Mullah Omar's death: Will it make a difference in Afghan conflict?

The Afghan government announced the Taliban spiritual leader's death Wednesday, and the Taliban confirmed it Thursday. 

Mohammad Sajjad/AP
A man reads a newspaper at a news stand where local newspapers are displayed carrying headlines about the death of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Thursday, July 30, 2015. Afghanistan's Taliban on Thursday confirmed the death of Mullah Omar, who led the group's self-styled Islamic emirate in the 1990s, sheltered al-Qaida through the 9/11 attacks and led a 14-year insurgency against US and NATO troops.

It’s hard to see the reported death of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar – in April 2013 – as something that will dramatically reshape Afghanistan. 

Some politicians and analysts have called the news, announced by the office of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani yesterday and confirmed by the Taliban today, as cause for hope that long awaited peace talks may finally take hold. “The government of Afghanistan believes that grounds for the Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before, and thus calls on all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity and join the peace process,” the presidential statement declared.

That's unlikely to prove accurate. It's not clear if Mullah Omar had much, if any, influence left at the time of his death, and many believe he'd been reduced to a symbolic figurehead. Even if he’d remained vital to the organization, Mullah Omar did not always oppose reconciliation efforts – and the forces now fueling violence in Afghanistan, such as disenfranchisement and warlordism, are bigger than one leader.

Often forgotten is that in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban’s senior leadership approached the fledgling Karzai government with an offer: We'll stay out of politics if you'll guarantee our safety.

“These leading Taliban members [as well as the rank and file] did not appear to view the government and its foreign backers as necessitating a 1980s-type jihad. Some members even saw the new government as Islamic and legitimate,”  wrote Anand Gopal in a report for the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

Gopal writes that Mullah Omar even gave his senior commanders permission to put down their weapons. But the Karzai government spurned the offer, largely due to pressure from the US and the Taliban’s long-time enemy, the Northern Alliance. In the years that followed, the Taliban experienced alienation and harassment that fueled their resurgence, a chain of events Gopal details in his recent book No Good Men Among the Living.

Mullah Omar, along with other senior leaders, fled to Pakistan and ran the insurgency from afar. In the early years of the war, these senior leaders wielded considerable influence over the rank-and-file fighting in Afghanistan. For example, Afghans who possessed letters of protection issued by the Quetta Shura, the senior leadership council headed by Mullah Omar in Pakistan, were guaranteed safety.

As the war dragged on, it took a heavy toll on the Taliban’s mid-level fighters. The US focused on targeted operations to capture or kill the group’s field commanders. The effort succeeded in removing thousands of Talibs from the battlefield. But an unintended consequence was that those who filled the void were young and inexperienced.

As early as 2010, reports emerged of aggressive young fighters tearing up protection letters from the Quetta Shura or implementing harsh policies out of step with the senior leadership. Interviews with Taliban fighters and Afghan civilians during that time revealed an organization divided between those in Afghanistan and those, like Mullah Omar, in Pakistan.

There was often a palpable bitterness in conversations with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. They felt they suffered under harsh living conditions and the threat of death while Mullah Omar and his cohorts lived in the relative comfort of Pakistan, detached from the realities of day-to-day life in Afghanistan.

When senior Taliban officials were given an office in Qatar to better facilitate potential peace talks at the end of 2011, one Taliban fighter in Afghanistan interviewed by The Christian Science Monitor balked at the idea.

“A limited number of the Taliban leaders are going to Qatar, but the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan doesn’t belong to a limited number of people,” said Salih Mohammad Akhund, a Taliban fighter was based in Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand Province at the time. “I think those Taliban leaders should first consult with the Taliban members who are fighting on the ground.”

Mullah Omar appears to have died about 16 months after Mr. Akhund made that remark. Since then, the peace talks have seen little in the way of substantive developments. If anything, talks were given the biggest boost by the official end of the US combat mission in 2014. Yet the insurgency and instability continue.

The situation in Afghanistan is far more likely to be influenced by how the Afghan government responds to continuing violence than who is at the helm of the Taliban, be it Mullah Omar or someone else. In the northern province of Kunduz, for example, the country has seen a serious uptick in Taliban violence, with militants closing in on the provincial capital.

In response, the Afghan government has formed new militia groups to help deal with the situation. Such groups have a long history of loyalty to local strongmen over the central government, and a litany of reports over the years have detailed how such groups spread instability.

“This is not the first time militias have been relied upon to battle the Taliban,” writes the US Institute of Peace in a recent report on militias in Kunduz. “While potentially expedient in the short term, enlisting local militias in Afghanistan to combat the Taliban could create more problems for the government of Afghanistan than it solves.”

If Mullah Omar is in fact dead, it’s difficult to view his passing as little more than a footnote in a conflict that has long since evolved into something beyond his influence.

Tom Peter reported from Afghanistan for The Christian Science Monitor for several years.

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