September 27, 2015

Afghanistan after Mullah Omar

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE confirmation by the Taliban, after some initial hesitation, that their supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was no longer alive, brings to an end another interesting chapter in Afghanistan's recent history. The remnants of the Taliban leadership located in Pakistan had no alternative but to confirm the demise of their reclusive leader after the government in Kabul announced in the last week of July that it was certain that the former head of the Taliban government that ruled the country from 1997 to 2001, was no longer alive. The Afghan government was probably tipped off by Pakistani intelligence services which had come to the conclusion that Mullah Omar's demise could no longer be kept a secret.

Various factions in the Taliban, especially those based in Afghanistan and Qatar, were demanding proof that their leader was alive. Mullah Omar's immediate family too were getting restive, as they too were kept in the dark. The demands of the Taliban leaders based outside Pakistan became more urgent as tentative peace talks, brokered by Pakistan and China, had started between representatives of the Afghan government and the dominant faction of the Taliban. Until recently, the Taliban was issuing communiques in the name of Mullah Omar, continuing with the charade that he was alive and well.




Statements supporting peace talks with the Afghan government had the imprimatur of Mullah Omar. In fact, the last message in Mullah Omar's name was sent a few weeks before his death was formally announced. In that message, Mullah Omar indicated that he was not averse to the talks with the Afghan government. Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani seized on the purported statements of Mullah Omar in recent months and said that the Taliban leader was for negotiations with the government in Kabul. American and Pakistani officials also did nothing to dispel the notion that Mullah Omar was indeed the man behind the periodic statements issued in his name.

The personality of Mullah Omar had kept the Taliban united till recently. After rumors of his death started circulating, there have been serious splits in the group. Many Taliban leaders have already joined the Islamic State (IS). The veteran warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an ally of the Taliban, has now switched his loyalty to the IS.

Mullah Omar's close associates as well as his family members were kept in the dark about his death. His former personal secretary, Tayyeb Agha, who runs the Taliban office in Doha, Qatar, said that it was a “historical mistake” to keep the news of his demise a secret for so long. Rumors about Mullah Omar's demise have been floating around for years. It is now more or less certain that the Taliban leader passed away sometime in 2013. Top Pakistani officials, including the defense minister have denied the claim by the Afghan government that the Taliban leader, said to be in his mid-fifties, died in a Karachi hospital. They are claiming that his demise took place on Afghan territory.

The Afghan Intelligence Services are insisting that Mullah Omar spent most of his years in hiding in the Pakistani port city of Karachi. Western Intelligence Agencies had earlier suggested that he was located in Quetta in Pakistan's Balochistan province which is situated near the border with Pakistan. Many of the Taliban leaders and fighters found refuge in Pakistani cities and tribal areas after the overthrow of their government.The Taliban leader had completely dropped off the radar after the Americans invaded Afghanistan in 2001. According to reports, the reclusive leader, whose face has been captured only once and that too in grainy footage, escaped the American military dragnet by riding pillion on a motorcycle from Kabul to the Pakistani tribal areas. Mullah Omar had a $10 million American bounty on his head.

The one eyed Mullah Omar, a former madrassa (seminary) student, was the commander who led a group of young seminary students into battle against venal warlords in the mid-nineties under the banner of the Taliban. He had earlier lost an eye on the battlefield as a young man in the jihad against the progressive government in Kabul that was militarily backed by the Soviet Union. The seminary students under Mullah Omar's leadership, were angered by the widespread lawlessness that had characterised Afghanistan after the takeover by the American supported mujahedin warlords in the early nineties. The Taliban takeover of most of Afghanistan was no doubt facilitated by the generous help provided by Pakistan's military and Intelligence apparatus.

The Taliban were initially welcomed by the populace fed up with the rampant anarchy unleashed by the warlords. The Taliban also tried to tackle the drug menace by curbing the production of opium. Though the Taliban government in Kabul was recognised by only three countries –Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, many other countries, including the United States, had started doing business with the Taliban led government in Kabul. Even the government of India had established initial contacts with the Taliban regime. The Americans had calculated that political stability in Afghanistan, albeit under harsh Taliban rule, could expedite the construction of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan that would go through Afghanistan. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline was much talked about in the mid-nineties.




But things started going awry in the late nineties. The formation of the al Qaeda under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, a comrade in arms of Mullah Omar during the American, Saudi and Pakistani sponsored jihad in Afghanistan and the subsequent terror attacks leading up to 9/11, dramatically changed the scenario for Mullah Omar and the Taliban. Mullah Omar had given sanctuary to bin Laden after he left Sudan in 1996. After the events of 9/11, Mullah Omar had the option to hand over his guest to the Americans and avoid the military overthrow of his government. Senior Pakistani and Saudi officials had tried to convince the Taliban leader to do so but he refused pointing to the well established traditions of Pashtun hospitality that prevented an honored guest from ever being banished. All the foreign jihadis, including bin Laden, had recognised Mullah Omar as their spiritual guide and leader.

Under Mullah Omar's stewardship, the Taliban government declared an Islamic Emirate. The government was quick to implement a feudal and regressive policy that discriminated against women and minority groups like the Shias and the Hazaras. In their zeal to establish a “pure Islamic state” strictly governed by the Sharia, be-headings and amputations became common. The destruction of the historic Bamiyan Buddha statues had invited international opprobrium. Two days before the 9/11 al Qaeda attack on the American mainland, a suicide attack killed Ahmad Shah Masood, the leader of the Northern Alliance that was battling the Taliban, with the support of countries like Russia, Iran and India.  When the Americans finally invaded the country, the Taliban government was friendless, though as events that have occurred since then have shown, the Taliban continued to have highly placed sympathizers in Pakistan and in some Gulf countries like Qatar. 

After Mullah Omar’s death was announced, the Taliban leadership was quick to designate a long time confidante of their late leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour as the new leader. Mansour had held ministerial positions in the Taliban government, As civil aviation minister, he had played a key negotiating role in the release of the hijacked Indian Airlines plane that the Taliban had given permission to land in Kandahar in 1999. The Indian side had alleged at the time that Mansour was acting more as a negotiator for the hijackers. 

The hasty selection of Mansour has caused further divisions in the Taliban ranks. Mansour like many other senior Taliban leaders has been staying under Pakistan's protection. It was reportedly under Pakistan's pressure that the section of the Taliban leadership based there attended the July 7 talks with officials of the Afghan government.  

Those against the continuation of peace talks seem to be getting the upper hand after the new Taliban leader was anointed. Tayyeb Agha, the head of the de facto Taliban mission in Qatar has resigned in protest at the selection of Mansour. His close associates have told the media that the peace talks with the Afghan government have been “hijacked” by Pakistan's ISI. In his resignation letter Agha said that the timing of the announcement of the Taliban leader's death was linked to the beginning of negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Pakistan's defense minister, Khwaja Asif told the National Assembly in the second week of August that Islamabad had only “limited influence” over the Taliban and that it is using this influence to bring them to the negotiating table. Pakistan is also under pressure from its two major allies, the US and China to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. China fears that the increasing turmoil in Afghanistan could spill over its borders and adversely impact on its grandiose economic plans for the Central Asian region.

The Taliban factions opposed to the peace talks have upped the scale of attacks after the death of Mullah Omar was announced. In the second week of August, there were four attacks in the capital Kabul on a single day killing more than 50 people and wounding hundreds. So far more than 4500 Afghan soldiers and policemen have been killed so far this year alone. The IS has also joined the fray with many Taliban fighters flocking to the murderous outfit, especially in Eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership based in Pakistan had warned the IS to stay away from Afghanistan or face dire consequences. The IS has retaliated by targeting Taliban leaders opposed to them for assassination.

After Mullah Omar's death was confirmed, jihadi activities have increased in Kashmir too. The Taliban, unlike the IS, never had a global agenda and had confined itself to Afghanistan. With the IS on the rise, jihadi groups like LeT have been encouraged. The IS already has a close working relationship with the Pakistan wing of the Taliban. Infiltration and attacks against Indian security forces have noticeably increased in recent weeks. It may be in India's interest to support Islamabad's exertions on behalf of the “moderate” Taliban to kick start peace talks with the Kabul government.