Disunity rather than defeat

August 9, 2015

After Mulla Omar, the Taliban are experiencing differences like never before

Disunity rather than defeat

More than a week after belatedly conceding that their supreme leader Mulla Mohammad Omar had died in April 2013, the Taliban leadership is still unable to agree on his successor and the movement has virtually split into two factions.

The once disciplined militant group is experiencing differences like never before. The factional leaders are highlighting their cause and also their rivals’ shortcomings. The condolence meetings for Omar are being misused to campaign for one or the other candidate aspiring to head the Taliban movement.

The group loyal to acting head of Taliban movement, Mulla Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, has been arguing that he was rightly and properly chosen as the new ameer (head) by the high-powered Rahbari Shura (leadership council). It is holding gatherings where clerics, field commanders and ordinary Taliban members do baiyat (pledge of loyalty) to Mansour and declare their support for him as the new leader of the armed movement.

The rival faction has proposed Omar’s eldest son, Mulla Mohammad Yaqoob, as the rightful heir to his father. It pointed out that the emergency meeting of the Rahbari Shura, in which Mansour was chosen as the new Taliban leader, couldn’t be attended by some members and boycotted by others. This anti-Mansour faction is demanding the convening of a larger shura of pro-Taliban Ulema, military commanders and notables to hold consultations and choose the new ameer in place of Omar.

Meanwhile, certain pro-Taliban Ulema have been making efforts to mediate between the rival groups.  Two sets of mediators are actively involved in the effort to remove the differences between the Mansour group and his rivals, who are claiming the backing of late Omar’s family. One of the main mediators is former Taliban justice minister Mulla Nooruddin Turabi, who held meetings both sides in a bid to find common ground to be able to take the process forward.

The other group of mediators too includes Ulema who have been interacting with the movement’s newly-appointed deputy head Mulla Haibatullah Akhundzada and the Taliban’s shadow Chief Justice Mulla Abdul Hakeem, both supporters of Mansour, to resolve the succession issue. The mediation efforts have yet to achieve any breakthrough. The stalemate between the two sides and the division in Taliban movement has caused despondency among the rank and file and apparently slowed down the Taliban military campaign against the Afghan security forces and the remaining almost 14,000 US-led Nato troops.

The dispute has already exposed the cracks in the Taliban movement and started taking the toll on its once exemplary unity. With Omar gone, the absence of the supreme leader who kept the movement intact and disciplined anyone who defied him is being keenly felt. One cannot help recall how Omar would frequently rotate officials, sending off ministers and advisors to the frontlines to fight Taliban’s many enemies. On one occasion, he abruptly sacked his foreign minister Mulla Mohammad Ghous for erring during the battle for Mazar-i-Sharif in 1997 and causing huge human losses to Taliban fighters. It is narrated that Ghous was stripped of all titles and expelled from the Taliban movement never to be heard again.

The examples of disunity are increasingly being witnessed. The Qatar-based Taliban Political Commission’s head Syed Mohammad Tayyab Agha tendered his resignation after describing as "historic mistakes" the decision to keep Omar’s death a secret and choosing the new Taliban leader in a place outside Afghanistan. However, he announced to stay neutral in the ongoing tussle between Taliban factions and remain active as a member of the Taliban movement.

Though Tayyab Agha, a former secretary and spokesman of Omar during Taliban’s six-year rule, didn’t mention Pakistan as the venue of the controversial meeting that appointed Mansour as Omar’s successor, it was obvious he was referring to it when he objected to holding such an important session of the Rahbari Shura outside Afghanistan. In fact, he pointed out that the meeting should have been held close to Taliban bunkers in the battlefields of Afghanistan as was the case in 1996 when almost 1,500 pro-Taliban Ulema and notables elected Omar as their Amirul Momineen (commander of the faithful) in the Taliban’s birthplace and spiritual capital, Kandahar.

As it later turned out, Tayyab Agha had acted alone when he resigned from his office. The Taliban Political Commission’s other members, totalling almost a dozen, disagreed with Tayyab Agha. Led by Sher Abbas Stanekzai, they issued a statement backing Mansour as the new Taliban ameer and pledging allegiance to him. Earlier, Tayyab Agha had reportedly expressed annoyance when the Taliban Political Commission had been kept out of the Murree peace talks with the Afghan government on July 7. As Mansour and his Rahbari Shura had taken the decision to hold the peace talks with the unity government of President Dr Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Dr Abdullah, Tayyab Agha felt offended because until then only the Taliban Political Commission was authorised to undertake political and diplomatic activities.

Another conspicuous example of the indiscipline in Taliban ranks is the attitude of one of their top military commanders, Abdul Qayyum Zakir, who is famous for spending six years until December 2007 in the notorious US prison at Guantanamo Bay and then rejoining the fight against the Nato forces in Afghanistan. Zakir is staying neutral in the ongoing dispute between the two Taliban groups, but he has pledged neither to oppose Mansour nor do baiyat to show loyalty to him.

Due to Zakir’s ambiguous stance, both sides are now claiming that Zakir is on their side. There are many other Taliban figures waiting on the sidelines as they are finding it difficult to take sides in this hemorrhaging internal dispute.

The resourceful Mansour was the frontrunner until now to succeed Omar as he was already the de facto head of the Taliban movement and had been running its affairs for more than five years, including two years and three months since Omar’s death and earlier when the Taliban supreme leader was in hiding. He has gained sufficient experience in the job and personally knows all the field commanders who are fighting on the frontlines in Afghanistan.

Mansour also endeared himself to the Pakistan and Afghan governments by agreeing to give up Taliban’s old stand to not recognise or hold peace talks with Kabul. His decision to agree to peace talks with the Afghan government in the summer resort of Murree also pleased the US and China, both sending diplomats to observe the first round of the peace talks in Murree.

Though he recently spoke against the peace talks, it was largely seen as a political statement meant to win over Taliban factions opposing him for agreeing to the peace dialogue with the Afghan government.

In a smart move earlier, Mansour had appointed Sirajuddin Haqqani as one of his two deputies to gain the support of arguably the most powerful Taliban faction and also bring it into the proposed Afghan reconciliation process.

Mansour’s cause was also helped by the statement of Omar’s younger brother, Mulla Abdul Mannan and eldest son, Yaqoob, that Omar died a natural death due to illness caused by tuberculosis. Earlier, the small Taliban splinter faction, Fidayee Mahaz, had accused Mansour and his aide of assassinating Omar without providing any evidence.

However, Mansour’s troubles are far from over as he has yet to win over Yaqoob, who despite being only 22 or 23 years old and inexperienced is popular among the Taliban rank and file due to his father’s sacrifices for the movement. Without the support of Omar’s family, he will remain controversial and unacceptable to a large number of Taliban members. Disunity rather than defeat in the battleground would demoralise and weaken the Taliban, who stood up to the modern and better-equipped US-led Nato forces for 14 years and fought them to a standstill.

Disunity rather than defeat