Afghan Taliban Say ‘Unaware’ of Peace Talks , appoints new leader/ Dr. John C. Hulsman: Mullah Omar’s death and the whirlwinds of Afghanistan


Afghan Taliban appoints new leader
By Al Arabiya with Agencies | Peshawar, Pakistan/Thursday, 30 July 2015/The Taliban on Thursday confirmed the death of their leader Mullah Omar in a statement, a day after it was announced by the Afghan government. “The leadership of the Islamic Emirate and the family of Mullah Omar… announce that leader Mullah Omar died due to a sickness,” a Taliban statement said, using the movement’s official name. The news comes after the Afghan Taliban appoint Akhtar Mohammad Mansour as the new leader of the insurgency. Two Afghan commanders present at a meeting of the militant movement’s most senior figures made the unofficial announcement on Thursday. “The Shura held outside Quetta unanimously elected Mullah Mansour as the new emir of the Taliban,” said one commander who attended the Wednesday night meeting. “The shura will release a statement shortly.” The Afghan government announced on Wednesday that Omar had died more than two years ago. A second round of peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban militants due to be held in Pakistan has been postponed due to the reports of Omar’s death, the Pakistani foreign office said Thursday. “In view of the reports regarding the death of Mullah Omar and the resulting uncertainty, and at the request of the Afghan Taliban leadership, the second round of Afghan peace talks, which was scheduled to be held in Pakistan on 31 July 2015, is being postponed,” the statement said. (With Reuters)

Afghan Taliban Say ‘Unaware’ of Peace Talks, No Comment on Mullah Omar
Agence France Presse/Naharnet /30 July/15/The Taliban on Thursday distanced itself from peace talks that had been expected this week with the Afghan government, while making no comment on Kabul’s reported death of their leader Mullah Omar. Afghanistan on Wednesday said Omar died two years ago in Pakistan, in the first such official confirmation from Kabul after unnamed government and militant sources reported the demise of the reclusive warrior-cleric. The insurgents have not officially confirmed his death, and the claim — just two days before a fresh round of talks were expected — cast doubt over the tenuous peace process.

“Media outlets are circulating reports that peace talks will take place very soon… either in the country of China or Pakistan,” the Taliban said in an English-language statement posted on their website on Thursday. “(Our) political office… are not aware of any such process,” added the statement, which has prompted no official reaction so far from the Afghan government. The statement marked the first comment from the group, which has waged an almost 14-year insurgency against Afghan and foreign forces, since Kabul’s dramatic announcement on Wednesday citing “credible information”. Mullah Omar has not been seen publicly since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban government in Kabul. Haseeb Sediqi, the spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, told AFP that Omar died in hospital in the Pakistani city of Karachi “under mysterious circumstances”. Rumours of Omar’s ill-health and even death have regularly surfaced in the past, but the White House added weight to Kabul’s latest assertion, calling reports of his demise “credible”.

 ‘Existential crisis’
Omar’s death would mark a significant blow to the Taliban, which is riven by internal divisions and threatened by the rise of the Islamic State group, the Middle East jihadist outfit that is making steady inroads in Afghanistan. Afghan officials sat down with Taliban cadres earlier this month in Murree, a holiday town in the hills north of the Pakistani capital Islamabad, for their first face-to-face talks aimed at ending the bloody insurgency. They agreed to meet again in the coming weeks, drawing international praise, and Afghan officials pledged to press for a ceasefire in the second round, expected to kick off on Friday. “The talks have… certainly lost their momentum,” said Michael Kugelman, Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Announcement of Omar’s death will spark an existential crisis for the Taliban, and the last thing that will be on its mind are peace talks. It will need to focus on its survival, not talks,” Kugelman told AFP. A statement from the Afghan presidential palace on Wednesday, however, said grounds for the discussions are more solid now than before, and implored all insurgents to join the peace process. Mohammad Natiqi, who was part of the government’s peace delegation in the first round, said Omar’s death could possibly delay the peace process but “will not stop it”. But many of the insurgents’ ground commanders have openly questioned the legitimacy of the Taliban negotiators, exposing dangerous faultlines within the movement. The split within the Taliban over the peace process has been worsened by the emergence of a local branch of the Islamic State group, which last year declared a “caliphate” across large areas of Iraq and Syria under its control. The Taliban warned IS recently against expanding in the region, but this has not stopped some fighters, inspired by the group’s success, defecting to swear allegiance to IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi instead of the invisible Mullah Omar.

Taliban say Mullah Omar dead, appoint successor
Peshawar and Kabul, Reuters—The Afghan Taliban have appointed Akhtar Mohammad Mansour as leader of the insurgency, two Afghan commanders present at a meeting of the militant movement’s most senior figures said on Thursday, following reports that Mullah Mohammed Omar is dead. “The shura held outside Quetta unanimously elected Mullah Mansour as the new emir of the Taliban,” said one commander who attended the Wednesday night meeting. “The shura will release a statement shortly.”Mansour has been acting as Mullah Omar’s deputy for the past three years. Afghanistan said on Wednesday that Mullah Omar, the elusive leader of the Taliban movement fighting to topple the government, died more than two years ago. The announcement came a day or so before a second round of peace talks had been tentatively scheduled. Taliban senior figures have been split over the talks, but Mansour is known to be in favor of them. Omar had not been seen in public since fleeing when the Taliban was toppled from power by a US-led coalition in 2001, and there has been speculation for years among militant circles that he was either incapacitated or had died. “The government . . . based on credible information, confirms that Mullah Mohammed Omar, leader of the Taliban, died in April 2013 in Pakistan,” the presidential palace said in a brief statement, without specifying what the information was. “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 Taliban’s regular spokesman could not be reached for comment through normal channels. The White House said it was aware of reports of the death of Omar and believed them to be “credible.” Spokesman Eric Schultz said US intelligence continued to look into the matter. Preparations had been under way for the next round of talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, provisionally planned for Thursday or Friday in a location yet to be confirmed. President Ashraf Ghani is keen to broker a settlement with the insurgents, who have been gaining territory in pockets of the country and intensifying their attacks on military and political targets.

Mullah Omar’s death and the whirlwinds of Afghanistan
Dr. John C. Hulsman/Al Arabiya/Thursday, 30 July 2015

The first great work of American fiction is undoubtedly The Sketch Book by Washington Irving, first published in 1820. The jewel in the crown of that surprisingly still readable series of short stories is undoubtedly The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which recounts how the superior rationalist Ichabod Crane is nearly frightened to death by a Headless Horseman, an apparition appearing from nowhere before heading mysteriously off into the mists, imparting terror and then slipping away as if he had never been there. Irving makes the telling point that just beneath the facade of supposedly modern man, primeval fears and fixations lie unquenched, ever waiting to be stirred. Mullah Omar conjured up similar feelings of power and dread for both friend and foe alike. If the reports emanating from the Afghani government prove true, they amount to a mysterious death of a mysterious man. The undisputed spiritual leader of the Afghani Taliban and ruler of Afghanistan from 1996-2001, Mullah Omar died due to complications from tuberculosis two years ago in a remote southern Helmand province, according to Pakistani sources. His death, like much of his life, after last being seen fleeing his Kandahar stronghold on a motorcycle as American troops took the citadel, is shrouded in fog. Over time, his mythical qualities have come to serve the interests of both his Taliban followers as well as his enemies; ironically both may come to miss the iconic qualities of the man, more than anything he did materially himself.

 Titular head of the Taliban
Since the Taliban’s ousting by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, Omar has functioned as the reclusive, titular head of the Taliban, all through the bloody guerrilla fight that has ensued. Serving more in the vital role of political unifier of his fractious movement rather than taking any operational control of the struggle, Mullah Omar’s supposed pronouncements have become ever rarer as the years went on. But feared warrior that he was in life, serving in the vanguard of the mujahedeen resistance to the Soviet Union (where he lost his right eye due to a shrapnel wound), it is in death that Omar could well have his greatest impact.

 For President Ghani, ironically the death of his greatest adversary is bound to prove a particular blow
First, if his death proves to be true, it could well lead to a splintering of the Taliban itself. The group’s ruling ‘Quetta Shura’ must have falsely propagated the myth of his continued existence, knowing that without Omar the continued unity of the Taliban becomes a tenuous question. Just as the Taliban have finally entered into talks in July 2015 with the new, earnest, if embattled, Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, some Taliban commanders openly questioned whether Omar is alive, stirring speculation about who should now head the movement. A succession struggle just at this vital diplomatic juncture is bound to ensue, probably centring on a contest between Omar’s eldest son, 26-year-old Mullah Mohammed Yaqoub, and the movement’s official second-in-command, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. In such divisive circumstances, there is a very good chance that the Taliban itself splits into a series of factions, some advocating the nascent peace process and some virulently opposing it. This amounts to the worst of all possible worlds, for both the Afghan government and for its American patrons, desperate as they both are to finally bring this seemingly endless war to a close.

A particular blow
For President Ghani, ironically the death of his greatest adversary is bound to prove a particular blow. Ghani has made bringing peace to Afghanistan the cornerstone of his presidency, and in conjunction with his newfound Pakistani allies quite amazingly just managed to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, with a second official round of talks due to commence in just days. Indeed, following the first round of talks, a statement was released in Mullah Omar’s name endorsing the new negotiations (probably collectively composed by the Quetta Shura). To have all that diplomatic spadework undone by any coming succession infighting is a bitter blow. At a minimum, Omar’s death will complicate the peace process, as without him it is much harder for the Taliban to accept collective responsibility for launching the talks, let alone for delivering on the concessions that will prove necessary to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion. And without Mullah Omar’s mesmeric, almost mythological quality, worse lies on the horizon for Afghanistan as a whole. Recent failures to prove Omar was alive were a major factor behind the defection of several senior Taliban commanders to ISIS, which is beginning to gain a real foothold in Afghanistan for the first time. The Quetta Shura may have largely propagated the falsehood of Mullah Omar’s continued existence with this seminal threat in mind, in an effort to keep the Taliban rank and file loyal in the face of siren calls from ISIS. With the talismanic Omar’s death, it is more than likely that the Taliban will weaken in the face of its rival’s dubious charms.

Ironically, just as Washington Irving understood that the power of menace, charisma, and mystery bind men to primeval understandings of the world, so Mullah Omar’s death may ironically unleash far worse forces than even he himself ever stood for.