KABUL, Afghanistan—The new leader of the Afghan Taliban faces the twin challenges of bringing together an insurgency that he ran for years under another man’s name and uniting a fractured movement that has seen fighters desert for more extreme groups such as the Islamic State. Meanwhile, the Afghan government believes it can seize on the Taliban leadership crisis it has created by announcing that Mullah Mohammad Omar has been dead for more than two years to further weaken the insurgency.
As Afghan officials quietly expressed optimism that peace will eventually prevail, the first fissures began appearing Friday in the Taliban’s veneer, when Mullah Omar’s son Yacoob said that he and other senior leaders rejected the manner and the result of the election for a new leader.
“The Afghan government is hoping that in dispelling the myth that Mullah Omar has been making the decisions all these years, that the Taliban will turn in on itself, eat its young and become an irrelevance,” said a diplomat in Kabul.
Without Mullah Omar at the helm, officials and analysts said, the Taliban has lost its ability to compel members into obedience with the religious legitimacy he wielded as “Commander of the Faithful,” who wore a cloak said to have belonged to the Prophet Muhammad.
“The Taliban movement is based on religious, Islamic principles, not on tribal and ethnic principles and as such the decisions of the ruling shuras (councils) should be accepted by all members” as religious edicts, said Wakil Ahmed Muttawhakil, who served as foreign minister in the Taliban’s 1996-2001 administration.
For the past three years, the man just elected to replace Mullah Omar, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, has purported to be speaking and acting in his name. He has entered into a peace process with Kabul, but he has also ordered battlefield commanders to intensify their war, now nearing its 14th year with the deaths of U.S. and other international forces and Afghan civilians in the tens of thousands. Taliban gunmen have believed themselves to be righteously fighting a jihad, or holy war.
“When Mullah Omar became the emir, there was a huge gathering in Kandahar, significantly inside Afghanistan, that gave him legitimacy in his claim to be the leader,” said an Afghan official. “The leadership of the Afghan Taliban must be inside Afghanistan if they are to have the legitimacy of leadership. How can they claim to be the opposition to the Afghan government and to represent all factions of the organization when they are outside the country?”
Like the diplomat, he spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media on the subject.
Not all within the insurgency’s ranks believed the man not seen in public since 2001 was still running the show, and when the dissatisfaction surfaced, the Afghan leadership decided to finally kill the myth. That decision is likely to shake the foundations of the Afghan political landscape, officials, diplomats and analysts said.
But an equally divided Afghan government needs to take a unified approach to turn the opportunities now available to its advantage, said political analyst Haroun Mir. “The national unity government is fragmented. The Taliban has been shown to be in the same situation. So now who should talk to whom,” he said.
“This is an opportunity for the Afghan government to review its negotiating strategy, to reactivate the High Peace Council with a new structure, making it more independent, with new people and the authority to negotiate on behalf of all Afghans,” Mir said, referring to the body charged with bringing the Taliban into a dialogue aimed at ending the war.
The White House said Friday that the demise of Mullah Omar represents a chance for yet more progress for a stable Afghanistan. It noted last year’s elections and the first peaceful, democratic transfer of power as well as the end of U.S. combat mission.
Still, “Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, and the Afghan people still suffer from a brutal insurgency that continues to take innocent lives and hinder Afghanistan’s prospects for peace,” the White House statement said. “At this time of transition, the Taliban can choose to continue to fight their own people and destabilize their own country, or they can choose peace. We encourage the Taliban to heed President (Ashraf) Ghani’s call for reconciliation and make genuine peace with the Afghan government.”
Others said Kabul could also take control of a peace process that has been largely in the hands of the Pakistani authorities, widely believed to support the Afghan Taliban and to have pressured its leaders to deal with Ghani’s government, which has made peace a priority. It is widely believed that Mansoor is close to Pakistan and that his actions have reflected the bidding of Islamabad.
The nascent peace process is now on hold, after the Taliban pulled out of a second round of official, face-to-face talks due to have taken place in Pakistan on Friday.
The fissures in the insurgency that have become evident in recent days hint at a growing influence of hardliners who might believe their own propaganda that this year’s battlefield gains signal victory is close. The election of Sirajuddin Haqqani, a leader of the brutal Haqqani Network who carries a $10 million bounty on his head, as a deputy leader may be designed to lure back disaffected commanders who have declared allegiance to the Islamic State group — which already controls about a third of Iraq and Syria and has been trying to establish a presence in Afghanistan.
It could also be an attempt to ensure money continues to flow to the Taliban, as the Haqqani Network has wealthy backers at a time of fierce competition for funding among insurgent groups. One Taliban commander who refused to be named because he has no authority to speak publicly for the movement, said the appointment of Mansoor would “help IS recruitment and I’m sure they will do their best to use this situation to the maximum.”
High Peace Council officials said ahead of the slated second round of talks that the Afghan government would be calling for a ceasefire as a show of sincerity from the Taliban. That hope has been shot down, at least for now.
But as the insurgency publicly fractures, hopes are growing that Kabul’s divide-and-conquer strategy will yield a long-term peace dividend.
“We are optimistic,” said the government official.