— With word of Mullah Muhammad Omar’s death now getting out, most likely two years after the event, the world is catching up with a Taliban leadership crisis already in progress.
The questions the Taliban are wrestling with include not just who stands to succeed Mullah Omar as leader, but whether anyone has enough support to keep the insurgency from splintering irrevocably, especially over the issue of peace talks, according to Afghan and Western officials.
For the moment, the Taliban’s deputy leader over the past five years, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, is the de facto leader of the group’s governing body in exile, the Quetta Shura. He has had years to influence who rose among the Taliban’s ranks, has the tacit acceptance of the group’s Pakistani military monitors, and he has been the leader in a year when the Taliban have made their biggest military gains on the Afghan battlefield.
But interviews with a range of Taliban members, including senior commanders in Afghanistan
and leadership figures in Pakistan, suggest that the long-term question of who could lead the insurgency is far from settled. Most characterized the Taliban as being in discord, and two of the most senior militants, including a member of the Quetta Shura, said that the leadership question would be decided at a major council meeting in the coming days.
Some admitted receiving final confirmation of their supreme leader’s death only when the news media reported it on Wednesday. That raised the likelihood of more hard feelings toward the current Taliban leadership after a year when several disgruntled commanders quit the group — some to join the Islamic State — and openly declared their suspicions that Mullah Omar was dead.
Analysts and Taliban members also described Mullah Mansour’s apparent acceptance of negotiations with the Afghan government this month as a deeply divisive issue within the insurgency.
“The Islamic Emirate is trying to convene a gathering soon to end the differences between the leadership,” said the Quetta Shura member, speaking by telephone and on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering his colleagues and their Pakistani monitors.
Afghan officials and Taliban members said two names were rising in leadership discussions: Mullah Mansour’s, and that of Mullah Omar’s oldest son, Yaqoub, a mullah in his mid-20s.
Some of the senior Taliban members said that Mullah Yaqoub had prominent support, including from Mullah Abdul Qayuum Zakir, a senior Taliban military commander. He and Mullah Mansour have long been rivals, officials said, and the Quetta Shura member said their differences had intensified over the question of whether to engage in peace talks.
For now, the talks, which opened with a meeting on July 7, appeared to be off while the Taliban discussed their future. Pakistan’s foreign affairs ministry, which was hosting the meetings, said in a statement that a second round of face-to-face peace talks, scheduled for Friday, would be delayed at the request of the Taliban’s leadership “in view of the reports regarding the death of Mullah Omar and the resulting uncertainty.”
The Taliban officially acknowledged that Mullah Omar was dead only on Thursday, a day after Afghan officials announced that they had confirmed he had died in a Karachi-area hospital in 2013.
The group’s most prominent spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, issued a statement confirming that “the commander of the faithful” had died after an illness, without being specific about the time frame. The group’s political office in Qatar said on Twitter that he had died on the afternoon of April 23, 2013, but that the death had been kept hidden.
The main Taliban statement concluded with an apology from Mullah Omar’s family. It was likely in keeping with an Afghan custom of settling grievances upon death, but it resonated for many who lived through Mullah Omar’s reign. Two family members — Mullah Omar’s brother and Mullah Yaqoub, his son — asked Muslims for pardon on his behalf “if anyone’s rights were violated in the era of the Islamic Emirate under the leadership of Mullah Mohammad Omar Mujahid.”
So long as his followers accepted that Mullah Omar might be alive, the insurgency held together to a remarkable extent. That cohesion persisted even after Taliban leaders and commanders stopped hearing from him directly and had begun questioning whether he was dead.
Now, with the reality out in the open, some analysts believe the question is not whether the Taliban will splinter, but how severely. The answer has important implications for an already-chaotic battlefield that Afghan and Western officials are struggling to keep up with, and also for the prospect of any negotiated peace.
“It’s already starting to fracture,” said Graeme Smith, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Kabul. “We’ve already seen insurgent leaders break off from the Taliban, declaring that Mullah Omar is dead and their oaths of loyalty are no longer valid.”
Some analysts suggested that the death of an inspirational, and notably conservative, leader might make some within the Taliban more likely to accept that a peace process was desirable. But Mr. Smith suggested that the news might in fact have the opposite effect. “The nightmare for peace negotiators is that they will end up with a 1,000 sharp splinters as opposed to one unified opponent,” he said.
Officials have said that the Quetta Shura has been under heavy pressure to join talks by Pakistani military and intelligence officials, who have leverage over the Taliban’s leaders because they mostly live in exile with their families in Pakistan. The Pakistanis have intimidated shura members who stood in the way, the Quetta Shura member said.
“Many Taliban members have been arrested in Quetta and elsewhere by the Pakistani authorities, some have been detained for a brief period and others are still in custody,” he said.
In recent months, Mullah Mansour’s support, or acquiescence, depending on who describes it, for the Pakistani-organized peace talks has been a divisive issue. Among the most prominent of his opponents is Mullah Zakir, a former detainee at the American prison camp at Guantánamo Bay. He commands a vast network of Taliban fighters centered in Helmand Province, where some of the bloodiest battles of the insurgency have been fought.
“There are ideological differences,” the Quetta Shura member said. “Mullah Zakir does not want peace talks to happen, but Mullah Mansour has been forced by the Pakistani government to rally Shura members behind peace negotiations.”
Mullah Zakir is said to have thrown his support behind Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoub, who has had little involvement in Taliban politics in the past.
A senior Afghan official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said Mullah Yaqoub had been active in recent months, traveling to Gulf countries to meet with businessmen and Taliban members in exile.
The official noted that Mullah Yaqoub had been closer to his mother’s side of the family than to his paternal uncle, Mullah Manan Hotak, who has been involved in Taliban decision-making.
The shura member said that the symbolism of elevating Mullah Yaqoub was likely to appeal to many of the Taliban’s fighting commanders in the field. However, within Pakistan, among the Taliban’s senior leadership, there is considerable support for Mullah Mansour to succeed Mullah Omar.
“They say Mansour is good and had Mullah Omar’s trust,” the shura member said.
Over the past several years, Taliban leaders who once had access to Mullah Omar largely became cut off. Mullah Mansour, a close associate of Mullah Omar’s for more than two decades and the minister of aviation during the Taliban government, became the primary conduit for leadership directives, Afghan and American officials said, citing intelligence reporting.
Whether Mullah Mansour was truly passing on directions from Mullah Omar or instead was pretending to be in touch with a dead man — or whether the first possibility later turned into the second — remains a potent issue for Mullah Mansour’s credibility within the Taliban.
Even after the Taliban’s confirmation of their leader’s death, some Taliban commanders did not believe it, and others seemed philosophical about it. From them came a reminder of how Mullah Omar came to power — in combat, and in conquest — and of how they would prefer to continue.
“Whether it is Mullah Mansour or the son of Mullah Omar — it makes no difference for us whoever leads the Taliban movement,” said Mullah Asadullah, a Taliban district commander in Oruzgan Province, in southern Afghanistan. “We will keep up our jihad, our struggle to free Afghanistan from occupation.”