Playing the Mullah Omar card

How is Mullah Omar’s reappearance (or the absence of it) likely to affect India?

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

After the conclusion of the first official round of talks between the Taliban and Afghan unity government in the Pakistani resort town of Murree, Pakistan was desperately looking for a pat on the back. Pakistan’s wish was fulfilled, almost incredibly, when a message on the Taliban’s website, believed to be from Mullah Mohammed Omar, endorsed the peace talks process.

This message shifted the world’s attention to the enigma that is Mullah Omar. He’s not been seen since 2001 but recordings of his video messages, and his written statements make periodical appearances on the Taliban website. In fact, even the latest comment regarding the talks was made in a message that appears every Eid-ul-Fitr.

His previous online projection was in the form of a 5,000 word biography which appeared in April this year. Coinciding with the rise of Daesh, the purpose of this exercise was to emphasise that Mullah Omar is still the Amir-ul-Momineen, the unquestioned leader of the Taliban. Ahmed Rashid, who has written extensively on the Af-Pak region called this essay a ‘healing device for the reported divisions within the Taliban’ and an essay which ‘reasserts Mr Omar’s leadership and commands all Taliban to unite and obey him’. He goes on to say that the ‘essay suits the ISI and the moderate wing of the Taliban, which are keen to get peace talks started. To do that the agency needs to demonstrate that Mr Omar is alive and in command.’

Why should these unsubstantiated news reports be of concern? Because Mullah Omar’s presence can still rally the various Taliban factions together. The Taliban is no longer a monolith and has various streams of thoughts, each having a different plan of action. In such a scenario, the side that wins Omar’s support will have narrative dominance.

From an Indian perspective, Mullah Omar’s return, if that ever happens, will reassert ISI’s leadership in the talks. This is because Omar couldn’t have survived without the agency’s involvement. As a precedent, In what can be seen as a precedent, Taliban’s second-in-command Abdul Baradar was found in a comatose state after his individual overtures to the Karzai administration. The possibility that Omar will meet the same fate cannot be overruled.

There are two evidences supporting this hypothesis. One, the biography hailing him appeared to be an effort by Pakistan to ramp up pressure on the Taliban to engage with Kabul under Pakistan’s leadership. After prevailing on Akhtar Mansour to agree to talks, Pakistan was indicating that Mullah Omar continues to be relevant. Two, in the “endorsement” message for Murree talks, there is an explicit mention of how Taliban is not an agent of Pakistan. The fact that Taliban needed to clarify this message suggests something otherwise.

On the other hand, Mullah Omar’s physical absence is resulting in diminishing returns to the Taliban movement. Elements in the group are losing hope of his coming back. If the news of his death comes out, it would accelerate the pace of the divisions within Taliban. In such a case, it might be in India’s interests to open channels with at least a few factions which are not directly opposed to India.

The next round of talks is believed to be taking place on July 30th. Peace will remain elusive in the absence of agreement over Taliban’s core demands of a Sharia state, and US forces’ complete removal. Nevertheless, these talks will give interesting insights into the internal dynamics of Taliban.

Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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