The announcement of the death of Mullah Omar , the Taliban supreme leader, on 29 July was like a geopolitical earthquake which sent tremors throughout the region, particularly across Afghanistan. The report was significant because of the way it was made public, its likely repercussions on the unity and effectiveness of the Taliban, its impact on the Afghan peace process, and its implications for Pakistan-Afghan relations and the security environment in the region.

It was the Afghan presidential palace, not the Taliban leadership nor Pakistan’s intelligence agency which was supposedly in close contact with the Taliban, which claimed that Mullah Omar had died in Pakistan in April 2013. A spokesman of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) stated separately that Omar had died in a Karachi hospital “under mysterious circumstances.” It was further claimed by the Afghan side that after his death, Mullah Omar was buried in Zabul province in southern Afghanistan. The Afghan claim that Mullah Umar had died in Pakistan was rejected by Defence Minister Khwaja Asif who told the National Assembly on 7 August that Mullah Omar had neither died in Pakistan nor had he been buried there. However, he did not issue any clarification about the time of Mullah Omar’s death.

The time of Mullah Omar’s death does raise interesting questions. If he had indeed died over two years ago as alleged by the Afghan government and as confirmed later by Tayeb Agha, it would mean that all the statements issued in his name since then, including the one issued on 15 July supporting the Pakistan-brokered peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, were fictitious. It would also cast serious aspersions on the legitimacy of his announced successor, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor who used to deputise for Mullah Omar during his life. Among other things, it would mean that Mullah Mansoor must have kept the news of Mullah Omar’s death secret even from senior Taliban commanders for more than two years while exercising all the powers in his name. It also reflects the failure of Pakistan’s intelligence set-up in not getting the information about Mullah Omar’s death before the Afghan NDS got wind of it. On the other hand, if our intelligence establishment knew about Mullah Omar’s death and kept quiet about it, it would be considered guilty of complicity in whatever Mullah Mansoor had done over the past two years in the name of his predecessor.

As was to be expected, the report about Mullah Omar’s death has created divisions among the Taliban ranks. According to the statement issued by the Taliban spokesman, the group’s Supreme Council in a meeting held on 31 July had chosen Mullah Mansoor as its new supreme leader. Other reports, however, suggested that several key Taliban commanders had opposed his nomination and boycotted the meeting. The dissidents wanted Mullah Omar’s son, Maulvi Muhammad Yaqub, elected as the new Taliban leader. Though Mullah Mansoor has been able to secure the support of the powerful Haqqani group, it would be premature to claim that the succession struggle has been finally resolved in his favour. The resignation of Tayeb Agha as the head of the Taliban’s Qatar-based political office, announced on 4 August, was an important indicator of the divisions within the Taliban movement. According to Tayeb Agha, the decision to keep Mullah Omar’s death secret for two years was “a historical mistake.” His charge would have the effect of weakening Mullah Mansoor’s position within the Taliban ranks.

The immediate casualty of the report about Mullah Omar’s death was the second round of the Afghan peace talks which was scheduled to take place on 31 July in Pakistan. A statement issued by the Pakistan Foreign Office announced the postponement of the talks at the request of the Taliban. Until the dust settles down following the death of Mullah Omar and the new Taliban leadership is able to consolidate its grip over the movement, it is highly unlikely that the next round of the peace talks would take place. This is particularly so because there are hardliners within the Taliban movement who are opposed to the peace talks with the Afghan government which is viewed by them as an American puppet. Therefore, what one can expect in the near future is the intensification of attacks by the Taliban as Mullah Mansoor tries to consolidate his grip on power by rallying the Taliban rank and file, especially those elements which are opposed to peace talks with the Afghan government. This is precisely what has happened. The Taliban launched a number of major attacks in different parts of Afghanistan from 6 to 9 August causing the death of over 100 and wounding hundreds others. On the other hand, the Afghan government would also be reluctant to continue the process of peace talks until the new Taliban leadership is in a secure position to represent the Taliban movement as a whole.

The latest Taliban attacks prompted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to charge at a press conference on 10 August in Kabul that whereas Afghanistan had hoped for peace, war had been declared on it from the Pakistani territory. While pointing out that the Afghan intelligence agency had confirmed the death of Mullah Omar , Ashraf Ghani stressed that this development had “reaffirmed the fact that the war in Afghanistan is fought for and by others and that the so-called Amir-ul-Momenin, who apparently led and commanded the war, might not have existed.” He expressed the hope that the Pakistan leadership would take necessary steps to expand relations with Afghanistan rather than damaging them. At the same time, he warned that Afghanistan could no longer “tolerate to see our people bleeding in a war exported and imposed on us from outside.” The remarks by President Ashraf Ghani should be seen against the background of the uncertainty caused by Mullah Omar’s death, the unsubstantiated charges of ISI’s complicity with the new Taliban leadership, the domestic opposition that he faces mainly from the elements associated with the Northern Alliance, and his consequent need to sound strong in the face of the Taliban’s renewed attacks. Pakistan, therefore, would be well advised not to over-react to Ashraf Ghani’s press statement.

Mullah Omar’s death and the subsequent developments have indeed derailed the process of Pakistan-brokered Afghan peace talks to which a great deal of expectations had been attached as shown by the presence of the representatives of the US and China at the first round. Going by President Ashraf Ghani’s above mentioned remarks, these events have also had a negative impact on Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, thus, providing greater scope to India to fish in troubled waters at Islamabad’s expense. Islamabad must be sensitive to President Ashraf Ghani’s delicate position in launching the initiatives last year for the improvement of relations with Pakistan and a peace settlement with the Taliban, despite strong domestic opposition. Therefore, while encouraging both the Afghan government and the Taliban to resume the peace talks within the framework of an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, we should take all possible steps to allay President Ashraf Ghani’s legitimate concerns. Simultaneously, we should reiterate our own concerns regarding the support extended to terrorist activities in Pakistan by the remnants of TTP who have taken refuge on the Afghan soil and by the Indian agents operating from the Afghanistan territory. We also need to understand that Iran’s cooperation with Pakistan would be invaluable and indispensable in restoring durable peace and stability in Afghanistan.