Fayaz Aziz / Reuters A man cries as he offers funeral prayers with others for the late Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar at Jamia Masjid Khyber in Peshawar, Pakistan July 31, 2015.

The Taliban in Pieces

The Internal Struggle Behind the Announcement of Mullah Omar's Death

Although rumors of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar have circulated for years—rumors that the Afghan National Directorate of Security even confirmed several times, first in classified communications with its allies and then in a December 2014 public statement—it was only on July 29, 2015, that the Afghan and U.S. governments affirmed that he had died. Perhaps even more surprising, this time the Taliban admitted that Omar is dead, after having staunchly rejected the possibility for years.

A group of men detained for suspected Taliban activities are held for questioning at a schoolhouse in the village of Kuhak in Arghandab District, north of Kandahar July 9, 2010.

A group of men detained for suspected Taliban activities are held for questioning at a schoolhouse in the village of Kuhak in Arghandab District, north of Kandahar July 9, 2010.

The timing appears odd. Kabul and the Taliban have just recently started meeting officially to discuss a peace process, and acknowledging the death of Omar is not going to help things along. The Taliban tried to gloss over the issue by claiming, through Omar’s younger brother, Mullah Abdul Manan, and his son, Mohammad Yakub, that Omar had just died after a long illness. If that had been true, the timing wouldn’t raise any eyebrows, but U.S. and Afghan sources still insist that he died a couple of years ago. Sources within the Taliban also claim that Yakub has been telling his close supporters that he knew of Omar’s death years ago but was asked by the leadership to keep mum about it lest the rank and file be demoralized. This is in line with what other Taliban sources have been saying for some time.

So if, in all likelihood, Omar died years ago, why reveal the fact now? It would have made sense to keep quiet about it until a much later stage of the negotiation process. The disruption that the news is likely to cause within the Taliban will complicate things and perhaps even derail the whole process.

The obvious answer is that the news of Omar’s death was circulated as a result of power struggles within the Taliban. By the summer of 2014, Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, Omar’s deputy, seemed to have finally brought the Quetta Shura under his firm control by purging it of his

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