Afghan officials have confirmed that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar died in a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, more than two years ago. (The Washington Post)

By the time Mohammad Omar’s death in 2013 was confirmed Wednesday, he had long been the ghost leader of the Taliban. His Afghan acolytes had not seen or heard from him in more than two years, even as they continued to fight and die in the name of the Islamist movement he founded two decades before.

Like Osama bin Laden, confined to watching TV in a Pakistani safe house before he was killed by U.S. commandos in 2011, Omar was still an inspiring symbol for his followers but he was no longer calling the shots. All the messages he sent out were scripted by someone else — props in a campaign to keep the splintering insurgents united.

Now that the truth is out, analysts in Kabul said Wednesday, two questions loom for the Taliban and the future of Afghanistan. First, with no immediate successor in place, can anyone else keep the fractured insurgency unified, or will disillusionment and power struggles pull it apart? Second, with peace talks just beginning to gain momentum, will the sudden leadership vacuum bring them to a chaotic halt?

“If Mullah Omar’s death is confirmed, it shows that the Taliban forces have been fighting for a lie, for a cause that does not benefit their country, under a leader who did not exist anymore,” said Nader Nadery, executive director of the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, a private think tank here. “This should be a turning point for them. If they love Afghanistan, they should stop fighting for a lie and start working for the interests of their country.”

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, deputy White House press secretary Eric Schultz said the Obama administration was aware of reports of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. (AP)

For many months, Taliban forces have been divided between factions and commanders who want to negotiate and those who want to keep fighting. Even as momentum for peace talks has built this summer, with several exploratory meetings in foreign countries, Taliban fighters have continued to wage an aggressive campaign of violent attacks across the country.

The news of Omar’s demise — which reportedly was kept secret from all by a few senior movement members and was routinely denied by Taliban spokesmen — may well trigger a debilitating internal conflict over who should take the reins of the insurgent cause, analysts here predicted.

Several names have been mentioned as the most likely replacements for Omar: Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, his longtime deputy and close aide; Abdul Ghani Baradar, another former top aide to Omar who was arrested in Pakistan in 2010 but released in 2013; and Omar’s son Yacub, a recent Islamic seminary graduate who is in his mid-20s.

Some analysts said Mansour was the most logical successor, but he has also been accused by a rival militant faction of murdering his former mentor. The circumstances of Omar’s death remain unclear.

Yacub carries his father’s name but has no leadership experience.

“The Taliban have rivalries — personal ones, tribal ones, tensions over whether to talk or fight. I don’t think there is anyone who can speak with one voice and keep the movement unified now,” said Haroon Mir, a Kabul political analyst. “Now they will probably become more fragmented, and the government won’t know who to talk to, so this will definitely impact the peace process.”

An undated image believed to be showing Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar. (Handout/EPA)

The vacuum that has suddenly emerged at this critical juncture in Afghanistan’s future direction also raises a third question that Afghan and U.S. officials hoped had been put to rest: What are Pakistan’s intentions in the Afghan conflict and peace process? Does it want a stable and peaceful next-door neighbor or a weak and conflicted one? Is it really backing peace, as its officials claim, or secretly backing war, as many Afghans believe?

Publicly, Pakistani officials say they strongly support the peace process, and they have forged a friendly relationship with the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, after years of bilateral tension and mistrust. They have also been conducting protracted military operations to drive Islamist militants from the tribal area that borders Afghanistan. On a visit to Washington this week, Pakistani envoy Tariq Fatemi said that Pakistan had pushed Taliban leaders to the negotiating table but that it had no desire to “dictate” the agenda or outcome.

On the other hand, Pakistan has long played a two-track game with Afghanistan, providing a haven for its fighters even as it cracked down on domestic militants. Its intelligence forces have been accused of orchestrating terror attacks in Kabul and seeking to manipulate the peace process at the same time. Reportedly, it was Pakistani officials who informed Afghan authorities this week that Omar was long dead — a bombshell that exploded just as Pakistan was about to host a new round of exploratory peace talks.

Despite the recent thaw in relations between the two governments, many Afghans are convinced that Pakistan wishes their country ill and seeks to control rather that assist it. Some conspiracy theorists even suggest the Pakistani intelligence apparatus was actively keeping the myth of Omar alive for its own purposes, then abruptly changed course this week to sabotage the negotiating track.

“All the rumors have come from Pakistan, and everything depends on the attitude of the authorities there,” said Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former Taliban diplomat who is now a member of the Afghan High Peace Council, which was established to promote negotiations. “Now they are playing the role of faciliatator in the peace talks. If they are satisfied with the Afghan government, the talks will go smoothly. If not, they will keep trying to disrupt the process.”

Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.

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