The announcement of the death of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, a full two years after his passing, raises several questions about Afghanistan’s politics during that time.
Who has, for instance, been leading the Taliban and masterminding its offensives against the government in Kabul over the last couple of years?
Who has been choreographing the activities of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar that has lately been fitfully exploring talks with the Afghan government?
Importantly, whose interests did the fiction of Omar’s existence serve?
Those like Amrullah Saleh, the former head of Afghan intelligence, are convinced that Omar’s existence was a red herring, a “mythical space” that served as a cover for the Pakistani State to use terror as an instrument of achieving dominance within Afghanistan.
While analysts are not convinced that Islamabad has complete sway over the Taliban, few doubt its intent to micro-manage Afghan developments by exerting pressure on leaders of the insurgency who either reside in Pakistan or have families there.
Now that Omar is gone and a new Taliban chief in Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor is in place, the next few months will confirm or bust the narrative about Pakistan’s control over the Taliban.
As scholar Barnett Rubin has pointed out, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani has addressed Islamabad’s concerns in an effort to persuade the latter to arrange talks between Kabul and the Taliban which were supposed to be held last week but were deferred.
Now that Kabul has forged military-intelligence cooperation with Islamabad and will not import heavy weapons from India, it remains to be seen if Pakistan can manage differences between warring Taliban factions who clash over leadership issues and control of turf.
That is easier said than done. The brother of Mullah Omar has rejected Mansoor’s election and the latter has to contend with powerful rivals such as Mullah Qayyum Zakir, who commands a following in Helmand province, which has the highest acreage of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan.
The news of Omar’s death was clearly leaked to accelerate processes but there’s no guarantee it will yield the desired outcomes.