So the Taliban officially acknowledged that Mullah Omar is, in fact, no longer among the living, though one wonders how long they’ve been trying to Weekend at Bernies this whole thing, if the reports that he died two years ago are accurate. He’s reportedly been replaced (though again, when he was actually replaced is an open question), by Mullah Akhtar Mansur, who seems to have been at least de facto running the group for some time now. That doesn’t seem to have been a unanimous decision by any means, though, and the Taliban have postponed the next round of peace talks with the Afghan government, probably because they need to get their own house in order at the moment. This means you should take anything you read about Mullah Akhtar, including this here blog post, with a bag of salt, because we really don’t know if his appointment has actually been accepted by all or even most of the organization. Even if it has, he could still be at high risk of being ousted in what is sure to be a chaotic next few weeks at Taliban HQ.
Not much is known about Mullah Akhtar, at least not to the media/general public. He was formerly the Taliban’s governor of Kandahar and a key figure in its intelligence apparatus. He’s thought to be pretty strongly in favor of talks with the Afghan government, which is part of the reason why his appointment has been disputed. He will not be given Omar’s most regal title, “Commander of the Faithful” (amir al-muʾminin), which is actually a caliphal title and was bestowed on Omar specifically by his followers. Perhaps in an effort to hold the group together, the head of the more violent Haqqani Network, Siraj al-Din Haqqani, was reportedly appointed as Mansur’s deputy (again, bag of salt).
So Mansur apparently favors talks with the Afghan government, but keep in mind that he’s got to navigate not only the more militant factions within the Taliban, but also ISIS’s encroachment into Afghanistan. If he appears too soft, even if he manages to keep control of most of the Taliban organization, there’s a very real chance that he could lose followers and/or recruits to ISIS. If he pushes too hard, too fast toward Kabul, it could actually make Afghanistan’s insurgent problems even worse.
UPDATE: Via Vox, a blogger named Shashank Joshi has done a commendable job of compiling a lot of what’s been written so far about Mullah Omar’s
untimely timely time-neutral demise. A lot of it is stuff you’ve probably already heard — Taliban at risk of splintering, big problems for peace talks, etc. — though The New Yorker‘s Barnett Rubin brings up the possibility that Omar’s death could allow Pakistan to gain more control over their Taliban clients. The two most interesting pieces in my personal opinion are this one from Sami Yousafzai in Newsweek and this one from Casey Garrett Johnson in Foreign Policy.
Yousafzai’s piece is interesting because it offers an entirely different scenario for Omar’s death than the rapidly coalescing “died in a Pakistani hospital”. Yousafzai writes that Omar died in Helmand Province in Afghanistan, not in Pakistan, and had to send word to key Taliban leaders in Quetta, Pakistan, who then named Mansur as the group’s new leader but decided to keep Omar’s death under wraps in an effort to avoid internal dissension. One Taliban splinter group has accused Mansur and another high-ranking Taliban figure of assassinating Omar, but, as the Wikipedia kids say, “citation needed.”
Johnson, a researcher and reporter based in Afghanistan, offers the best writing on Mansur that I’ve yet seen. He’s been the number 2 guy on the Taliban’s org chart for a while now, and was doing more of the day-to-day management of affairs than Omar even back when Omar was presumably still alive. He’s got close ties to Pakistani intelligence and has been one of the people keeping the collaboration between the Afghan Taliban and its ally/partner organization, the Haqqani Network, alive. His shift to a pro-negotiation position over the past couple of years has indeed caused friction with other Taliban leadership, according to Johnson, who isn’t so sure that Mansur will be able to keep the group together now that Omar’s death has become public.