People offer funeral prayers for Taliban leader Mohammad Omar at a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Friday. (Mohammad Sajjad/AP)

Less than a week ago, Afghanistan seemed to be edging toward peace. Taliban insurgent leaders were preparing to attend a second round of negotiations with Afghan officials, prodded by Pakistani authorities amid a thaw in their long-chilly relations with Kabul and reinforced by a supportive recent statement from the supreme Taliban leader, Mohammad Omar.

Today, that hopeful scenario has been blown sky-high with the seismic revelation that Omar has been dead for the past two years. New peace talks have been abruptly postponed, and the Taliban official named to replace Omar has just vowed to keep its religious war going in a desperate bid to unify the increasingly fractured movement.

“We will continue our jihad until the creation of an Islamic system. The enemy with their talk of peace is trying by this propaganda to weaken the jihad,” a voice introduced as Akhtar Mohammad Mansour said in a speech on the Taliban Web site on Saturday. “Where there is disunity, Allah will be unhappy and only the enemies will be happy. We have fought for 25 years and we will not lose our achievements.”

Despite the display of bravado and the release of an official Taliban video showing a variety of Afghan clerics and elders pledging loyalty to Mansour, he faces internal opposition from relatives of Omar, militant commanders and other influential Taliban members who question the hasty, secretive meeting in the Pakistani city of Quetta at which Mansour was chosen. Analysts here said the power struggle has aggravated existing divisions over whether to keep fighting or join negotiations, as well as tribal and regional rivalries that were once suppressed by Omar’s absolute religious authority.

Although it is too soon to know how these dynamics will play out, analysts and diplomats said the Taliban now faces an acute existential crisis that could lead to a permanent split, with some factions deciding to reconcile with the government and others lured into the embrace of the Islamic State, whose presence is rapidly growing in parts of Afghanistan.

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

U.S. officials, who until just days ago were optimistic that the peace talks would bear fruit after a 14-year conflict that has cost thousands of U.S. lives and billions of dollars, now say they have no idea which direction the post-Omar Taliban will take or what impact his death will have on the group’s mind-set, cohesion or tenuous appetite for ending the conflict.

“This is a moment of opportunity” for the Taliban to choose war or peace, Washington’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Daniel Feldman, told journalists here Friday. “We hope they will embrace the second option,” he said, but added that U.S. officials could not yet speculate on the outcome. “We are watching and waiting,” Feldman said.

Some Afghan observers were less sanguine and more blunt, suggesting that the Taliban now faces two equally untenable choices: continuing to fight for a cause that has lost its visionary founder after a two-year coverup by their own leaders; or trying to find a place in a society that has few jobs for ex-fighters and has changed dramatically since they took up arms for Islam amid a brutal civil war two decades ago.

“I think we are seeing the demise of the Taliban,” said Haroon Mir, an analyst in Kabul. “They are in a very difficult situation. They can’t fight forever, so they have to transform themselves from a military and religious force into a political one. But even if they accept peace talks, it will be hard for them to rejoin society. Afghans today want jobs and education, they have social media and the Internet. The Taliban will be obsolete.”

Mir and other observers also noted that the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, which had been actively promoting peace talks with help from Pakistan, has said virtually nothing about the news of Omar’s death and the suspension of the talks, and that it has done little to take advantage of the Taliban’s moment of decision and disarray. Ghani, currently in Europe for medical treatment, has not commented on the developments.

The role of Pakistan

The other major player in this scenario, the government of Pakistan, has remained more deeply involved in the fast-moving events, but its intentions remain unclear. Pakistani officials have insisted they had no desire to dominate the peace talks and canceled the next round at the request of Taliban officials.

Many Afghans, however, think Pakistan had a hand in instigating the crisis and is now trying to push its own candidates for Taliban leadership before calling for negotiations to resume. Pakistan has strong leverage over Taliban militants who moved there after their regime fell in 2001, but other insurgent factions, especially a group now based in Qatar, do not trust Pakistan and oppose the talks in part because of their involvement.

A spokesman for the Afghan government says it is investigating reports that Mullah Omar, the reclusive leader of the Afghan Taliban, may have died in 2013. (Reuters)

Mansour, a former Taliban transportation minister and longtime top aide to Omar, was said to be close to Pakistan, to support the talks and to espouse a moderate and modernizing vision for the Taliban as a political force. His bellicose statements Saturday, however, sharply contradicted that image.

“Pakistan never wanted the Taliban to be independent. It wanted to divide the Taliban and bring in its own people. That was a red line for Mansour,” said Waheed Mojda, a former Taliban diplomat who is now an analyst in Kabul. He called Mansour’s selection “a very important day” for the Taliban that showed its ability to defy and outmaneuver a powerful patron.

Mojda said that most Taliban members understood the need to hide Omar’s death for the sake of their cause and did not hold it against Mansour or his backers in the Taliban national council, but sources in Pakistan said the rank-and-file Taliban, especially those in the battlefield, had been increasingly concerned and suspicious about his prolonged absence from view.

Pakistan’s relationship with Mansour’s newly named deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is even more contradictory. Haqqani’s family heads an extremist militant group based in Pakistan and affiliated with al-Qaeda. One of Washington’s few caveats for supporting the peace talk results was that the Taliban renounce any relations with al-Qaeda. On Friday, in a bizarre echo of Omar’s death, the group announced that its founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani, had died of an illness one year ago.

Feldman, asked about the Haqqanis’ possible role in the new Taliban command, said only that Washington had “no pre-conditions” for supporting the peace talks. He praised Pakistan’s role in promoting them and noted that the United States has other reasons, such as regional security and anti-terrorist cooperation, to view Pakistan as an “important and enduring partner.”

But as the weekend of scheduled peace talks in a hilltop resort near Islamabad came and went, developments in Afghanistan seemed to point increasingly away from the path of negotiation, with Taliban forces aggressively attacking scattered targets across the country following U.S. and NATO combat troop withdrawals at the end of last year and the new Taliban leader openly calling for their armed campaign to continue.

Meanwhile, the internal opposition to Mansour and the threat of severe rifts inside the Taliban seemed most likely to benefit the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, a far more dangerous anti-Western adversary than either al-Qaeda or the Taliban that analysts said could prove attractive to disaffected Taliban fighters or those who oppose the new leaders.

“This could be the moment for the government here to reach out to the Taliban, to offer something to those who want peace and cut off those who want to keep fighting,” Mir said. “But no one in authority is doing anything, so they are losing the initiative. The new factor is ISIS, and for those Taliban who always opposed talks, they may become an attractive alternative.”

Sharif Hassan in Kabul and Haq Nawaz Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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