Post-Omar Afghanistan: What next?
With the death of Mullah Omar, Afghan Taliban’s supreme leader, the situation in Afghanistan seems to be back to square one. On the one hand, Al-Qaeda is getting strong after his demise and re-assuring its ties with the Taliban. On the other hand, the ISIS has also clearly marked its presence. Most of all, the death of Omar seems to have dealt a blow to the Taliban unity itself.
According to some very credible sources, there are certain factions in the rank and file of the Taliban which are not happy with the newly appointed Taliban chief, nor are they ready to accept cease-fire and initiate dialogue either with the Afghan government or Pakistan.
The peace dialogue, as we know it, was the brainchild of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the current Taliban leader. However, due to the mounting pressure from field commanders, who are vociferously opposed to a dialogue policy, and from his rival groups, Mansoor was forced to reject the option. The extent of this opposition can be assessed from the fact that the newly appointed leader had to call it “the work of the enemy and part of propaganda campaign against the Taliban.”
Given Afghanistan’s ground situation, especially the uncertainty surrounding Akhtar Mansoor’s leadership, it was obvious that Mansoor was seeking to reassure the Taliban rank and file, particularly the field commanders and fighters who are believed to be generally opposed to peace talks with the Afghan government, about the continuity of ‘jihad’ inside Afghanistan against all forces.
It is a political tactic that he had to resort to ensure support from as many commanders as possible. Mansoor also pledged to continue ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan, struggle for enforcement of Shariah and oppose the system of democracy. This tactic has certainly started to produce results for him.
Already, the main opposition leader, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, who is a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner and returned to the battlefield after being released by the U.S., pledged to support Mansoor in the Taliban mission. In a recently written letter in Pashto language, Zakir clearly denounced reports of his opposition to Mansoor’s leadership and declared that, ““This isn’t true. Let me assure you that I will continue to serve from the platform of the Islamic Emirate with all my strength.”
Although there are still some leaders who are far from satisfied with the situation, it seems that Zakir’s support for Mansoor would strengthen his hands and could prompt others in the opposition camp to shift their loyalties. Mansoor had been the de facto head of the Taliban movement for some years due to the virtual absence of Mullah Omar from the scene, particularly since April 23, 2013 when he supposedly died, and he is well-versed in both political and military affairs.
Interestingly, it is not only the support from other Taliban leaders that has come to rescue Mansoor in the time of trouble, al-Qaeda, too, has been on the front in supporting his appointment. While some in Pakistan have been arguing that Omar’s death is likely to weaken Al Qaeda-Taliban relations, the ground reality suggests otherwise.
One of the newly appointed deputies of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor is Sirajuddin Haqqani, one of the most feared and wanted militants, and the one the U.S. accuses of doing much harm to the U.S. and her allies in Afghanistan. In addition to running the Haqqani Network, Sirajuddin is also in Al Qaeda`s innermost circles and has participated in its shura meetings.
Moreover, while the Afghan Taliban have been claiming through their official statements that their struggle is confined to Afghanistan, they continue to shelter Al Qaeda. The latest case involves Taliban providing havens in Helmand to Al Qaeda operatives escaping Pakistan’s Zarb-i-Azb military operation in North Waziristan.
On the other hand, Al Qaeda has also welcomed the gesture with a warning to the `common enemy.’
“The bond between us and our Taliban brothers is a solid ideological bond. They opted to lose their government and family members just to protect us. There is no question of us moving apart now after going through this war together. Our common enemy does not know what is coming its way,” asserted Qari Abu Bakr, a member of Al Qaeda`s media wing ‘As Sahab.’
It would, however, be an oversimplification to assert and link Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance only to the appointment of Mansoor and Haqqani. They also have a formidable common enemy to deal with: the ISIS. Since at least September, 2014, certain attacks have taken place inside Afghanistan which indicate the ISIS’s presence.
The ISIS has been winning recruits from Taliban and Al Qaeda ranks and has practically ‘ordered’ all jihadis to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or be prepared to be dealt with as a rebel the punishment for which they decree death. Over the last few months, the ISIS and its supporters have been engaged in attempts to discredit Mullah Omar, accusing him of being mysteriously missing, disconnected from the Muslims, having a `narrow nationalistic Afghan perspective’, not being a Qureshi and hence not fit to be pledged allegiance to as a caliph.
Many ISIS supporters have also pounced on the news of Mullah Omar’s death to discredit the Taliban and Al Qaeda. According to them, Taliban have committed `treachery’ by concealing Omar`s death and issuing statements in his name. The ISIS supporters claim the Afghan Taliban will be reduced to a nationalist force and eventually fade away against the rising tide of Islamic State.
They have already started to assert their ‘authority’ in some parts of Afghanistan, especially the eastern parts, by executing people they accused of spying or other crimes. But Al Qaeda and Taliban figures say the dust will eventually settle.
“Ultimately, we are heading into a scenario where people with knowledge and sincerity will outrun the emotional, thoughtless types. This is not the end of the war. It is merely the start of a new phase,” said Al Qaeda’s Qari Abu Bakr.
The scenario thus taking shape is certainly taking Afghanistan to another era of warfare. Abu Bakr’s statements clearly reflect the mind-set that is not ready to accept the end of war through dialogue.
The scenario is going to have some ramifications for the U.S. too. In the case of escalation of conflict in Afghanistan, the U.S. will certainly get an opportunity to start practising the conditions of Bi-Lateral Security Agreement (BSA), signed between Afghanistan and the U.S.A, which allows the latter to increase the number of U.S. forces inside Afghanistan.
The main condition, in this behalf, is escalation of violence or what officials tend to call “deteriorating security situation.” That war is escalating and that struggle for power between the Taliban and the ISIS fighters is also increasing evident from the very recent wave of attacks, leading Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to blame Pakistan for it.
A scenario favourable for the U.S. is, therefore, taking place which it can utilize to keep Afghanistan militarized for a few more years to influence energy geo-politic that is due to take place in the wake of lifting of sanctions on Iran.
And, as a matter of fact, reports regarding some changes in the U.S. plan to withdraw from Afghanistan are already appearing. In the month of February 2015, America’s top military commander in Afghanistan indicated that President Barack Obama is factually reconsidering his drawdown plan due to the reports that confirm the ISIS’s inroads in the already war-torn country.
With the U.S. forces present in Afghanistan and with the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighting both the ISIS and the U.S., it would be interesting to see who takes lead in forming an alliance.
Considering the success of the ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the threat it is posing to other regional states including Pakistan, there are reasons to contend that a temporary alliance may take place between the erstwhile enemies: the Taliban and the U.S. Reports of a Taliban-Iran alliance against the ISIS are already appearing and many Afghan officials have confirmed that high level co-operation between Iran and the Taliban is a reality today. It is only a matter of time that this alliance expands with the inclusion of regional and extra-regional actors.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.
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