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Mullah Omar’s death and the whirlwinds of Afghanistan

Mullah Omar conjured up similar feelings of power and dread for both friend and foe alike

Dr. John C. Hulsman

Published: Updated:

The first great work of American fiction is undoubtedly The Sketch Book by Washington Irving, first published in 1820. The jewel in the crown of that surprisingly still readable series of short stories is undoubtedly The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which recounts how the superior rationalist Ichabod Crane is nearly frightened to death by a Headless Horseman, an apparition appearing from nowhere before heading mysteriously off into the mists, imparting terror and then slipping away as if he had never been there. Irving makes the telling point that just beneath the facade of supposedly modern man, primeval fears and fixations lie unquenched, ever waiting to be stirred.

Mullah Omar conjured up similar feelings of power and dread for both friend and foe alike. If the reports emanating from the Afghani government prove true, they amount to a mysterious death of a mysterious man. The undisputed spiritual leader of the Afghani Taliban and ruler of Afghanistan from 1996-2001, Mullah Omar died due to complications from tuberculosis two years ago in a remote southern Helmand province, according to Pakistani sources. His death, like much of his life, after last being seen fleeing his Kandahar stronghold on a motorcycle as American troops took the citadel, is shrouded in fog. Over time, his mythical qualities have come to serve the interests of both his Taliban followers as well as his enemies; ironically both may come to miss the iconic qualities of the man, more than anything he did materially himself.

Titular head of the Taliban

Since the Taliban’s ousting by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, Omar has functioned as the reclusive, titular head of the Taliban, all through the bloody guerrilla fight that has ensued. Serving more in the vital role of political unifier of his fractious movement rather than taking any operational control of the struggle, Mullah Omar’s supposed pronouncements have become ever rarer as the years went on. But feared warrior that he was in life, serving in the vanguard of the mujahedeen resistance to the Soviet Union (where he lost his right eye due to a shrapnel wound), it is in death that Omar could well have his greatest impact.

For President Ghani, ironically the death of his greatest adversary is bound to prove a particular blow

Dr. John C. Hulsman

First, if his death proves to be true, it could well lead to a splintering of the Taliban itself. The group’s ruling ‘Quetta Shura’ must have falsely propagated the myth of his continued existence, knowing that without Omar the continued unity of the Taliban becomes a tenuous question. Just as the Taliban have finally entered into talks in July 2015 with the new, earnest, if embattled, Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, some Taliban commanders openly questioned whether Omar is alive, stirring speculation about who should now head the movement.

A succession struggle just at this vital diplomatic juncture is bound to ensue, probably centring on a contest between Omar’s eldest son, 26-year-old Mullah Mohammed Yaqoub, and the movement’s official second-in-command, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. In such divisive circumstances, there is a very good chance that the Taliban itself splits into a series of factions, some advocating the nascent peace process and some virulently opposing it. This amounts to the worst of all possible worlds, for both the Afghan government and for its American patrons, desperate as they both are to finally bring this seemingly endless war to a close.

A particular blow

For President Ghani, ironically the death of his greatest adversary is bound to prove a particular blow. Ghani has made bringing peace to Afghanistan the cornerstone of his presidency, and in conjunction with his newfound Pakistani allies quite amazingly just managed to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, with a second official round of talks due to commence in just days.

Indeed, following the first round of talks, a statement was released in Mullah Omar’s name endorsing the new negotiations (probably collectively composed by the Quetta Shura). To have all that diplomatic spadework undone by any coming succession infighting is a bitter blow. At a minimum, Omar’s death will complicate the peace process, as without him it is much harder for the Taliban to accept collective responsibility for launching the talks, let alone for delivering on the concessions that will prove necessary to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion.

And without Mullah Omar’s mesmeric, almost mythological quality, worse lies on the horizon for Afghanistan as a whole. Recent failures to prove Omar was alive were a major factor behind the defection of several senior Taliban commanders to ISIS, which is beginning to gain a real foothold in Afghanistan for the first time. The Quetta Shura may have largely propagated the falsehood of Mullah Omar’s continued existence with this seminal threat in mind, in an effort to keep the Taliban rank and file loyal in the face of siren calls from ISIS. With the talismanic Omar’s death, it is more than likely that the Taliban will weaken in the face of its rival’s dubious charms.

Ironically, just as Washington Irving understood that the power of menace, charisma, and mystery bind men to primeval understandings of the world, so Mullah Omar’s death may ironically unleash far worse forces than even he himself ever stood for.

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Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has also given 1490 interviews, written over 410 articles, prepared over 1270 briefings, and delivered more than 460 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

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