The Afghan Taliban has indicated the group may be pulling out of peace negotiations with the government, amid reports that have announced a new leader following the death of Mullah Omar.
Afghanistan confirmed on Thursday that Omar died two years ago in Pakistan, in the first such official confirmation from Kabul after unnamed government and militant sources reported the demise of the reclusive warrior-cleric.
The insurgents have not officially confirmed his death, and the claim - as a fresh round of talks were postponed, casting doubt over the tenuous peace process.
Akhtar Mansoor, the second in command, was on Thursday named as the new Afghan Taliban supreme leader.
A former aviation chief in the Taliban government that led Afghanistan from 1996 to the 2001 US invasion, Mansoor rose up the group’s ranks shortly after the 2010 capture of Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the four founding members of the movement.
“Media outlets are circulating reports that peace talks will take place very soon between the Islamic Emirate and the Kabul regime … The Islamic Emirate has handed all agency powers in this regard to its Political Office and they are not aware of any such process,” a statement released on the group’s website Thursday read.
The statement, coming only a day after the government of Afghanistan confirmed reports that Mullah Omar had died in Pakistan three years ago, marks the second time the group has alluded to its political office being unaware of talks being touted as face-to-face negotiations between the two parties.
The Taliban had issued a similar statement shortly after government representatives expressed optimism following an earlier meeting in Muree, Pakistan, late last month.
Sources speaking to The Telegraph said the announcement of the Taliban leader’s death throws the talks into question.
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“We always knew Mullah Omar didn’t have a role in the day-to-day affairs of the Taliban,” a source familiar with the matter told the paper only hours after the announcement.
Though one government source told The Telegraph word of Pakistan’s then impending admission to Kabul had first reached them last week, yesterday’s public statement definitely raises new questions.
What makes the announcement so difficult, said another government source from Eastern Afghanistan, is that “no one can every truly prove it to be true or not".
This uncertainty, especially as Mullah Omar is said to have died several years ago, likely influenced the government’s original hesitancy to confirm or deny the Taliban leader’s death.
It was not until late Wednesday evening, several hours after reports quoting anonymous government sources first surfaced, that the nation’s intelligence agency and eventually the presidential palace itself, acknowledged the reports as credible.
“The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, based on credible information, confirms that Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban died in April 2013 in Pakistan,” the palace statement, said.
The announcement of Mullah Omar’s death both answers age-old questions and brings about new ones for negotiators, said the source familiar with the talks.
“We always thought there was an order, that they had different shoras who reported to each other. Those reports, we thought, would then reach Mullah Akhtar Mansour,” said the source, referring to Mullah Omar’s deputy.
Now, said the source, it has become entirely evident that, that is not the case.
For Kabul, said the source, the question now becomes who represents the Taliban leadership.
Reports in recent years had indicated that the nation’s largest armed opposition movement had splintered into several groups, without a single unifying leadership structure.
The announcement poses a similar difficulty for the Taliban themselves.
“Now they must decide who will gather these groups to represent them in these negotiations,” said the source.
“Last time in Pakistan we could sense that Mullah Mansour was there only due to the pressure placed upon him by Islamabad.”
Earlier this year, Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan President, made overtures to Pakistan a key aspect to his plans for peace. The president hoped the concessions, including send Afghan recruits for training in Pakistan for the first time earlier this year, would sway Islamabad to bring the group to the negotiating table.
The recent talks were seen as evidence of Pakistan’s following through with that promise.
Further complicating the matter was the image of the elusive leader himself.
To Kandaharis who knew him, Mullah Omar was a simple man, but to the Taliban, who had dubbed him Amir al-Mu'minin, leader of the faithful, in 1996, he had become a larger than life figure.
“He had an aura that far exceeded his physical presence. That aura and the title of leader of the faithful carried a lot of weight for new Taliban recruits, even those who had never met him,” said the source.
To Afghans, for whom the death of Mullah Omar in Pakistan, whom they had long accused of aiding and abetting the armed opposition comes as little surprise.
What matters to them, however, is how the government will use the announcement.