Much has been made of the recent 'shock' announcement of Mullah Omar's death over two years ago, either in Pakistan or Afghanistan depending on who you believe. In particular, the revelation has been widely interpreted as a major challenge to peace talks.
Shashank Joshi was right to point out (Mullah Omar dead? Afghanistan Peace Talks Under Threat if News is Confirmed) that, given the timely Eid endorsement of the peace talks supposedly from Mullah Omar (or more likely, from those in the Taliban leadership controlling the messaging from the apparently already-dead leader), the leaking of his death may well have been a direct challenge to the proponents of peace. Forcibly destroying the myth that the reclusive leader of the movement was still alive, in command and in support of the peace talks could be seen as an attempt to stop those talks in their tracks.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Flickr/USIP.)
If the admission of Mullah Omar's death sparks an internal power struggle to replace him, talks will probably stall in the short term. Given reporting on Mullah Omar's former deputy Akhtar Mansour's power play for the top job, the subsequent announcement of insurgent leader Jalaluddin Haqqani's death, Tayeb Agha's resignation as head of the Taliban Political Office in Doha, and the walk-out and even possible (unconfirmed) murder of Omar's son and leadership challenger Yaqoob, the leadership drama is already starting to play out like an episode of Game of Thrones.
As I argued in my last analysis of the prospects for peace, however, we must resist the temptation to interpret every setback as a cause to write the obituary of the peace process.
The announcement of Mullah Omar's death and its possible consequences present a potential spoiler in the peace process, and it will be instructive to see how both President Ghani and the pro-peace elements in the Taliban manage the first of many possible spoilers on the road to peace. But the truth about Mullah Omar needed to come out, and it's probably a good thing that it happened now rather than later.
As I told Danielle Moylan in her insightful article for the ABC on the implications of Mullah Omar's death for Afghanistan, his absence would have been a constant elephant in the room during talks with the Afghan Government. For the Taliban to publicly negotiate under the authority of a dead man would have been an act of diplomatic bad faith, and played extremely negatively both to the Taliban rank-and-file as well as the Afghan public who will eventually be asked to accept any peace deal.
If we assume the announcement was correct and that Mullah Omar in fact died years ago, as the Kabul rumour mill has long conjectured, then it was a matter of 'when' rather than 'if' his death was revealed. Although the announcement will probably stall talks for now, it was better to have gotten this out of the way early, before talks progressed and the foundation of a negotiated agreement was hammered out. Announcing his death later in the piece would have likely been far more disruptive, potentially calling into question what had already been negotiated and sending the peace process back to square one.
Getting the admission of his death out of the way now allows the leadership issue in the Taliban to be resolved before talks are too far developed and for a more sustainable basis of legitimacy for peace to be consolidated within the movement. If Mansour retains the leadership, reports that he generally supports the idea of engaging in peace talks are positive. There is debate about the extent to which he and other moderate elements in the Taliban genuinely support peace or whether they have been strong-armed by Pakistan. But the West has been urging Pakistan for years to exert pressure on the Taliban to come to the table, and if it finally has, then that is a good thing.
While the leadership battle could cause a split that fragments the Taliban along pro and anti-peace lines, this may have been an inevitable consequence of pushing ahead with peace talks in any case. There were always going to be irreconcilable elements of the Taliban that would not accept peace. Disgruntled defectors may well raise the black flag of ISIS as they have previously, and the possibility of greater numbers flocking to ISIS is cause for concern. But for now, ISIS is not a strategic threat in Afghanistan, nor is it clear that it will become one.
What remains to be seen is whether Mansour (or whoever takes over the leadership) has the inclination to continue to engage in the peace process, and the charisma, influence and leadership to bring enough rank-and-file fighters with him to make a peace deal meaningful. While uncertainty continues to characterise the road ahead, the possibility of a negotiated settlement to this conflict remains real.