The Afghan Taliban’s acknowledgment of the death of their leader Mullah Omar and the ensuing secession struggle between supporters and opponents of peace efforts presents an opportunity that should be seized upon by the United States, Afghanistan’s neighbors, and the Afghan government itself.
Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, who has been chosen as the new leader (in very murky circumstances) by the Taliban political leadership, favors peace efforts. His opponents, including the top military commander Mullah Abdul Qayuum Zakir, oppose any settlement. Mullah Zakir had in fact supported Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoub, who is said to have opposed peace efforts. Mullah Yaqoub, according to Afghan media sources, has been killed. If true, it leaves Mullah Zakir as the key opponent to Mullah Mansour.
Mullah Omar is now believed to have died two years ago in a Pakistani hospital. Rumors of his death had been circulating for some time and contributed to growing divisions within the Taliban, but these divisions only burst into the open with official confirmation last week.
This split creates a real possibility for achieving that old, elusive dream: a compromise with “moderate” Taliban backed by the regional powers, one that would isolate the hard-liners and their allies among the international terrorists based in Afghanistan.
The reason the region as a whole might be persuaded to unite behind a settlement is that the Taliban opponents of peace efforts have either joined or are drawing closer to the Islamic State. In recent months the Iraqi-based Islamist group has been establishing a stronger presence in eastern Afghanistan and has killed a number of local Taliban who have opposed it.
The Islamic State, or ISIS, is in the unique position of being feared and hated by the West as well as every country from the Middle East to Central Asia for its terrorism and revolutionary agenda. By contrast, Mullah Mansour and the Taliban political leadership have for several years been stressing that theirs is a purely Afghan movement.
Iran loathes ISIS because of its savage anti-Shiite sectarianism. Russia and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia hate it because of the numerous Chechens, Uzbeks and other Islamic militants in its ranks, and its promotion of Islamist revolution in the lands of the former Soviet Union.
India fears ISIS because of its links to extremist groups that wish to resume jihad against India. An ISIS document found in the tribal areas of Pakistan underlines that war in India is one of the group’s aims, along with destabilizing the region as a whole. In fact, for ISIS a war between India and Pakistan could well be seen as a chief regional goal. Given the ISIS track record in Syria and Iraq, building an army out of disgruntled Taliban fighters with their guns trained on India is a threat New Delhi cannot afford. If this was not reason enough to enter into dialogue with the region as a whole, and Pakistan in particular, the fact that Mullah Mansour is for the time being the legitimate, pro-peace leader of the Taliban offers a chance that may not come again.
To be sure, until a few years ago news of Mullah Omar’s death would have given Indian officials reason to celebrate. After all, Mullah Omar was the Taliban leader who allowed an Indian Airlines jet hijacked by Pakistan-supported Kashmiri terrorists to land in Kandahar in 1999. In exchange for the hostages on board the plane, the Indian government released three jailed terrorists. One of them later masterminded the attack against the Indian Parliament in 2001 that left at least nine dead and took India and Pakistan to the brink of war.
So it is hardly surprising that most Indian officials saw Mullah Omar as a mere puppet of Pakistan. Moreover, Mullah Mansour is said to have personally escorted the terrorists from Kandahar to the border with Pakistan where they were given shelter. In the past, this episode alone made Indian involvement in a peace dialogue impossible.
But a lot has changed in recent years. For some Indian observers, Mullah Omar came to be seen as a leader capable of delivering a semblance of stability within Afghanistan. Indian interlocutors are even thought to have engaged with people close to the Taliban leadership, opening a channel for talks with New Delhi. And while dealing with Mullah Mansour is hardly palatable, he is also the only one who is likely to entertain the prospect for reconciliation.
Pakistan fears ISIS because of its close alliance with the Pakistani Taliban, which have been caught up in a struggle that has killed more than 4,000 Pakistani soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians. Indeed, the key reason ISIS has appeared most strongly in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar is because of the presence there of Pakistani Taliban fighters driven over the border by recent Pakistani military offensives.
The potential for Pakistan and India to come together over Afghan peace is fueled by recognition of the ISIS threat. One reason some Taliban oppose Mullah Mansour’s pursuit of a peace process is that they resent Pakistani pressure to come to the negotiating table. This demonstrates both a real Pakistani commitment to an Afghan settlement (though of course Pakistan’s views on the form of a settlement may still differ very considerably from those of India) and the fact that the Taliban as a whole are not Pakistani puppets.
Notwithstanding the ISIS threat, reaching an Afghan settlement that would include a new constitution, a Taliban share in government, the withdrawal of foreign troops and the exclusion of foreign terrorists will be extremely difficult. U.S. leadership is essential. President Obama has laid out the basis for an accord by developing a working relationship with all the countries of the region.
Bolstered by the fact that Russia helped the United States reach a nuclear accord with Iran, the collective interest in fighting ISIS offers another opportunity for international cooperation. Nations like the United States, Russia, India and Pakistan may have differing interests, but the Islamic State represents a threat to modern civilization itself — and to the goals and aspirations that these states, each in their own way, share.
Anatol Lieven teaches at Georgetown University in Qatar and is the author of Pakistan: A Hard Country. Rudra Chaudhuri teaches at King’s College London and is the author of Forged in Crisis: India and the United States Since 1947.