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Lying on his deathbed in 2013, Mullah Omar likely imagined bigger headlines publicizing his life and death. The indisputable commander of the Taliban, Omar had battled the Soviets, ruled Afghanistan, and fronted a persistent insurgency that has bled U.S. taxpayers of a trillion dollars and embroiled the United States in the longest war in its history.
Now the commander of those enemy forces is dead—or has been for a while. The announcement of his passing hit the press more than two years late, due to the utility of pretending he was alive for both the Taliban and Islamabad. Despite the “Weekend at Bernie’s” ruse finally ending, however, U.S. policymakers are not celebrating—and for good reason. The announcement of Omar’s death appears to be fracturing the Taliban.
This may sound like a positive development, but the United States will find that dividing is one thing, but conquering is quite another. Subjugating factions requires offering a cogent solution for security and governance. Unfortunately for Washington, the U.S.-allied regime in Kabul is not likely to be that cogent political actor. This leaves the door open for alternative insurgents. And if history is any indication, there is bad news ahead; turmoil is fertile soil for extremists.
COMMANDER OF THE FAITHFUL
Touting the title Commander of the Faithful and ruling Afghanistan from 1996–2001, Omar commanded more authority and legitimacy in the Taliban than any other leader. Notoriously reclusive and unhurried in his deliberations, his style played to his image as a pious man who reluctantly rose to the occasion to combat post-Soviet instability. He was not, the Taliban and Islamabad tried to show, yet another warlord campaigning with Pakistani backing. Beyond that, most of what we know about him relies on the same two tired photos and fuzzy biography. According to U.S. documents, Omar was extraordinary and yet wholly unimpressive at the same time. He was reportedly uncharismatic and astonishingly ignorant in matters of global affairs, but the United States could not ignore—or defeat—his Taliban.
Over time, the deficiency of official information about Omar, including such basic intelligence as his birthday (sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s), appearance, degree of influence over strategic or tactical decisions, or even whether he was alive or dead, may have been mistaken as an indication that the Taliban leader was unimportant. If he were significant, after all, Washington would surely know more about him.
But ignorance about something does not make it less influential; it only creates potential misunderstanding. Omar himself notoriously misunderstood the United States, believing a military response to 9/11 was possible but unlikely. This miscalculation came at a high price. Perhaps in parallel, years of only vaguely understanding Omar and the Taliban leadership may have cost the U.S. mission as well. Dismissive adjectives used by analysts to describe Omar including “rural,” “primitive,” and “ignorant,” supported Washington’s tendency to focus on al Qaeda instead, since al Qaeda was “networked,” “strategic,” and “transnational”—all in all, a more formidable and sophisticated-sounding enemy. Recall that, in frustration, Lyndon Johnson likewise characterized Vietnam as a “damn little pissant,” “raggety-ass little fourth-rate country.” Insurgents, it seems, have their own definitions of sophistication.
Omar’s strategic role in the post-2001 Taliban insurgency remains unclear. Most analysts conclude that he served as an important figurehead, but had little tactical influence. For example, Bette Dam, a biographer on Omar, argues that Omar “didn't exert a lot of political or military influence…. I think we in the West really exaggerated his position as the leader of the enemy.” Some U.S. officials certainly concurred with this view given the relatively minor effort made to apprehend Omar compared to the one to get Osama bin Laden. But according to the journalist Steve Coll, Richard Holbrooke, who was U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, wholeheartedly believed that Omar was critical. Holbrooke noted that he would have prioritized Omar’s capture ahead of bin Laden’s. Vali Nasr, Holbrooke’s aid, likewise referred to Omar as the “Ho Chi Minh of the war”—that is, pivotal to the organization—a catchy but imperfect comparison. It is at least clear that, similar to Ho Chi Minh, Omar died in the middle of his struggle against the United States, yet the insurgency he led persisted.
There is no dispute that Omar served as a unifying legend and source of legitimacy—no small feat for a group known as an alliance of factions. As James Dobbins, the State Department’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, commented, it didn’t so much matter whether Omar was “alive or not, the Taliban was operating in a coherent, unified fashion in his name.” Omar’s label and legend were strategically important. He relied on symbols to rule, included public stonings and executions, the requirement that men have beards and women wear burkas, and allowing the destruction of the Buddhas in Bamiyan. In exile after 2002, he then himself became a potent symbol of the Taliban brand.
Preserving his status as a legend, Omar sought to remain hidden and unblemished, a commander of the righteous. As the Taliban started to use suicide bombings against civilians as a strategic weapon, Omar (or whomever was writing under his name) regularly issued statements advising against any violence involving civilians, and blaming Kabul and Washington for the bloodshed. Although mid-level Taliban commanders got their hands dirty in tactical violence, Omar consistently aimed to endure as a voice of piety and restraint.
In late July, the Taliban announced that Omar’s replacement will be (and likely has been for some time) Mullah Mohammad Mansour. Mansour has pleaded for solidarity among Taliban fighters. “The enemy can’t defeat us,” he said in his first public message as commander, “if we show unity.” His appeals have been less than convincing, though, particularly among those who dispute the succession process.
Although Mansour is expected to maintain control over the largest segments of the Taliban organization, several influential Taliban officials are publicly voicing discontent, including Omar’s son Yakub, his brother, Mullah Abdul Manan Hotak, and a military commander and rival of Mansour, Mullah Adbul Qayoum Zakir. The Pakistani Taliban (TTP), a group that is hostile toward Islamabad, is reportedly disgruntled that it wasn’t consulted about Omar’s replacement, and Tayeb Agha, the key Taliban official in Qatar who brokered the prisoner exchange that ended with U.S. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s release, has now resigned, citing excessive manipulation in the succession process by the Pakistani security establishment.
A splintered enemy ought to be easier to conquer. Washington and its allies in Kabul could try to divide and rule, perhaps subsuming certain moderate factions in the process. But this is unlikely. The United States is on its way out the door, and the American public has expressed little interest in extending military interventions in hostile lands. Unfortunately, after establishing a well-founded reputation for corruption and ineffectiveness, the regime in Kabul is even less likely to be able to take advantage of a declining Taliban in 2015 than it was to unseat a vanquished Taliban in 2002–05. More likely, armed divisions will just start fighting each other again. The scene will be familiar to Afghans, who in the 1990s, saw such struggles give rise to the Taliban. Many segments of the Afghan public were willing to tolerate the Taliban’s harsh rule in order to end the violent chaos among mujahedeen groups. Omar’s Taliban rapidly consolidated control using a brutal brand of sharia and developing a reputation against compromise and corruption.
As things stand today, there are a few possible outcomes that may emerge from a splintering Taliban. The first is that a Pakistani-backed hardline group will emerge to impose order. This insurgency could be led by an existing Taliban element (perhaps Mansour) that is able to unite key splintering affiliates while combatting and isolating others. Alternatively, if the death of Omar and the divisions that follow, sufficiently degrade the Taliban brand causing the title “Taliban” to become a generic term for military resistance, as opposed to organizational affiliation (perhaps similar to the title “mujahedeen” after Soviet withdrawal), Afghanistan could witness the rise of a new brand of insurgents created from several armed tribal and political organizations exercising local jurisdiction. Just as the Islamic State (also called ISIS) was born from the splintering of al Qaeda in Iraq, breakaway insurgent elements can be rebranded to bolster legitimacy and set them apart from old elements. Lastly, a particularly challenging development would be if an entity aligned with a foreign extremist group like ISIS, unfriendly to Islamabad, as well as Washington and Kabul, emerged to fill the void.
A group hostile to Islamabad would be more threatening than one influenced by Pakistani handlers, since such a group could threaten the stability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. And much to the dread of U.S. officials, ISIS has tried to make inroads into Afghanistan, albeit with limited success so far. ISIS has battled Taliban groups, while also at times successfully co-opting younger Taliban fighters, which has also contributed to the Taliban’s recent splintering. Kabul could hope that clashes between ISIS and the Taliban inspire a good number of Taliban leaders to stay at the negotiating table instead of shutting down peace talks, which many fear could be a costly result of the announcement of Omar’s death.
With their commander dead and his replacement causing controversy, the Taliban is breaking apart. This will create an opportunity for a meaningful shift in alliances, a rare development in a decade-long insurgent war. But a splintered Taliban is only helpful to Washington if a U.S.-aligned group can take advantage of the disarray and gain legitimacy by imposing order. Unfortunately, that scenario seems unlikely given the dysfunctionality in Kabul and Islamabad’s likely continued support of Pakistan-friendly splinter groups in Afghanistan that would undermine Kabul’s efforts. Unfortunately, both the Taliban and ISIS have an established record of taking advantage of infighting and weak governance to consolidate control. In other words, the Taliban may divide, but it also might rise to conquer.