Taliban confused and nervous amid leadership change

By Manish Rai

The Taliban has carried out many deadly and remarkably vicious attacks in Kabul in recent days which claimed many innocent lives. These attacks may be an apparent attempt by the Taliban leaders to project unity, boost cadre morale and show that the jihad against government forces and their foreign backers continues despite internal chaos.

The Taliban has been in turmoil since it confirmed that its leader Mullah Omar, long hidden from the public eye, was dead. The death of Mullah Omar removes the main center of gravity in the jihadi movement that competes with Islamic State it’s now rival. The Taliban, since its inception, has enjoyed the monopoly of being the only jihadist group, but it now faces a tough competition from Islamic State. Many analysts believes Mullah Omar’s death poses an existential crisis for the Afghan Taliban potentially presaging a splintering of the movement as the Islamic State group gains a toehold among insurgents enthralled by its battlefield prowess. The group has suffered a string of recent defections to Islamic State, with some insurgents voicing disaffection with the current new leader Mullah Mansor who is seen as not at all as charismatic as Mullah Omar. As a result, the Taliban is feeling insecure due to the absence of a unifying leader like Omar. So these recent deadly attacks were carried out in the Afghan capital to unify the movement and its cadres.

Mullah Omar’s death was a “huge boon” for the local branch of IS, which a Pentagon report in June said is still in its initial exploratory phase in Afghanistan. The Taliban are afraid of the potential rise of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan. They know it will rise on the cost of Taliban. Unless they project unity, they will soon become irrelevant.

The Taliban and IS don’t share much ideological ground. The Islamic State espouses a brand of Salafism at odds with the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam in Afghanistan. But the groups have differing ambitions. The Taliban is focused on creating an Islamic state in Afghanistan with defined borders, while ISIS is seeking to create a border-less mega-state spanning entire continents. So they both have conflicting interests and can’t survive simultaneously in the same area. The Taliban realizes the importance of being united. Otherwise, they face extinction.  That’s why they are realigning themselves. The man who will replace Omar, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, was Omar’s deputy and has been effectively leading the Taliban since Omar’s death, and perhaps before that. His selection seems to suggest that the Haqqani Network, a faction that’s gradually become powerful enough to rival the Quetta Shura within the Taliban, was willing to compromise on leadership succesion, rather than pressing for Omar’s son, whom the Haqqanis were rumored to favor.

The two deputies to Mansoor, however, include one of the leaders of the Haqqani Network as well as a former Taliban judge who is said to be close to the Haqqanis. That signals a kind of grand compromise between the Quetta Shura and the Haqqanis, who’ve struggled for dominance over the years. The most logical conclusion is that both the Quetta Shura and the Haqqanis have concluded that, at the moment, projecting Taliban unity is much more key than squabbling. This interpretation is backed by the fact that the announcement of the leadership changeover appears to have been made in haste. The objective appears to have been to gain as much control as possible following the public acknowledgment of Omar’s death. But another important faction among the Taliban consisting of Mullah Zakir, Mullah Yakoob (Mullah Omar eldest son), and Mullah Manan opposed this realignment of Mullah Mansoor group and the Haqqani network. So the issue of Mansoor’s  acceptance as the Taliban’s new leader is still problematic. Hence, the pressure Mansoor feels to boost morale among his supporters by carrying out attacks.

The current state of affairs, moreover, helping the Taliban to recognize the potential costs associated with the slow collapse of the Afghan government and the nation as a whole. Gradualism begets disorder, a power vacuum and internal Taliban strife. In other words, the longer it takes for the Ghani government to fall, the greater the chances for Islamic State to undermine the Taliban. The Taliban want to avoid a situation in which, having won their long war vs. the US and its Afghan regime, they have to fight another civil war against an Islamic State offshoot for control of the country. Hence, the new Taliban leadership wants to project themselves hard on the battlefield and negotiate from a position of strength in the peace talks. But the Taliban also needs to rethink parts of its strategy. With so many civilian casualties, the Afghan government will be under public pressure to halt all peace talks with the group and reopen full-fledged military operations against the Taliban. Under this scenario, the Taliban will have to make drastic changes to its strategic equation.

Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAround can be reached at manishraiva@gmail.com



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