Life and death of Mullah Omar cast a long shadow over Afghanistan

Reports of infighting within the Taliban have emerged on a daily basis amid apparent unhappiness over the choice of the movement's new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour (pictured).

Mullah Akhtar Mansour co-founded the Taliban but some members are believed to be unhappy with him and have rallied around former leader Mullah Omar’s son, Yaqoob, instead. Taliban Handout/Reuters
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KABUL // The head of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar has resigned as the life and death of the movement’s spiritual leader continue to cast a long shadow over Afghanistan.

It was confirmed last week that Mullah Mohammed Omar died some time ago, though the exact circumstances remain disputed. Since then the prospect of peace talks has been thrown into confusion and reports of infighting have emerged on a daily basis amid apparent unhappiness within the movement at the choice of his successor.

In the latest development, the head of the Taliban’s political office, Tayyab Agha, stepped down on Monday and said he would not support any side in the ongoing dispute. The Afghan government, meanwhile, appears divided over the best way forward – with some officials seemingly intent on exploiting any weakness in the insurgency and determined to crush it once and for all.

Watching this unfold, former Taliban officials are unsure exactly how the militants will react to the threat of factionalism and posturing from long-time enemies. But in a series of interviews with The National in Kabul, they continued to speak with admiration for their late leader.

Mawlawi Qalamuddin, who is in his 60s, held a memorial service in the city on Saturday, which was attended by dozens of Afghans, including prominent elders. It was not “just a prayer ceremony for Mullah Omar,” he said. “It was about the death of Mullah Omar and the issue of peace.”

The Taliban emerged in Afghanistan as an antidote to the chaos that developed in the wake of the 1989 Soviet withdrawal. The movement’s strict interpretation of Sharia and the stability it brought quickly found favour among much of the population, who were tired of rival mujaheddin factions tearing the country apart.

According to a biography published on the Taliban’s website earlier this year, Mullah Omar was born in 1960 in the southern province of Kandahar. He fought in the anti-Soviet resistance, then opened a religious school when the Russians withdrew. Only after security deteriorated did he take up arms again.

The Taliban captured Kabul in 1996 and ruled over most of the country until the 2001 US-led invasion. It was a period of tough social restrictions but relative safety for many Afghans, with corporal and capital punishments carried out in public to deter criminals.

During that time, Mawlawi Qalamuddin ran the ministry for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, the government’s religious police. He first met Mullah Omar on an official trip to Kandahar and his initial impressions were of a pious and austere man, sitting on a Pashtun bed in the kind of clothes worn by villagers across the south.

He was later among a group of ministers rebuked by Mullah Omar for forgetting their humble origins. According to him, Mullah Omar said: “If the doors to your ministry are blocked, if you don’t solve the problems of the nation, if you are proud of yourselves and arrogant, then you will not be ministers anymore. Instead, I will make your guards ministers.”

News of Mullah Omar’s death came after a Taliban splinter group claimed that rivals within the movement had killed him. The Afghan government then publicly said that he had “died suspiciously” in April 2013 in a hospital in the Pakistani city of Karachi, without elaborating on the cause.

Similar claims in the past have always been denied, retracted or ignored, but this time the Taliban confirmed that he was dead. Without saying when or exactly where, it said that he had died from an unspecified illness having never left Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s new leader is Mullah Akhtar Mansour, a co-founder of the movement who previously served as aviation minister. However, some members are believed to be unhappy with him and have rallied around Mullah Omar’s son, Yaqoob, instead. This has led to speculation that ISIL could benefit from the divisions, having already made inroads into the country.

Waheed Mozhdah worked as an official in the foreign ministry of the Taliban regime and is now a political analyst. He told The National that senior figures in the movement had long been aware of Mullah Omar's death but withheld the information "because of their interests and the unity of the Taliban lines".

Tayyab Agha said in his resignation message on Tuesday that the decision to keep the death a secret was “a historical mistake”.

However, Mr Mozhdah said that problems now developing within the movement were a natural product of the war but that there was only one viable new leader.

“Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour has led the Taliban for the last two and a half years and during this time has had a lot of achievements on the military side and the political side,” he said.

Mr Mozhdah called any attempt to appoint Mullah Omar’s son illegal under Islamic law. With the fate of tentative peace talks now up in the air, he predicted that some Taliban may reconcile with the Afghan government at the behest of Pakistan but that most would maintain their current stance

He said Mullah Mansour supported peace talks if they were done in accordance with Islam and without Pakistan’s interference.

Taliban violence has escalated this year, with a number of districts falling to the insurgents and unrest spreading into new areas of northern Afghanistan. The government, meanwhile, continues to appear split over the best way forward. Atta Mohammed Noor, the governor of Balkh province and a former Northern Alliance commander, said “this is the right moment to fight against the Taliban”, while still claiming to support peace talks.

Mawlawi Abdul Rahman Hotak was a government official and university teacher during the Taliban era. He is now a commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

The Taliban “will not be as weak as the media and experts are saying” in the wake of recent developments, he said, but added that they would also not be as united as before.

“They will not keep the level of unity they had under Mullah Sahib. After God and His Messenger, the Taliban respected him. He was a holy man for them. Mansour is a good man and he will give unity and power to the Taliban, but he is still not Mullah Sahib,” he said.