Why now, Afghanistan?

Published: August 2, 2015

Why would Kabul jeopardise a peace process that it desperately wants to succeed and that has only recently gained steam? PHOTO: REUTERS

In the aftermath of Wednesday’s revelation that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is dead — which had long been assumed yet never confirmed — a fundamental question remains.

Why would the Afghan government make this announcement now?

Specifically, why would Kabul jeopardise a peace process that it desperately wants to succeed and that has only recently gained steam?

Surely, Kabul knew that announcing Mullah Omar’s death would bring long-festering tensions within the Taliban to the fore and trigger a deep and perhaps even existential organisational crisis — a messy, drawn-out, and possibly bloody leadership transition that will consume the Taliban’s energies and could limit its ability to focus on peace talks.

So what is going on?

One might reasonably conclude that a spoiler wanted to sabotage the peace process by getting the word out about Mullah Omar’s death. There is no shortage of possible candidates — Pakistani intelligence officials who prefer continuous war in Afghanistan to ensure a limited Indian footprint in the country, rivals of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who opposes a reconciliation process that entails Pakistan playing a leading role, or hard-line, anti-peace Afghan Taliban figures, who prefer to stay on the battlefield, where great gains have been made as of late.

The problem with this idea is that no one in Pakistan, no Afghan opposition figure, and no Taliban member made the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death. It was the entity that least wants the peace process to be sabotaged — the Afghan government — that broke the news. Perhaps the best attempt at conspiratorial conjecture is this: Pakistanis, who reportedly were the ones that passed on the information of Mullah Omar’s death, sought to scuttle the talks and capitalised on their improved relations with Kabul to share the news and encourage the Afghans to broadcast it to the world.

However, even assuming the possibility that a Pakistani spoiler — or any spoiler — presented this information to the Afghan government, Kabul would presumably have sat on it and not rushed to reveal it at such a delicate moment in the peace process. Furthermore, Pakistani efforts to undercut the peace process in this way would also undercut Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the Taliban’s long-time second in command, who is close to the Pakistanis and supports the peace process.

Other possible explanations — though none very convincing — come to mind: The Afghan government had good reason to believe the talks would somehow take a turn for the worse and decided to provide an out for the negotiating parties. In fact, the talks were enjoying unprecedented momentum. Or in a similar vein, some trusted anti-peace stakeholder with leverage over Kabul pressured the Afghans to slow down reconciliation.

In reality, Afghanistan’s most trusted interlocutors — the Americans, the Chinese, the broader international donor community, and, albeit more grudgingly, the Indians — all support reconciliation. Alternately, perhaps Kabul reckoned that announcing Mullah Omar’s death would unite the Taliban — much like the death of a revered family patriarch brings all sparring factions to the funeral; in truth, Mullah Omar’s death will likely have a divisive effect.

Setting aside the question of when and how Kabul received the information about Mullah Omar’s death (incidentally, Afghan officials suggested last year that Mullah Omar could be dead), this much is clear: Kabul genuinely seems to believe that making the announcement now will benefit the peace process.

“The government of Afghanistan believes that grounds for the Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before,” declared a presidential statement on Wednesday, “and thus calls on all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity and join the peace process.”

At first glance, this judgment appears dead wrong. The second round of peace talks — scheduled for Friday — has been postponed at the Taliban’s request.  At any rate, the Taliban will surely be too distracted to focus on negotiations anytime soon, especially because the confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death will intensify a growing rivalry between Mansour, the Taliban’s second in command, and Muhammad Yaqoob, Mullah Omar’s eldest son.

Earlier this week, Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai wrote about a recently launched “rebellion by certain important military commanders” against Mansour’s authority. This new movement revolves around Yaqoob, who according to Yusufzai,

 “Is said to be ready to take over the Taliban leadership in case the death of his father is confirmed.”

In essence, the battle can now begin. The opening salvos have already been fired. Early Thursday morning, reports emerged from the Pakistani press that the Taliban’s leadership council has appointed Mansour as Mullah Omar’s successor.

Kabul, however, likely takes a different view of the peace talks’ future trajectory. It may believe that by announcing Mullah Omar’s death, it has plunged the Taliban into crisis and thereby weakened the organisation — and deprived it of some of the leverage it derived from its strong showing on the battlefield.

Perhaps Kabul’s message to the Taliban is this: You are leaderless and in disarray. Why not give up the fight and talk with us, so that we can work out an arrangement to integrate you back into the political system.

There is some logic to this view, particularly if one also takes into account the growing threat that pro-Islamic State fighters — who have defected from the Taliban in part because of unhappiness about an absentee supreme leader — have posed to the Afghan Taliban in recent months. In the Nangarhar province, these fighters are battling forces loyal to the Taliban. Mullah Omar’s death announcement will likely spark a fresh exodus of disaffected Taliban fighters to the Islamic State’s side.

However, this all vastly overstates the Taliban’s willingness to throw in the towel and its ability to think and act as a unified entity. It also understates the Taliban’s continued strength on the battlefield, even in the face of the Islamic State’s challenge.

Ultimately, Kabul’s decision to go public with Mullah Omar’s death may amount to a leap of faith — a Pollyannaish hunch that the Taliban will now close the book on Mullah Omar and enter into a new era of reconciliation.

Kabul may be taking desperate measures. But then again, these are desperate times for a fragile unity government aching to achieve a peace that cannot be obtained on the battlefield, and as an exceedingly war-weary nation looks on nervously and grows ever more restless.

This post originally appeared on Foreign Policy here.


Michael Kugelman

Michael Kugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He tweets @MichaelKugelman (twitter.com/MichaelKugelman)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Gullu, Guddu and Gomnath

    It’s more simpler than that. It is India, Bharat and Hindustan working together,
    to make sure the peace talks fail. But India/Bharat/Hindustan need to know this,
    Unless and until they solve their issues and “problems” with the Paks, they
    [ HindoBharatistanis ] are going nowhere.Recommend

  • wb

    Very boring blog, that gives not a single dime of information that we already didn’t know. Very ordinary blog, that too coming from a supposedly Pakistan expert.

    I wish you had touched upon umpteen conspiracy theories being floated in Pakistan by the likes of Hameed Gul and his ilk.

    Most importantly, you have failed to ask one fundamental question that any journalist worth his name would: Why did the Pak establishment keep Omar’s death a secret for two years?

    BOOM! Now, that’s a question worth asking. I’ll give you an answer for that.

    In the words of Najam Sethi, who made a very fair analysis of Omar’s death, “the Pakistani establishment kept feeding the statements on behalf of Mullah Omar to mold the future of Taliban with regards to Afghanistan.”

    In other words, Afghan Taliban is very much a puppet of Pakistani establishment, despite yelling out otherwise. Establishment basically acted as Afghan Taliban Aamir in Mullah Omar’s absence. All the messages, statements, eid mubaraks that came out in Mullah Omar’s name came from establishment.

    Before somebody lynches me, let me make it clear that this is Najam Sethi’s analysis.

    Here, establishment is a euphemism for a military intelligence wing of Pakistan, whose name if I took, ET promptly removes the comment or edits it out.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Afghanistan is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma…….Churchill said this about Russia but its more true for Afghanistan.Recommend

  • Anon

    I like how every American tom, dick and harry who held up a book on South asia and have visited the region becomes an expert. Mr. Kugelman has done a very poor analysis because he is basing it on his biased assumptions. First assumption is that Indians cannot be involved. He is dead wrong. India is no angel and it is very much part of their strategic thinking to keep Pakistan’s western border unstable and dangerous for Pakistan. Secondly, he very conveniently refers to Afghan power centers as one entity i.e. the government. We all know their are factions within the Afghan government who do not want any negotiations with the Taliban especially in Pakistan. It is highly likely that it was an attempt by them to sabotage the outcome. Mr. Kugelman seems like one of those people who think that America has liberated Afghanistan and India should be favored because it will be a hedge against ChinaRecommend

  • Khan

    An assessment by a five year old, what’s so unique that the writer brings to the table which we don’t already know and understand. Recommend

  • marik

    Its an attempt to get the Afghan Taliban to fragment themselves and get them to fall apart like the Pakistani Taliban did.Recommend

  • Schruti Chimenlal Acharya

    Let’s worry about the puppets of BJP. Well, there is RSS, then Shiv Sena.
    extreme extremist, anti Muslim, anti minorities, steadfast wings of BJP
    [they do all the dirty work for BJP and Sri Modi et all]
    We also have Sushma Sawaraj, Sadvhi Prachi, Parrikar…Maharaj the
    swami from Varanasi, mentor of Sri Modi , the list goes on…endless.
    Topping it, the Hindutva devotee, Sri Rampalbandernaikesahilithwakulpadia
    There is no dearth of hindu extremists in Bharat. Look in our mirror before
    passing judgement on others….mainly Paks.Recommend

  • wb

    I missed you so much Gul Zaman Ghorghasht/Motiwala/Karachiwala/Rangoonwala/ Gullu Guddu and Gomnath.

    Thank you for your comment. Pls keep them coming. Especially about Hindu gods and goddesses.Recommend

  • Shah (Berlin)

    Dear “Expert”,

    1)Indian foot prints are very strong right now in Afghanistan. Which is a fact, thus your statement is completely wrong “Pakistani intelligence officials who prefer continuous war in Afghanistan to ensure a limited Indian footprint in the country”.

    2)Ghani is very keen to have peace and so does Pakistan otherwise Taliban would have never come on the peace table ! You think Indian or Ghani brought Taliban to peace table? Than please do your degree again !
    3) The Information was released by Afghan Intelligence and not their government. Thus means both institutions are not on the same page.
    4) Ghani has shown far inclination towards Pakistan as compared to the last one thus “many” in the region are not happy with it.
    5) Pakistan has seen more terrorist attacks than any other country in the world. And I know you and your buddies in class think that our goverment and ISI loves killing, it doesnt matter it is Pakistani or foreign people but just blood. But it is a wrong understanding.

    So you can continue wearing a blind fold and show that Pakistan is a BAD guy but the Fact is, Pakistan wants peace like any thing which I am sure you did not study in your books in Washington.
    I would like to have an answer from you but I am sure you are not interested!

  • So called Expert

    This is so true…he says Indian footprints dont exist in Afghanistan..get a life Kugelman !Recommend

  • Shah(Berlin)

    The funny part is US, Afghaistan, India and Pakistan all knew he is dead. But offcourse lets Blame Pakistan for every thing…..And thnks to India for releasing the news at a point where Peace talks were taking place..Recommend

  • wb

    That conspiracy nonsense (started by your establishment) has been debunked by none other than Rahimullah Yusufzai, one true expert on Taliban.Recommend

  • Pir Roshan

    you only want to hear praises of ISI, I guess.Recommend

  • Pir Roshan

    you want to fight India in Afghanistan only, why not man up & fight them on Wahga – soldier to soldier.Recommend

  • Union Jack

    A conspiracy theorist challenging a analytical report of someone who has field expertise. Thats always fun to read.
    About your point 5. ISI may not love killing Pakistani, but if you believe theories that 9/11 was insider job of Americans, and 26/11 was inside job of Indians, then why not believe the theory that all the terrorist attack in Pakistan were inside job by Pakistanis ? You feel entitled that Pakistanis are more pious then others ?
    Pakistan is paying for it’s state’s and intelligence mistakes of past when they supported radicalization to encourage people to fight jihad in Afghanistan against Russia and in Kashmir against India. Back than they thought these monsters they are creating will always dance to their tune ? This is the cost of preaching hatred. And until you learn and realize it , the deaths will continue.Recommend

  • nouman

    9/11 details is not completely shown on american media they cover this incident as top secret. its was one of the goals of americans which they accomplished after invasion of iraq,afghanistan.Recommend

  • nouman

    you field of expertise are just media bogars as you people worshipped media and its people. it was easy for media and others to decieve you.Recommend

  • nouman

    no we wont isi is respected for their accomplished goals and insulted for their mistakes.
    every one make mistakes.
    that doesn,t mean that they are against us.Recommend