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Mullah Omar. What his death meant for the Taliban

Is it the end of the Taliban era that are on the cards, with the announced surprise death of Mullah Omar, and the practically conclusive peace talks being planned in Kabul?

After years of stagnation, a situation portrayed by the failure of the international community and the de-facto pro-American governments in Kabul, the world is bound to see the revival of Afghanistan as a nation seeking economic growth and investment.

However, the announced death of Mullah Omar does not mean it is the end of the conflict in Afghanistan — with the rise of splinter groups — but it does set the tone for a radical change in the country’s immediate future.

With billions lost over the years, mostly due to corruption in Kabul, and at times due to the Taliban’s raids on the convoys and military outfits across the country, the real question is whether the Taliban will be as important in a ‘unity’ government as it would have been with Mullah Omar around?

The Afghan regime in Kabul, along with its ally from Washington, is preparing for a conclusive deal with the new Taliban leadership, amid rumours of a power struggle that has started within the Taliban movement pinning Mullah Omar’s son against the newly declared leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was Omar’s deputy.

The BBC website reported that Mullah Omar, who was the founder of the movement, led the Taliban for some 20 years was dead. His death was confirmed by the Taliban on Thursday this week (July 30).

The statement did not say where, when or how he died, only that it was from an illness and that he had remained in Afghanistan since the 2001 US invasion.

While Omar will be known as the man who refused to hand over the Al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden to the Western forces after the 911 events in the United States, little is known of his powerful grip on the Taliban.

Altogether, for the Taliban to find a unifying leader like Mullah Omar will be almost impossible and this begs the question of whether it will survive the current tension that may cause it to split further?

The underlying factors of the new peace talks, likely to be held in Kabul, will depend on the ramifications it will have on the immediate neighbours of Afghanistan, in particular Pakistan.

In Pakistan real powers lies with the Army’s top brass, which is known as the ‘establishment’, and for the first time in their entire history they are currently in a ‘catch 22’ situation and the death of Mullah Omar does not come as good news for them.

Pakistan is still reeling from former President Parvez Musharaf’s treason trial, which is currently in suspension mode as the political leadership in the country is not certain whether it want the latter in jail or not.

The talks between the two parties in Afghanistan have a long history of non-conclusive endings, which left the door open for concrete discussions between the two forces at play. But the death of the founder and hero of the Taliban movement has made it more than necessary for a new, potentially final peace talk.

However, there are more players behind the scene in the proposed peace talks, as it involves the occupying Western forces and the Pakistani government and its powerful military.

The talks, if they are held in the present conditions, will be crucial for the new Taliban leadership albeit it is a contested one.

It will also be crucial for the image of the newly elected Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani.

The conditions set by the Taliban are expected to be rather flexible in comparison to those imposed by Mullah Omar during his lifetime.

Talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government or the Western military were not taboo, but they were held under extreme conditions which were laid down in detailed documents, signed by Mullah Omar, sources said.

The source said one of the pre-condition Mullah Omar had set for these talks was the “their (US) exit from the Afghanistan conflict.”, an exit which the Pakistani military did not favour, after the arrest of Musharaf.

The Pakistanis, aware of the influence of Mullah Omar on the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a group that wreaked havoc in the former North-West Frontier Territory of Pakistan, wanted Omar’s support in peace talks between the Pakistani Taliban and the Pak army.

A series of killings of leaders of the Taliban in Pakistan and that of rival groups in the northern territories put the talks on hold in late 2013 when the world had last heard of Mullah Omar giving orders to the Taliban’s foreign policy leaders.

In a bold diplomatic move in 2013, Mullah Omar pushed for the normalisation of relations with Iran and India, two countries that were rushing aid towards anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan.

Mullah Omar then sent Mullah Zaeef to visit India in 2013, to assure India of good relations between the Taliban and New Delhi, while the Taliban sent an official delegation to Iran, again to assure Tehran of the cooperation of the Taliban.

In between, China had already secured a strange deal with the Taliban, that is for the Taliban not to intervene in China’s iron ore extraction in the country while the Taliban supporters could find cover within China’s rugged territory.

These were hair raising for the shaken Pakistani establishment (Army) since the diplomatic moves by Mullah Omar had forced Pakistan to come to the conclusion that they will be the first target of Mullah Omar outside Afghanistan.

Mullah Omar had many disciples, and among them were Osama Bin Laden, and the entire Al-Qaeda group.

Indeed, the Taliban movement was entirely under his grip, a firm grip, that has now been loosened too soon for some. His death has now left a leadership vacuum, similar to that left by the passing of Osama Bin Laden, which brought Al-Qaeda to split into ISIS, ISIL and so on.

We are already seeing the splinter groups in Afghanistan in action, and according to legend, the Taliban would not attack civilians or go to war during the month of Ramadan.

Unless its enemies waged war against it in the holy months, a source said.

Were the recent terrorist acts that of the splinter groups, or disgruntled Taliban members, who felt the vacuum well before Mullah Omar’s death was announced?

Nevertheless, Omar imposed several conditions for the peace talks. One of them was that the Americans in particular, but the Western forces in general, would be out of the country by 2014.

Another condition laid by Omar was that the Afghan government will have to vacate as there will be no room for them to rule alongside the Taliban.

The other was that the deal will also include the Pakistani North-West Frontier Province, which is the land of the Pakhtun or Pashtun (the majority ethnic group that forms the Taliban).

These conditions were tough for the Americans and the Pakistanis as the Pak army thought it was part of a ploy by Omar to target Pakistan next, in its regionalisation of the conflict.

The whole peace process, which was given the nod from Washington, took an ugly turn with the Musharaf court case, and the incessant killing of the leaders of the Pak Taliban and its rivals.

Mullah Omar rose to the ranks of the famous in Afghanistan thanks to events that catapulted him as the most popular man in his country, and this was at the height of the Russian occupation.

In early 1994, Omar led 30 men armed with 16 rifles to free two young girls who had been kidnapped and raped by a warlord, hanging him from a tank gun barrel.

He also freed a boy from being sodomised by two militia commanders, and these heroic acts sparked a movement of support for Omar.

In September 1996, Kabul fell to Mullah Omar’s Taliban.

It is an irony, though, that it was the return of his friend Osama Bin Laden to Afghanistan that led to his movement losing control of Kabul and of Kandahar, where Omar was born.

The final question that remains is whether the Taliban will survive the vacuum of leadership left by Omar’s passing?

Reminiscent of other militant movements in the past, it is possible the Taliban finds itself in a long search for a leader who can characterise the movement the way Omar did.

Nevertheless, Afghanistan’s history books will always speak highly of the man who defied the West. Omar made Afghanistan the graveyard of empires.

Guest columnist Kazi Mahmood is a Kuala Lumpur-based editor for the Malay Mail business newspaper. He has shared his views on the BBC and on the Iran News Agency.

The article first appeared in The Week (Medium) in 2015

Kazi Mahmood

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