistani and Chinese support for his quest to reinvigorate the peace process that the group agreed to direct negotiations.

Since Ghani’s election last year, he has pursued a dual strategy of convincing Washington to slow down its military withdrawal from Afghanistan, while seeking to repair his country’s relationship with Pakistan.

Departing from his predecessor Hamid Karzai, who consistently accused Pakistan of supporting the Taliban, Ghani recently signed a historic intelligence cooperation agreement with Islamabad as part of an effort to better pursue the Taliban on both sides of the border.

In line with his ambitious quest to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table, he travelled shortly after his inauguration to Beijing to secure its support for peace talks, while soliciting Chinese investments for urgently-needed infrastructure development projects.

Ghani’s vision and ability to secure regional support for his agenda seems to have already paid off, with the Taliban officially endorsing the peace talks in the form of Omar’s Eid al-Fitr statement. If Omar did die over two years ago, the statement in his name suggests that the Taliban is tying his legacy to its official support for the peace process.

The statement by the unnamed former Taliban minister about Omar’s death, only days prior to the scheduled second round of peace talks, indicates that not only will the group have to officially declare his successor, but that one of his first decisions will be to tacitly support the peace process or publicly denounce it.

The internal Taliban transition process before peace talks also gives the leader an “out” should the group believe that its prospects are better on the battlefield. Either way, another immediate test for Omar’s successor will be to what an extent he can unify the group’s command structure, as well as powerful local leaders and tribal elders living in Taliban-controlled areas.

Among the various Taliban commanders vying to succeed him is his son Mohammad Yaqoub, who appears to be a young, untested military leader who according to Afghan media reports graduated from a madrasa in the Pakistani port city of Karachi.

Another contender is acting leader Mullah Mansoor, who appears to have benefitted from maintaining the organization’s status quo, which possibly explains why the death of Omar had not been announced until recently. However, Taliban commander Abdul Qayoum Zakir is reported to oppose Mansour, possibly favoring Yaqoub instead.

Amid these variables, Ghani and the Taliban share a remarkably similar outlook on how to pursue the embattled peace process. For the Taliban, there is no contradiction between negotiating with the government and simultaneously carrying out suicide attacks against military and civilian targets, as the group believes that its battlefield successes will strengthen its negotiation position.

Ghani believes that by lobbying the United States to prolong its military presence in Afghanistan, coupled with his quest to chip away at Pakistan’s historic support of the Taliban by improving bilateral relations with Islamabad, he can weaken the Taliban militarily and thereby strengthen his own negotiating position.

For now, the next chapter of the complicated and messy Afghan political process will be defined by whether Friday’s scheduled peace talks will proceed as planned. The odds are that they will be canceled, and the Taliban’s new leader will instead focus on strengthening his internal standing by rejecting talks with the “foreign-backed puppet regime.”

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