THE CHALLENGE to the Taliban created by the death of leader Mohammad Omar was manifest in last week’s startling revelation that the movement had covered up his death for two years. When his death did become public, there was no consensus in the Taliban about who should succeed the reclusive cleric, or what strategy it should now pursue. The new “emir” announced Friday, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, is thought to have filled the vacuum left by Mr. Omar since his death, but his authority was quickly challenged by the brother and son of the former ruler.
Contradictory statements and reports abounded. Mr. Mansour was described as a close ally of Pakistani authorities who supported recent peace talks with the Afghan government; but in his first statement he derided the talks, and some reports said he had quarreled with Pakistan. The first announcement of the mullah’s death came not from the Taliban but from the Afghan government, prompting speculation that officials in Kabul or perhaps Islamabad aimed to disrupt the peace talks. If so, they succeeded: What would have been the second meeting between the two sides, scheduled for Friday, was called off.
U.S. officials said they hoped the leadership transition would lead to a firm commitment by the Taliban to reach a political settlement with the Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani, which has made a major effort to engage the militants and their Pakistani sponsors. It is conceivable that Mr. Mansour, reputed to be a relative moderate, could lead such an effort with Islamabad’s support.
More likely, however, is a splintering of the movement, with some factions choosing to keep fighting or perhaps join with the Islamic State, which has begun to establish itself in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Already Afghan media have been reporting clashes among rival groups in Quetta, the Pakistani city where the Taliban leadership has been based. One report said Mr. Omar’s son was among those killed.
A fractured Taliban might, in theory, pose less of a threat to the Afghan government. But even with its leader long gone, the movement’s military punch has been stronger than ever this summer, and government forces have sustained heavy casualties while trying to prevent a Taliban takeover of several district capitals. The Islamic State, too, poses a potentially intractable threat, as its growth could rule out a political solution while creating a new locus for terrorists seeking to mount attacks on Western targets.
In all, the uncertainty created by the Taliban’s simultaneous military strength and leadership disarray offers another reason for President Obama to reconsider his politically motivated plan to withdraw all U.S. military forces from the country, apart from a small embassy-based mission, by the end of his presidency. By making it clear that the United States will continue to back the Afghan army with trainers and logistical support after next year, Mr. Obama could strengthen those in the Taliban who now incline toward a settlement. By keeping U.S. counterterrorism forces deployed in the country, he could ensure against the creation of another Islamic State enclave.