Analysts say the Taliban will likely face tough challenge retaining support with loss of Mullah Omar.
Mullah Omar’s death poses an existential crisis for the Afghan Taliban, analysts say, potentially presaging a splintering of the movement as the Islamic State group gains a toehold among insurgents enthralled by its battlefield prowess.
The group has suffered a string of recent defections to I.S., with some insurgents voicing disaffection with the “ghost leader”, who hasn’t been seen in public since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion toppled the Afghan Taliban from power.
The Taliban’s confirmation on Thursday of Omar’s death will inevitably deepen divisions, observers say, triggering a power struggle within the already fractious movement at a time when I.S. is making gradual inroads into Afghanistan.
“This will be the Afghan Taliban’s biggest test yet,” said Michael Kugelman, an Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Mullah Omar, or the idea of Mullah Omar, was a unifying force for a deeply fractured organization. This confirmation of his death will spark a messy, drawn-out, and likely violent leadership crisis,” he said.
Mullah Omar, lionized by his followers as Amir-ul-Momineen—“commander of the faithful”—was seen not just a leader of a militant group, he was a spiritual guide who commanded the loyalties of militants across the region.
Kugelman said Mullah Omar’s death was a “huge boon” for the local branch of I.S., which a Pentagon report in June said is in an initial exploratory phase in Afghanistan. “Many Taliban militants, already disaffected by the long silence of their leader, will now have even greater reason to reject their organization and transfer their loyalties to I.S.,” he said. “Mullah Omar’s death will be a very effective recruitment tool for I.S., and could help it gain quite a few new recruits in a region where it is still struggling to make inroads.”
The Taliban warned I.S. recently against expanding in the region, but this has not stopped some fighters, inspired by the group’s success, defecting to swear allegiance to I.S. chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi instead of the invisible Mullah Omar.
“The Taliban movement is facing the most difficult time of its existence,” said Rahimullah Yousufzai, a Pakistan-based expert on Afghan affairs. He cited the example of Abdul Rauf Khadim, a Taliban renegade who raised the I.S. black flag in Helmand.
Believed to be the I.S. number two in the country, he was killed in a U.S. drone strike earlier this year.
Many other Taliban figures “will follow Khadim’s example if they don’t see any future in this movement, if they disagree with the new leader and the direction of the peace talks.”
Some insurgents, particularly in the restive eastern provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar, have adopted the I.S. flag to rebrand themselves as a more lethal force as NATO troops depart after 14 years of war. But the emergence in Afghanistan of I.S., renowned for its beheadings and rein of brutality in the Middle East, is seen by some as more psychological warfare than a real threat.
The Taliban and I.S. don’t share much ideological ground. The Islamic State espouses a brand of Salafism at odds with the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam in Afghanistan. And it is too early to write off the Taliban as a potent force, with the insurgency inexorably spreading across the north from its southern and eastern strongholds.
The insurgents seized a police base in the northern province of Badakshan on Sunday after more than 100 policemen surrendered, inflicting one of the heaviest blows to Afghan forces since the NATO combat mission ended in December. “The death of Mullah Omar is definitely the end of an era in the history of Taliban and Afghanistan,” said Ali Mohammad Ali, a Kabul-based political and security analyst. “His death will not affect the insurgency so greatly but politically the Taliban are handicapped. It’s really hard for them to find a successor who will match Mullah Omar.”