How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
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.
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 main rival, Abdul Qayum Zakir, a Taliban member previously held in Guantánamo, and his followers. Mansour skillfully managed to bring back a majority of the Taliban’s funding under his control, mostly through diplomatic maneuvering, and his patronage system was unrivaled within the Taliban.
Perhaps the many years of education Yakub spent in a Pakistani madrasah predisposed him to object to Mansour’s seemingly “unprincipled” approach to the peace process.Except for a growing faction of the Taliban based in Iran and receiving Iranian patronage, the Quetta Shura also seemed to finally be regaining much of the ground it lost in 2009–13 to the other main centers of Taliban power: the Haqqanis (also known as Miran Shah Shura) and the Peshawar Shura. When Yakub started his own career within the Taliban in early 2015, he appeared to be playing by Mansour’s rules and seems to have sided with Mansour, who even appointed him to head the Quetta Shura’s finance commission. Yakub regularly traveled to the Gulf for fundraising, and the welcome he received there was surely fodder for his ego.
From the beginning, though, Yakub also entertained close relations with Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is leader of the Miran Shah Shura and is hostile to political reconciliation. Perhaps the many years of education Yakub spent in a Pakistani madrasah predisposed him to object to Mansour’s seemingly “unprincipled” approach to the peace process, which is increasingly focused more on power sharing and the distribution of the spoils than on principles (establishing a “more Islamic” system of government, whatever that might mean).
According to sources within the Quetta Shura, friction first arose between Yakub and Mansour in April, when Mansour initially raised the possibility of announcing to the world that Omar was dead. Mansour claimed that Kabul’s demand to meet Omar in order to obtain a clear endorsement of the peace process left the group with no other choice. Yakub, however, also understood that Mansour was laying the groundwork for his own succession to Omar. Yakub is also likely not to have appreciated Mansour’s decision to issue an Eid al-Fitr message at the end of Ramadan that was signed “Mullah Omar” and that endorsed the peace process. His message broke the unwritten agreement that the Quetta Shura would not use Omar’s name to promote policies that were still controversial among the Taliban.
Then on July 4, Mansour took the final step of calling a meeting of Taliban notables (governors, members of the various commissions, Quetta Shura members, top clerics, leading Taliban commanders, and the principals of the main madrasahs) and announcing to them that Omar had died and that he intended to make a public announcement of that fact within the month. He asked the notables to support his succession. Then Mansour tried to consolidate his control over the peace process, with the intent of accelerating it, by sacking Sayed Tayeb Agha from the job of head of the Taliban diplomacy operation (technically, he was deputy head of the Doha office and had expressed doubts about the wisdom of speeding up reconciliation). Bypassed by Mansour, Yakub and his uncle Abdul Manan were furious.
Yakub is thus now a key obstacle to Mansour and Mansour’s approach to peace talks. He has been arguing that the peace process should be slowed, that Omar’s death should not be announced, and that in any event, he or Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban, would be natural successors to Omar. In his bid for leadership, Yakub seems to have had the encouragement of Haqqani and the Taliban’s other two main military leaders: Abdul Qayum Zakir (now allied with the Iranians) and Qari Baryal, head of the Peshawar Shura Military Commission. The fact that Yakub is very young and is likely too inexperienced for the top job was probably less important to them than the opportunity he potentially offered to stop Mansour in his tracks and prevent a reconciliation process that they do not like.
Mansour has paid a high price. He and the Quetta Shura have always claimed that their legitimacy descended from Omar’s endorsement and have regularly released statements that, they claim, were authored by Omar.The announcement of Omar’s death was clearly coordinated between Kabul and Quetta; regardless of what the sources in the Quetta Shura say, if Quetta had really been taken by surprise, it would have taken it much longer to decide how to react. As Yakub was gathering support, Mansour appears to have decided to preempt him by pressing on the accelerator. Perhaps Mansour believed that his international connections with major Taliban donors would give him a decisive edge.
Instead, however, Mansour has paid a high price. He and the Quetta Shura have always claimed that their legitimacy descended from Omar’s endorsement and have regularly released statements that, they claim, were authored by Omar. Now Mansour will struggle harder to get the mass of the Taliban fighters and commanders on board with the reconciliation policy. Yakub didn’t come off looking much better. He gained much of his reputation as a rising Taliban star by claiming to be in regular contact with his father, even carrying some statements from Omar to the Taliban leadership. For his part, Mansour might have simply decided that since he was already the de facto head of the Quetta Shura as Omar’s deputy, a mutual deligitimization would weaken Yakub more than it would harm Mansour.
On July 30, Mansour called for a general Taliban meeting to select Omar’s successor. He was a shoo-in, thanks to the fact that he already staffed the Quetta Shura with protégés and allies and that he manipulated the process of choosing the delegates so that the assembled group was not very representative of the Taliban as a movement or even of the leadership as a whole. Yakub and Abdul Manan stormed out of the meeting when they realized what was going on. The gathering easily elected Mansour, but the process won him some new enemies, including Baradar, who had been Omar’s deputy until he was arrested by the Pakistanis in 2010. Ailing, Baradar made an effort to attend the meeting but did not vote. He sided with Yakub in rejecting Mansour’s selection as illegitimate. Mansour made even more enemies outside the Quetta Shura, where support for Yakub is even stronger.
Mansour did manage to win back Haqqani’s support by appointing him as one of his deputies—an attempt to co-opt one of Yakub’s key allies. Haqqani is under strong Pakistani pressure to align with Mansour and support the reconciliation process. He had grudgingly agreed to send one representative to the July 7 meeting with Kabul’s representatives in Islamabad. The Pakistanis also supported Mansour and encouraged his bid to accelerate the peace process. Sources in Quetta, however, say that Yakub is lobbying Haqqani to desert the Mansour camp and rejoin him. Mansour’s other deputy pick, Maulavi Haibatullah Akhunzada, seems an attempt to co-opt the clerics, who have also been critical of Mansour’s reconciliation policy, in particular of his focus on power sharing.
Yakub, meanwhile, is on the warpath; he resigned from the finance commission and is campaigning among the clerical class and the Taliban leadership to get them to resist Mansour. He is planning to openly challenge Mansour’s election. There is fertile ground for that. Many commanders and fighters are reportedly shocked that Mansour and the top leaders have been shamelessly lying for years, claiming to be endorsed by a dead man. Although Yakub was also lying by putting forward messages supposedly from Omar, the fact that he was not in a leadership position shelters him from the main criticism. He reportedly is justifying his behavior by saying that the leadership (that is, Mansour) asked him to keep mum about the death in order to avoid demoralizing the fighters. The Quetta Shura’s weak participation in the current fighting season (which contrasts with the complete mobilization of the Peshawar Shura in the east and northeast and of Zakir in Helmand and Urozgan) is also another factor weakening Mansour’s legitimacy and leading many Taliban to suspect that his policies represent nothing less than a sellout.
The postponement of the second reconciliation meeting between Kabul and the Taliban, originally planned for July 31 or August 3, is probably a reflection of Mansour’s desire to consolidate his position and appease the hard-liners and the so-called principled Taliban, at least temporarily, to undermine Yakub’s challenge. It seems clear in any case that Mansour will continue to face opposition from at least two sources: his longtime rival Abdul Qayum Zakir and other Taliban allied with Iran, on the one side, and the Peshawar Shura, on the other. No representatives of the Peshawar Shura, whose leaders are convinced that Mansour wants to sideline them and leave them empty-handed at the end of any successful reconciliation, attended the previous July 7 reconciliation meeting.
Whether Mansour’s gamble wrecked his multiyear efforts to reunify the Quetta Shura under him for good could largely depend on the attitude of its donors; the opposition to him will run out of steam unless it manages to mobilize financial resources. But even if Mansour manages to get away with his dubious selection as leader, it will be hard for him to continue to pursue a reconciliation process that meets the demands of his foreign sponsors and allies and at the same time keeps most of the Taliban together—or even most of the Quetta Shura together. For now, an open split does not appear imminent. Yakub seems intent on organizing a campaign against Mansour within the Taliban, a brand name that has significant value. But if Mansour keeps breaking old rules and, most important, if he resumes the reconciliation process before gathering widespread support within the top layers of the Taliban, anything could happen. The Taliban also risks that major donors to the movement might end up so dismayed by ever worsening internal struggles that they could dump the Taliban altogether. Funding to the Taliban is already in decline this year, and a further acceleration of the cuts could have devastating effects.