What Does Mullah Omar’s Death Mean for Afghan Peace Talks?

What Does Mullah Omar’s Death Mean for Afghan Peace Talks?

While the Taliban insurgency rages in Afghanistan, the acknowledgement of Mullah Omar’s death has sparked debates on the impact of this event on the future of the peace talks and the Taliban war.

The enigmatic Taliban leader Mullah Omar remains as elusive in life as in death. His death is now confirmed and accepted in a

ll quarters: the Taliban leadership and the Afghan, Pakistani and American governments. When he died—in 2013 or later—as well as how and where are still unclear.

Given the current surge in the Afghan conflict, the government of Afghanistan will not allow any derailment of peace talks with the Taliban.

Earlier this year, news that Omar had blessed the Afghan government and Taliban peace talks gave comfort to the Afghan government; but since the blessing was in writing only, its authenticity is in question. The ailment causing his death has been conjectured variously as tuberculosis, pneumonia or meningitis; some Taliban groups claim he was assassinated. Another Taliban group recently announced that Omar never left Afghanistan and that his grave is in Zabul province (contradicting reports of his death in Karachi, Pakistan).

Taking refuge behind the announcement of his burial in Afghanistan, a Pakistani official recently denied the allegation that Pakistan’s government or army intelligence agency (ISI) was involved in giving refuge to Omar (who, the official claimed, was obviously never in Pakistan under Pakistani protection). The Washington Post reported an American CIA official’s claim to know that a severely ill Mullah Omar was treated at Aga Khan University’s hospital in Karachi in 2011, and that he died in 2013 while under treatment in Karachi.

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However and whenever Mullah Omar died, the impact of his acknowledged death is a matter of immediate concern. Does his death pave the way for the reconciliation process so essential for stabilization of Afghanistan, or does it deter the process? It might not have any significant positive or negative effect on the peace process except that resumption of the peace talks might be somewhat delayed (as already indicated in Pakistan’s cancellation of the July 31 second round of the talks). But the talks will resume, for several reasons.

Pakistan’s commitment to supporting the peace process is of utmost importance for successful reconciliation. To protect its own interest and free Pakistan from increasing terror attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, Pakistan’s government will definitely continue to support the peace process. It is a fallacy to continue blaming Pakistan for the insurgency in Afghanistan, especially the recent upsurge in insurgent attacks.

The Afghan government’s expressed optimism that Mullah Omar’s death might promote advances in peace talks is unrealistic, since no evidence points to Mullah Omar ever having opposed peace talks with the government. In fact, there is little evidence of Mullah Omar’s operational control of the Taliban fighters for a decade and a half when he had not been seen or heard in video or audio. According to reports, even Mullah Omar’s son and brother did not have access to him; the Mullah was only a spiritual leader to the Taliban forces.

Optimists expect that the split in the Taliban rank and file, which originally resulted from the absence of direct and visible leadership by Mullah Omar, would deepen and widen with the acknowledgement of his death. It is true that disaffection has grown within the rank and file: while the insurgency continued, the Taliban fighters gradually disintegrated into splinter groups, some with extremist inclinations and others perhaps more moderate but mostly tired of fighting. The break-away moderate group supports the peace talks started recently under Ghani presidency; and while the extremist hardliner Taliban might oppose the reconciliation process, controversy amongst the Taliban is not new. Mullah Omar’s death will not make much difference.

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Less optimistic analysts believe that new Taliban leadership opposing the reconciliation process is a distinct possibility because two deputies for the newly-appointed leader Mansour are members of the hardline extremist Haqqani wing, which is likely to oppose the peace talks. But the Taliban leadership supporting the peace talks claims to have gained Haqqani approval for continuing peace negotiations, suggesting that the Taliban remains united on this issue.

Wishful thinkers say that the appointment of Mullah Omar’s second in command, Mullah Mansour, as his successor might weaken the insurgency in general. The hope is that rivalry between Mansour and Omar’s close relatives (plus some splintered Taliban groups) would demoralize and divide the Taliban further, thus seriously fracturing the insurgency and drawing the Taliban closer to reconciliation.

In reality, however, the insurgency is making enormous gains and advances across Afghanistan, continuing to threaten the legitimacy of the Afghan government. This indicates that any divisions created in the insurgency from an internal succession crisis have had little effect in weakening the insurgency.

Given the current surge in the Afghan conflict, the government of Afghanistan will not allow any derailment of peace talks with the Taliban. Efforts aimed at ending the conflict through peaceful negotiations are thus bound to resume.

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