While he may actually have died two years ago, Mullah Omar did not actually ‘die’ until the news of his death was leaked to the world media. That the news was deliberately leaked to the media is quite evident from the fact that his death was initially kept secret for more than two full years.
Obviously, it was kept hidden only to be leaked at some ‘proper time.’ For more than two years, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor was the de facto head of the Afghan Taliban. Therefore, his appointment, within just 24 hours of the announcement of Omar’s death, did not come as a surprise.
Some important questions that must certainly be asked here are: how could Pakistan be not aware of Mullah Omar’s death? Why was his death announced at this particular juncture? What did Pakistan and Afghanistan want to achieve out of his death? Which direction Afghan war is now heading to?
To understand the entire phenomenon and to get answers to these critical questions, we must, to begin with, delve deep into the changing dynamics of Pakistan-Taliban relations. A lot is regularly written and spoken about Pakistan’s “double-game” in the so-called “war on terror.”
Notwithstanding the history of Pakistan-Taliban (good) relations, the argument that Pakistan was, and still is, collaborating with the Afghan Taliban against the U.S. acutely fails to grasp the very nature of their mutual relation and the change it has undergone over the years. Neither is it 1990s when Afghanistan was left on its own, nor does Pakistan want to see Afghan Taliban as the only ruling force in Afghanistan. Afghan Taliban, too, are aware of Pakistan’s policy: hence, Omar’s (or issued in his name) instruction to his commanders: nobody is to be trusted, not even Pakistan.
As a matter of fact, the story of Mullah Omar’s death should suffice to explain a lot of the mystery surrounding Pakistan-Taliban relations. Quite contrary to the prevailing perceptions, Mullah Omar’s death — possibly in a Pakistani hospital — is not a reflection of Pakistan’s perpetually good relations with the Taliban; rather, it offers us an x-ray to look deep and clear into the fractures it has suffered.
To demystify this enigma, we must understand the context against which this ‘death’ took place. There is no doubt that Mullah Omar was of supreme importance for the Afghan Taliban. His symbolic influence was far beyond the Taliban so that even the former leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, had sworn allegiance to him. Last year, his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, renewed his allegiance to Mullah Omar as a sign of his opposition to the leader of the ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Not only is it a reflection of Mullah Omar’s importance as Taliban’s leader, but also signifies the immense increase in their popularity as a powerful militant force. And they are becoming stronger with each day passing. The extent of their politico-military strength can be assessed from the fact that even after 14 long years of warfare, Taliban’s major demands are till unchanged.
During the recently held (days before Omar’s death was made public) round of dialogue in Pakistan, it became evident for all parties concerned, especially Pakistan and Afghanistan, that the Taliban were not ready to compromise on any of their major demands that include not only full de-militarization of the country but also replacement of the current constitution with (their own made) a new one.
It is quite evident that the Taliban are strong on political ground because they are as strong as ever on military ground. A look at Taliban’s territorial gains in this year’s “summer offensive” would suffice to highlight their strength. Not only have they captured a number of towns by moving out of rural areas, but also forced Afghan military to withdraw from areas it had previously taken hold of after the U.S./NATO forces’ withdrawal.
An important question that arises here is: what were the contributing factors to the Taliban’s military strength? It is a matter of common sense that no war, especially a protracted guerrilla war, can be fought without enough supply of human raw material. For Afghan Taliban, the most important supply of human raw material came from Pakistani areas of North and South Waziristan agencies.
A lot of militant groups, including the notorious Haqqani group, which were previously using North Waziristan as their territorial sanctuary, were forced to withdraw from Pakistan due to Pakistan military’s Zarb-i-Azab operation, and consequently they joined hands with the Afghan Taliban.
The Pakistani military’s pressure on the various militant groups, including the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, al-Qaeda, Jundallah and the Haqqani network, forced a strong outflow of militants from Pakistan to Afghanistan.
It must be remembered that Mullah Omar was as much a supreme leader for Pakistan Taliban as he was for the Afghan Taliban. Leader of Haqqani network is now Afghan Taliban’s second in command after Mullah Akhtar Mansoor — reflecting a situation that can well be called the making of ‘great-alliance.’
The second important factor that contributed to the Taliban’s military gains was the crucial support they started to receive from Iran. Many Afghan intelligence officials have, in recent days, been found pointing out the funding the Taliban are currently receiving from Iran.
To quote one such official, “At the beginning, Iran was supporting [the] Taliban financially. But now they are training and equipping them, too.”
Afghan security officials have claimed that Iran is hosting Taliban militants at training camps in the cities of Tehran, Mashhad, and Zahedan, and in the province of Kerman. If true, it means that the level of cooperation between the two has moved to a whole new level.
The only factor that has made this co-operation a reality, forcing the erstwhile enemies into an alliance, is the emergence of a common enemy in Afghanistan: the ISIS.
Iran understands that the ISIS is, in effect, an arm of power projection of its regional rivals, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have been primary instigators of the war in Syria and of the attempt to break the alliance of Iran-Iraq-Syria-Hezbollah.
Therefore, from the Iranian perspective, the Taliban’s war against ISIS in Afghanistan is essentially a new theater in the larger war against the ISIS and its backers. For the Taliban, this marriage of convenience becomes a good substitute support base and a territorial sanctuary that they now have lost in Pakistan.
It is precisely due to these factors that the Taliban continue to remain a strong force in Afghanistan. Leaking the news of Mullah Omar’s death by Afghanistan and Pakistan (both state’s intelligence agencies are working in collaboration now due to the recently signed agreement) was, therefore, a very calculated move to strike at the heart of Afghan Taliban’s unity. The impact of the death of the leader of the Taliban on this group in the form of subsequent weakening and fragmentation was a forgone conclusion, at least in Pakistan and Afghanistan’s calculation.
To an extent, they have certainly achieved this objective. Not only are the Taliban internally divided on the question of new leadership, but are also forming new groups. Some of them, such as “Fidai Mahaz”, have even re-branded themselves as the ISIS, making life for the Afghan Taliban even more difficult after Omar’s death.
By stirring rogue elements within Taliban, and by breaking their unity, what both Pakistan and Afghanistan wanted to achieve was forcing the Taliban into ‘submission’ in the form of compromise on some of their demands.
The primary reason for Pakistan to do what was considered to be unthinkable until a few years ago is its desperate need for peaceful environment to fully reap benefits out of Pak-China Economic Corridor. With terrorist organizations fully bounded in the country, Pakistan could never hope to fully exploit the umpteen economic benefits—hence: large-scale military and intelligence operations against all types of militant outfits.
Pakistan’s grand plans notwithstanding, the emergence of the ISIS in Afghanistan and the threat it poses to both Afghanistan and Pakistan seem to be working as an anti-dote to Pakistan’s political tactics against the Taliban.
Almost simultaneous with the revelation about Mullah Omar’s death, a report was released noting that a document related to the ISIS had been leaked (found inside Pakistan areas) showing the group pinning its hope on forming an army of Afghan and Pakistani militants, which under the present circumstances, can provide the ISIS with a unique opportunity.
This document, which has been dubbed “A Brief History of ISIS”, the original copy of which is in Urdu, can be described as the formal entry of the ISIS in Afghanistan-Pakistan. Not only does it vow to wage ‘jihad’, but also make an ‘undisputable’ claim to the ‘throne’ of ‘Islamic Caliphate.’
The emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan is, therefore, most likely to give an altogether new direction to the Afghan war. On the one hand, the ISIS’s expansion in the north of Afghanistan appears to be quite consistent with the U.S.’ Eurasian strategy that aims at destabilizing the Russian and Chinese borders. On the other hand, the presence of ISIS sympathizers on Pak-Afghan border region tends to force both states into an uneasy relationship, having mostly mutually conflicting interests.
With Mullah Omar dead, the Taliban’s unity considerably damaged, and the ISIS having clear presence, there is hardly any direction, at least at the moment, that the Afghan war would move to.
With Pakistan and Afghanistan wanting to establish ‘peace’ (on their separate and mutually conflicting terms), with the Taliban fighting the Taliban and the ISIS, with the U.S. aspiring to keep the region as much unstable as may serve its own interest, and with the ISIS ready to take over the entire Levant, Afghanistan is increasingly moving towards becoming what T.S. Eliot would have called The Wasteland.
Given this, we should not feel overwhelmingly surprised when the U.N refugee agency reports 65 percent increase just in 2014 in applications for out-migration from Afghanistan to industrial countries.
“Much more than lack of economic opportunities, it is the fear of loss of life that is forcing us out of our homeland”, said a 24-year-old Afghan street vendor.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.