Just days ahead of a new round of peace talks between the Afghan government in Kabul and the Taliban, regional and international speculation has surfaced—though not for the first time—that the elusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is no longer alive.
While the Afghan government on Wednesday said it was investigating unconfirmed claims of Omar's demise, the rumors come as violence has spiked ahead of the talks and reports are emerging that the Taliban is experiencing an internal power struggle that could impact its ability to forge a sustainable peace accord with Kabul.
"We have also seen reports in the media on the death of Mullah Omar, we are assessing those reports," President Ashraf Ghani's deputy spokesperson Zafar Hashemi told journalists during a press conference on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, a Pakistani security official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to brief journalists, told the Associated Press that the circling rumors were simply "speculation" designed to disrupt the upcoming peace talks. Experts note how Afghan intelligence officials have previously been the source of claims, later proven untrue, that specific Taliban fighters, including Omar himself, were dead or injured as a way to sow confusion in the public mind about the group's cohesiveness or military capabilities.
According to AP:
If Omar died, it could complicate the peace process as it removes a figurehead for the insurgents, who until now have appeared to act collectively but are believed to be split on whether to continue the war or negotiate with Ghani's government. Ending the war has been a main priority for Ghani since he took office last year.
"Whether he is dead or alive is important because he is the collective figure for the Taliban," said a Western diplomat with connections to the Taliban leadership. "If he is dead, it would be much more difficult to get negotiations with the Taliban because there would be no collective figure to rally around and take collective responsibility for entering peace talks."
The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to journalists about the situation.
As the Washington Post notes:
The one-eyed Omar — who was rarely photographed or appeared in public events — is credited with being the ideological leader of the Taliban as it rose from a band of Islamist insurgents in the 1980s to take control of Afghanistan in the 1990s and provide haven for al-Qaeda.
The Taliban was toppled by American forces and others after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but the group has remained as a potent militant force in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan and carries out frequent attacks.
As of this writing, the Taliban has yet to confirm or deny the latest claims of Omar's possible death, which have been brewing in Afghan and Pakistani media for nearly a week.
The Guardian reports:
Recently, some commanders had begun to openly question whether Omar was alive, stirring speculation about who should head the movement. If confirmed, Omar’s death would throw the Taliban into a struggle over the succession.
This week, Pakistani media reported that Omar’s eldest son, 26-year-old Mullah Mohammad Yaqoub, was challenging the movement’s official number two, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, for the leadership.
The claims also come at a time when Ghani is trying to restart peace talks with the insurgents. After several informal meetings, an official delegation from the government met three Taliban representatives outside Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, in early July.
Following the summit, different factions, including the movement’s political office in Qatar, denied that the Taliban delegation represented the movement.
The public disagreements were partly quelled the following week, however, when a statement published on the Taliban’s website, purportedly from Omar, endorsed the peace talks.
In the end, whether his death is true or whether the invention of it is a subterfuge designed to upend the talks, the reality remains for the Afghan people that nothing—not even Omar himself—remains more elusive than a negotiated settlement or a lasting peace.