Mullah Mohammad Omar had run the since its founding more than two decades ago. He was an extreme recluse, communicating mostly by letter, and there had been regular rumours of his death circulating for years.
But last week the Afghan government , and many of the Taliban’s own men, by announcing that Omar was not just dead, but had been officially running his movement from beyond the grave for more than two years.
After initially denying the claim, the Taliban moved quickly to , Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, a founding member of the movement.
Mansoor knew Omar and Osama bin Laden personally, but has a reputation as a relative moderate and vigorous proponent of peace talks with the Afghan government, raising hopes that his leadership could bring real progress towards ending more than a decade of war.
Mansoor had been effectively managing the Taliban as Omar’s deputy for years, which should have smoothed his succession to the top job.
Instead, the normally secretive insurgent group has descended into bitter – and public – dispute over the years-long coverup, the speed of the new appointment, and the fact that it was made by a tiny inner circle rather than by broad consensus.
This week, Omar’s former personal secretary, Tayeb Agha, now head of a political office in Doha working towards peace talks with the Afghan government, resigned, saying that he thought the coverup was a .
His statement, suggested he had not been told of Omar’s death until recently, underlined how closely the secret had been guarded and how deep splits over its handling go.
The current conflict in Afghanistan is entering its 14th year, with. With little prospect of a clear victory for either government forces or their Taliban-led opponents any time soon, there has been an increased focus on negotiations as the country’s best hope for ending the bloodshed.
President Ashraf Ghani has energetically pursued peace talks since he was sworn into office last year. He has courted the Pakistani government, which he sees as key to any deal, because Taliban leaders and footsoldiers have found safe haven in its major cities and mountainous border regions.
The Taliban, too, have been cautiously exploring the possibility of negotiations for several years, despite persistent opposition from hardliners within the movement who see any prospective peace deal as selling out.
The insurgent group’s new leader will probably have to rule by consensus, but he will have a key influence on whether and how talks go forward, and what terms the Taliban might need for a deal.
Mullah Omar had not appeared in public since his government’s fall in 2001, but his extraordinary reputation helped keep the insurgency united. Replacing him will be extremely difficult.
Mansoor will have to steer the group through extremely controversial peace talks, or return to all-out warfare, with a government weakened by the western retreat from but still able to call on allies’ air power and equipment.
He must hold the movement together and bolster its appeal at a time when Islamic State is luring away many potential recruits, and overcome frustration and distrust born from the coverup of Omar’s death.
Some Taliban leaders also fear that Mansoor might be too close to Islamabad. There have been months of rapid progress on peace talks managed by , undermining efforts by Agha to build a channel for negotiations outside the country.
When Kabul officials met Taliban delegates in a Pakistani resort town last month, Agha harshly denounced the meeting and said peace talks had been hijacked by former fighters looking to protect families and property across the border.
Some Taliban also say Mansoor was rushed into the top job without the agreement of the wider movement, and want to .
looks at the resurgence of the Taliban after their near-total defeat in 2001. by Carlotta Gall explores the links between the Taliban and the shadowy Pakistani military intelligence agency. It takes its title from a remark by Richard Holbrooke, top US envoy to the region, who said: “We may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country.”
For day-to-day developments, the has an unmatched team of experts on the ground in Kabul. The New Yorker did an English language report on the , the man behind the myth. For German speakers,about the same subject, including an exposé of one of just two known photographs of Mullah Omar as a fake posed by a lookalike.
For a tragic but insightful overview of the war from the perspectives of the Taliban, the government and ordinary Afghans, Anand Gopal’s beautifully written is based on years of meticulous reporting on both sides.