The recent confirmation of the death of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the symbolic leader of the Taliban, has added fresh uncertainty to Afghanistan's fledgling peace process.
There were already signs that Taliban unity was under stress, and the internal disagreements that have emerged since the announcement of Omar's death have raised concerns that the insurgency could further dissolve into warring factions. These developments raise the daunting prospect of trying to broker peace with a movement at war with itself.
Taliban insurgents listen during a shurra, 2010. (Flickr/ResoluteSupportMedia.)
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani enjoyed a minor breakthrough in his long efforts to negotiate an end to the insurgency when his team sat down with Taliban officials for talks in Pakistan on 7 July. His government went into those negotiations knowing that some in the Taliban rejected peace talks and would probably break away from the main group.
Earlier this year, Afghan intelligence estimated that 10% might switch their allegiance to ISIS or other hardline factions if they saw their leaders negotiating. Some Western analysts guessed an even higher percentage would defect, refusing to die on sun-baked battlefields for leaders who talked in air-conditioned hotels.
In fact, the talks may have had an even more profoundly destabilising effect. The Taliban published a statement supposedly signed by Omar in support of peace negotiations on 15 June, but internal opponents of the talks tried to undermine the process by questioning its authenticity. They complained that the process had been 'hijacked' by Pakistan and demanded that Omar back up his statement with proof of his existence.
The top Taliban leadership was eventually forced to confirm suspicions that its reclusive leader had died. Omar's former deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, was appointed to succeed him on 31 July. Though the Taliban arranged displays of support for Mansour in the following days, and many field commanders have pledged allegiance to him, the movement seems divided. Tayyeb Agha, head of the political commission, resigned on 4 August due to tensions with Mansour and reports are emerging of fighters quitting en masse to join more extreme groups.
This latest turmoil in the insurgency comes after months of escalating conflict between militant factions. Two databases maintained by Western security analysts show that armed clashes between insurgent groups have tripled or quadrupled since 2013, as infighting has spread to more than half of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.
In previous years, the internecine battles were largely over money or historical grudges, often involving old feuds between the Taliban and the armed wing of the Hezb-e Islami political party which fought the Soviet Union in the 1980s. This year the conflicts have been concentrated in eastern Afghanistan, frequently pitting the Taliban against a variety of more extreme militants who seem less willing to entertain peace talks.
While battles against self-declared ISIS factions have grabbed most of the headlines, the Taliban have also fought Lashkar-e-Taiba (a Pakistan-based militant group), parts of the Pakistani Taliban and smaller groups such as Fidai Mahaz. A tiny faction such as Fidai Mahaz poses no military threat to the Taliban, but such groups are spreading propaganda – including a claim that Omar was poisoned – that could further undermine insurgency unity.
The dissent often focuses on the Taliban's recent forays into politics, and the degree to which some groups feel the movement's hardline ethos is being undermined. The Taliban is discovering that it's easy to rally fighters with a battle cry, but more difficult to transform an insurgency loosely based on opposition to the status quo into a coherent political organisation with a vision for the future. Shortly after the Taliban admitted Omar's death, the central leadership of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an occasional ally, formally swore allegiance to ISIS.
Such losses seem likely to escalate in coming weeks as field commanders decide where their loyalty rests. Before this recent leadership crisis, Pakistani intelligence had been telling Western diplomats that Mullah Mansour commanded about 40% of insurgent fighters in Afghanistan. His biggest rival, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a senior member of the leadership council, held sway over perhaps 20%, with the remainder controlled by lesser commanders. Those percentages almost certainly involved many guesses, and probably reflected an inclination to exaggerate the importance of Mullah Mansour, who is considered an ally of Pakistani intelligence.
Whatever his actual degree of authority, Mansour has been pushing to consolidate his hold in recent days. Mullah Zakir has formally disavowed any conflict with him, and the first public statement from the new leader was carefully lukewarm on the peace talks, an apparent effort to mollify all sides.
Mansour has the advantage of controlling power levers such as the Taliban media and intelligence apparatus; the latter selects assassination targets and allegedly coordinates with Pakistani security. If he succeeds in uniting the main factions and fending off challenges from rival insurgent groups, it could eventually help with peace negotiations by giving the Afghan government a single major interlocutor.
But nobody knows how much of Taliban logistical support in the field comes from the central leadership. One theory is that most fighters operate close to their homes and depend more heavily on illegal taxation and other local revenue. If correct, the field commanders may have some latitude to decide to support Mansour, shift their allegiances to groups such as ISIS or break away completely and start new careers as bandits or warlords.
For peace negotiators, the nightmare scenario would be a splintering of the insurgency into a thousand sharp pieces.