Mullah Omar, who led one of the most prolonged yet effective guerrilla campaigns of the 21st century, is no more. The well-kept secret of his death leaked due to internal divisions among the upper echelons of the insurgents’ hierarchy and the recent rapprochement between Pakistani intelligence and their Afghan counterparts.
How can Mullah Omar’s demise impact the nascent peace process between the militants and Kabul, the organisational structure of Afghan Taliban and South Asian regional security? With Mullah Omar’s departure, the centre of gravity of Afghan resistance has exploded, thus the splintering of the Afghan Taliban is inevitable. An internal power struggle flared up as soon as Fidayi Mahaz, a breakaway faction of the Afghan Taliban, disclosed on July 22 that Mullah Omar had died in July 2013.
Pro-talk elements are rallying behind Mullah Akhtar Mansur, while anti-talk Taliban are backing Mullah Omar’s son, Yaqub, to take over. President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistan prefer the former because of his moderate views towards the peace talks, while those making significant gains in the battlefield wish to see Yaqub replacing his father. Who prevails in the end will determine the future of the fragile peace talks between the militants and Kabul.
On the surface, the dialogue facilitated by Pakistan and China and endorsed by the US has suffered a reversal, with the Afghan Taliban postponing the second round of talks because of Mullah Omar’s death. Whether this is actually a reversal will depend on the new leader’s ability to command the Afghan Taliban. This means the leader will have to not only maintain a cohesive insurgency but also enforcing his will on the upper and middle echelons of the insurgents’ hierarchy.
To prove his mettle, Mullah Akhtar Mansur, the newly elected supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban might be considering a show of power in the days to come. This may manifest itself in the form of an escalated campaign of violence against Afghan and coalition forces as well as against those contending from within and outside the group for jihadi leadership in the country. A failure to do so will undermine the credibility and authority of Mullah Akhtar and provide the ISIS, the Middle East jihadi outfit, an opportunity to attract thousands of Afghan fighters disillusioned by the death of their one-eyed spiritual leader.
The ISIS has been waiting for an opportune moment. Reports suggest that some of the most fearsome Afghan Taliban commanders, including Mansoor Dadullah, who was expelled by Mullah Omar a few years ago, are considering joining the ISIS. Should this happen, the Afghan Taliban movement will be pushed into factional chaos that will eventually benefit Kabul. However, before that happens, the South Asian region will witness much upheaval.
India, Pakistan vulnerable
If Daesh, ISIS’s Arabic name, succeeds in establishing a strong foothold in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan will be on at the receiving end. Using ungoverned areas of Afghanistan as a base, the ISIS will be ideally positioned to implement its plans of triggering a war in India to provoke an “Armageddon-like end of the world”, it has put it. We must not forget that the transnational terrorist organisation suffers from an image problem, and regional conflicts such as Kashmir provide the group with an opportunity to emerge as the protector of oppressed Muslims.
For radicalised youth that seeks the excitement of war, the lure of ISIS is much stronger than that of the Lashkar-e-Tayeba, which is now attempting to redirect its cadre’s energies towards social welfare services under the banner of Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation, or Human’s Welfare Foundation. If the ISIS is able to launch one symbolic attack in Indian Kashmir, it will have Lashkar-e-Tayeba and Jaish-e-Muhammad by the throat.
Anticipating such a scenario, Kashmir-centric groups are under tremendous internal pressure to resume attacks in Indian Kashmir in order to avoid large-scale defections, maintain organisational cohesion and protect their exclusive sphere of influence from the ISIS’s encroachment
Any venture of ISIS in Indian Kashmir can place India and Pakistan on the verge of war. But unfortunately, both the countries lack the much-needed level of mutual trust and preparedness to effectively forestall such a scenario. The Indian official response to the arrival of ISIS strongly suggests that policy-makers in New Delhi are unable to grasp post-9/11 shifts in the regional militant landscape, where these non-state actors have developed a momentum of their own.
Triggering a war between India and Pakistan is among the aims of groups such as Al-Qaeda and now the ISIS. The only way Islamabad and New Delhi can pre-empt such a doomsday scenario is through enhancing cooperation on the counter-terrorism front.