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UPDATED: August 17, 2015 NO. 34 AUGUST 20, 2015
A Troubling Inheritance
Mullah Omar's specter now overhangs his successors and the Afghan peace process
By Ma Xiaolin

Police guard the site of a car bombing attack that killed at least four people in Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, on August 10 (XINHUA)

The Afghan Government announced the death of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar a day before the second round of peace talks between the Afghan Government and Taliban was set to take place in Pakistan on July 31.

This was by no means the first time that the rumor of Omar's demise had been floated. As early as 2013, he had been reported as deceased having experienced health problems at a hospital in Karachi in Pakistan, a spokesman for Afghanistan's security services said in a statement.

This time around, however, it was confirmed that rumors of the leader's death has most definitely not been exaggerated, The Afghan Taliban at first denied the claims. But a day later, the group confirmed the rumor and then announced that Omar's deputy Mullah Akhtar Mansour was to be appointed as the new leader of the Afghan Taliban.

However, arguments about who should be the next leader continued for days among factions in the Taliban. The scheduled peace negotiations have also been suspended. More uncertainty has been brewing in the aftermath of this sudden turn of events, calling into question the future of the Taliban and the Afghan peace process.

Father of the Taliban

Omar was a legendary figure. According to Taliban sources, he was born in 1960 in the village of Chah-i-Himmat in Kandahar Province. He fought in resistance against the invasion of the Soviet Union in the 1980s and suffered a shrapnel injury to his right eye. After the Soviet Union withdrew troops from the country in 1988, Afghanistan remained mired in the chaos of civil war.

In 1994, Omar launched the Taliban armed movement in Kandahar with some 800 religious students (while are referred to as "Taliban" in the Pashto language) at the outset. Within a mere three years, Omar and his Taliban force had gained control over 90 percent of Afghan territories and established an Islamic fundamentalist national regime over the country in 1996.

The Taliban regime maintained brutal religious rule over its controlled areas, but it made little headway in terms of economic and social development, making it hard for Afghan people to earn a living. Worse still, the ideologically extreme Taliban destroyed the world famous cultural heritage site, the Buddha of Bamyan, in 2001. The regime then fell into a period of international isolation while Omar forged close ties with al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.

Also in 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York, the United States started the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and defeated the Taliban forces, which were expelled from cities and continued fight in the form of guerrilla warfare in mountainous areas. Ever since then, Omar had remained in seclusion.

In the last decade, every time Omar had been reported dead, the Taliban have dispelled rumors by releasing an audio message from Omar himself. But this time, Omar's death has been confirmed by the Taliban, cementing the fact that the group has definitively entered a post-Omar era.

A secretive succession

Mansour, the successor, used to be Omar's deputy and led the Taliban for some 20 years. He has received the support of some core figures in the Taliban, including the Haqqani network, an insurgent group fighting against the U.S.-led NATO forces and the Afghan Government.

According to a message published on a Taliban website in mid-July, Omar gave his blessings for the peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. His deputy Mansour is believed to be no less a strong backer for the peace negotiations.

But the death of Omar will inevitably divide the Taliban as voices of opponents grow increasingly louder.

On August 1, a faction of the Taliban monickered Sacrifice Front stated its refusal to acknowledge Mansour as Omar's rightful successor. It concluded that Omar was poisoned to death owing to a conspiracy in which Mansour had played a part. It also revealed in a statement that Omar and Mansour held differing ideas and even engaged in a fierce debate over whether or not to establish an office in Qatar in 2013. Here, it may have been insinuating that Omar had become a murder target as the supreme leader had never gone on record as agreeing to negotiate with the Afghan Government, negotiations which Mansour had so ardently pursued.

At the same time, Syed Tayyab Agha, head of Afghan Taliban's political office in Qatar, announced his resignation in protest against the appointment.

Another pretender to the Taliban throne is Omar's son Mullah Yaqub. Despite his young age, Yaqub boasted the support of Omar's families and his loyal subordinates.

Yaqub and his supporters criticized the fact that Mansour had concealed the death of Omar in the pursuit of his own interests and labeled the procedure of Mansour's appointment as being in contravention of Sharia law.

From beyond the grave

Omar's death will lead to a chain reaction in Afghan affairs.

Although Pakistan denied claims made in an Al Jazeera news report that Omar died at a hospital in Karachi, some analysts have speculated that the country may have lent a hand to Mansour in concealing the death of Omar in order to continue the Afghan peace talks mediated by Pakistan.

But the two sides failed to reach any consensus as Taliban's political office in Qatar refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the negotiations. Therefore, the Pakistani Government lost patience and disclosed the information of Omar's death to the Afghan Government, as a way of putting pressure on the Taliban.

Apparently, the announcement of Omar's death dealt a heavy blow to Taliban morale. The Afghan Government might now be hopeful of a split in the Taliban ranks, which would weaken the strength and cohesiveness of the group and give the Afghan Government an edge in future talks.

In addition to the power struggle between Mansour and Yaqub in the Taliban, an even more potent threat may emerge from the outside, namely jihadist groups of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS).

Taliban leader Omar and the head of al-Qaeda Osama bin Laden were firm allies, evident in the fact that they married each other's daughters. The possibility that al-

Qaeda could be involved in the internal conflict of the Taliban cannot be ignored. It is also possible that Omar's son Yaqub may enlist the help of al-Qaeda in his bid to succeed his father.

The rise of the ISIS has irrevocably altered the situation in the Middle East. Now the organization is expanding its clout to central Asia. During last year, some factions of the Taliban pledged allegiance to the ISIS, which is more brutal and extreme compared with the Taliban. It is possible that the intrusion of ISIS in the Taliban sphere of influence may not go unanswered.

Omar's death will overshadow the peace process in Afghanistan, with the second round of talks now having been suspended. Mansour said in a recent audio message that the Taliban would continue fighting, which may represent a ploy to maintain the unity of the group.

Furthermore, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has accused Pakistan of sending "messages of war" and harboring terrorist training camps. The relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have thus become strained.

At present, the Taliban will need to focus on consolidating internal unity and solving the power struggle, further diverting its interest from participating in peace talks. Meanwhile, the Afghan Government will enhance security and take steps to fight back against its opposite number.

Even if the Taliban agrees to take part in the peace process, it will doubtless prove hard for the two sides to reach reconciliation in the near future. The Afghan Government has urged the Taliban to abandon armed attacks and violence while the Taliban has in turn called for the creation of a coalition government formed through the addition of core Taliban members. The Taliban also espouses Islamic rule in the country, which is vastly at odds with the orientation of the current Ghani-led government.

The complicacy of the Afghan issue is not only reflected on the suspended peace talks, but also in the reshuffle of the international situation. The United States will soon withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan, leaving the Taliban with more breathing space and possibility of staging a comeback. ISIS now poses a fresh threat to Central Asia. All of these factors will only put the Afghan peace process in greater uncertainty.  

The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review

Copyedited by Eric Daly

Comments to liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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