Despite the initiation of peace talks between elements of the Taliban and the Afghan government violence in the country has not dissipated. The drawdown of foreign troops has been matched by an influx of ISIS aligned fighters and Taliban-turncoats who are adding a third party to the ongoing conflict. Their first attack marked their entry earlier this year and now the situation threatens to degrade even further as the Taliban grows increasingly unstable. The announcement of Mullah Omar’s death after a two year cover up comes after it was exposed by Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security. Now it appears that the Taliban is fracturing and already tenuous peace talks have been postponed indefinitely.
Succeeding Mullah Omar is his long time deputy Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansour. He has already faced staggering opposition to his new position. Members of the Taliban Supreme Council say Mansour’s succession was unilaterally declared without approval. The son of Mullah Omar is leading a rival faction to stake his own claim on power. Together these men represent a fraction of the militant wing of the Taliban. An unnamed Taliban commander had said that “The Afghan Taliban who want to continue to fight are led by Mullah Omar… and the pro-talks elements could be seen in Kabul on the side of the government.”
Previously Mullah Mansour had a record of favouring peace talks and was an advocate for negotiations. In his first address after the succession however he declared that “the peace process, they are all the propaganda campaigns by the enemy.” It should be understood that negotiations began under his direction while Mullah Omar was dead. That would suggest Mullah Omar’s authority was necessary to pursue the talks and bring the Taliban in line to do so. The resignation of the leading Taliban negotiator in the peace talks seems to support this. He was a close aide to Mullah Omar and called Mullah Mansour’s succession a “historical mistake.” The text of his resignation suggests he was duped. Whether that’s true is unclear as little reliable information about the cover up is available.
What is clear is that many of those who may have followed peace talks by virtue of Mullah Omar’s authority will now be unwilling to do so. Many are also prepared to retaliate against Mullah Mansour. One commander said that “Soon we will go after those Taliban who have lost their way and accepted this puppet as their new leader. Whereas before Mullah Mansour was misleading the more militant commanders into accepting talks he has now found himself in need of their support to keep his new position. To get that support he is having to radicalize his position and not only reject such talks but actually denounce them as propaganda.
Whatever the truth to his position on peace talks the Taliban did not decrease their attacks under the direction of Mansour following the death of Omar. Violence has been increasing since NATO forces exited the country last year and in June six Taliban gunmen staged a dramatic attack on the Afghan Parliament. This is evidence that Mansour’s desire for peace is exaggerated or that the Taliban was already too fractured to be reliable in negotiations – or both.
Given the division over Mullah Mansour’s succession, the previous divisions regarding the issue of negotiation, and the trickle of commanders and fighters swearing allegiance to ISIS – the Taliban is on the brink of internal chaos. Nonetheless whether these events are helpful or harmful to the peace process is a matter of dispute. Different officials have said that such events will “help the peace process in the short term” while others are quoted as saying it will harm them; “because Mullah Omar’s imprimatur was important in getting people to the table.”
It seems certain that the factionalism and division playing out will increase violence within the country. Different factions are set to fight for control with one another while some commanders will see ISIS as an increasingly attractive and united group with which to fight the Afghan government. Clashes between loyalist Taliban and turncoats resulted in 150 dead militants during a string of clashes and in another case the Taliban thwarted “attempts by a small group of Taliban to jump to ISIS.” If the Taliban begins turning on each other the ISIS presence will grow. Together this will leave the already delicate peace process in shambles. How likely is this worst case scenario? It will suffice to say that infighting has already been reported and that in the confrontation nine Taliban fighters and a commander were killed.