Mullah Omar’s death: thinking about the implications
By Tim Foxley
Last year, rumours of Mullah Omar’s death were spread all over the media. More recently, we have seen similar claims about Jalaluddin Haqqani. Whether these stories can be attributed to intelligence “conspiracy” or rumour-mongering “cock-up”, it is probably safe to assume that both are marked down for “targeted killing”. It is probably also safe to say that the current whereabouts and status of either is unknown to all but Taliban supporters (and perhaps the ISI).
If I was pressed to make a judgement, extrapolating from what we know about Osama Bin Laden’s experience, I would suggest it highly plausible that both are probably separately in the Pakistan border area adjacent to Afghanistan, perhaps in urban areas for better concealment, holed up in low key walled compounds with little contact with anyone but a few loyal and trusted followers.
Be that as it may, the death of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, would be a big story, almost on a par with Bin Laden’s death. In the event of his death there are many areas that would need analysis in order to gain a clear understanding of what the short- and long-term implications might be. I thought it might be helpful to discuss this and see if anyone else has any thoughts to contribute. Where I use the term “transition” I am – unless specifically stated – referring to a process of a transition in Taliban leadership.
Our knowledge and understanding of the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, and his relationship with the Taliban senior leadership is still not good. Although he is undoubtedly a significant spiritual and religious figurehead for the Taliban, he may be little more than that. He may have little or no effect on the day to day running of the Taliban political, military and financial activities. What impact, therefore, would his death have on the insurgency? But perhaps, even before we get to this stage, we should be asking ourselves – how do we know he is currently alive?
It is difficult to gain a good sense of where the Taliban movement would be after his death. But it might not mean the easy and immediate collapse and disappearance of the Taliban that many might hope or expect. What is clear, however, is that there are many factors that need to be considered concerning his death and any resultant change in Taliban leadership, before we can even begin to think about the possible impact. The question goes significantly wider than simply examining likely successors and the potential impact on the morale of the Taliban. Immediately after Omar’s death is reported, speculation and rumour will be rife. Proving Omar’s death might prove difficult – at least for days, and maybe weeks (and even months). The Taliban’s media and information organisation will be important in giving indicators as to how the Taliban might be dealing with it, but their immediate reaction was almost certainly be to close up and deny everything.
We need to give serious consideration to the various influences of a range of stakeholders, both inside the Taliban and outside and how groups might be looking to “shape” the event to their own ends, both during and after Omar’s death. There are perhaps even approaches groups are adopting to shape the situation before it occurs. The purpose of this post is to highlight key areas that may be worthy of consideration when analysing the impact of the death of Mullah Omar.
Areas for study
There seem to be something like eight areas that we could usefully be looking at, many of which overlap and several of which might need breaking down into specific scenarios:
a) Precedent – a look at similar previous events
b) Time and Manner of death
c) Proof of Death
d) Likely responses/transition process – how will the Taliban deal with this?
e) Media/IO/propaganda reactions
f) Influences on transition process, internal and external
g) Contenders for possible succession
h) Impact on the Taliban’s strategy and direction, short and long term
a) Precedent – similar previous events
We should see if there are any useful historical insurgent precedents to guide us on how such an event might impact on the insurgency. Bin Laden’s assassination stands out, but we should look at how the Taliban have dealt with similar situations affecting their own – the death of Mullah Dadullah-Lang in 2007, the arrest of Mullah Berader in 2010, but perhaps also how the TTP dealt with the death of TTP leader, Baitullah Mehsud. This can give us clues about how they:
- handle bad news through open and covert channels,
- make decisions,
- deal with morale,
- maintain continuity of command, control and operations.
I shall be taking a look at this angle in more detail in a subsequent post.
b) Time and Manner of death
The who, what, how, why and where? These factors are important – the impact of Mullah Omar dying in 2013 by a US drone strike will almost certainly be very different to him dying in 2025 by a road traffic accident or heart attack. The timing within a particular year – perhaps in relation to the fighting season or during a period of negotiations – might also be important. At the start, or mid-way through a difficult period of fighting would perhaps be a different level of difficulty for the Taliban to deal with than his death during the winter which might be easier to absorb. Perhaps more crucially, the nature of death will also play an impact: natural causes, accident or targeted assassination. A successful US drone strike will have a more damaging impact on morale.
c) Proof of Death
Proving that Mullah Omar is genuinely dead is an interesting aspect that has a bearing on some key areas, including the Taliban’s process of changing commander, media handling by the Taliban and the impact on the Taliban fighters themselves. We should take it for granted that confusion, suspicion and rumour will be rife amongst Taliban communications networks. The Taliban’s “default setting” to any report of Mullah Omar’s death will be to suspect an international or ISAF trick. Their media outlets will be denying anything until they can find out what may or may not have happened. Proving his death (and convincing a range of groups and actors of that fact) may prove difficult for the international community – but it might also be hard for the Taliban leadership and media group, given that Mullah Omar’s profile has always been extremely low key – he is rarely visible. And, in fact, we should also consider whether the Taliban would want to acknowledge and prove Omar is dead? It might be judged more valuable to preserve the undoubted figurehead that he is by pretending he is alive. This may in fact already be the case with Jalaluddin Haqqani.
d) Likely responses and the transition process – how would the Taliban deal with this?
Firstly, much depends on whether the Taliban accept his death. Uncertainty over, or denial of, this basic fact could cause many complications. We then need to consider whether the Taliban have any form of formal, agreed and clear succession process. Might a caretaker be appointed during any transition? Perhaps there is an appointed successor already identified – logically, this would certainly make sense, to minimise the risk of in-fighting. Do we feel that the Taliban leadership command and control structure has evolved such that it could handle a transition process in a relatively smooth fashion? Does any “transition” have to involve appointing a new leader at all – perhaps a Quetta-based shura system will prove to work effectively without one? It is probable in all scenarios that proof of death will be problematic and therefore hiatus and confusion will cause friction. Several ways in which this could go (with my own current assessed percentage likelihood given):
- Smooth/relatively smooth transition, either on previously agreed successor or no leader necessary – 40%
- Acrimonious transition/power struggle due to lack of agreed process, disagreement with the process – 30%
- Taliban fragmentation due to emergence of several strong leadership contenders – 20%
- Taliban pretend Omar is still alive, using him as a religious figurehead – 10%
e) Media/IO reaction
The Taliban media apparatus will be crucial for disseminating information, conveying instructions and boosting morale in the event of Mullah Omar’s death. The Taliban media structure is a lot more organised and prolific than other comparable organisations – HIG, the Haqqani network and TTP – but they are still rattled by bad news or negative press. There are some good examples of precedent when it comes to how the Taliban handle bad news but, generally, they are over-sensitive, clumsy and with a knee-jerk tendency to deny, denounce and deflect. They are particularly paranoid about Western “media trickeries” and this in itself might hamper their ability to respond effectively.
But the death of their leader is probably an event that the Taliban media group have prepared for, at least in part. They certainly have had some experience after the media “scare” they received after reports last year regarding Mullah Omar’s “heart problems”. After an event of this potential significance, there will be much rumour, speculation and media “chatter”. Demand for information within the movement will be intense. Taliban websites and statements from their recognised official sources will need to be scrutinised. If/when Omar’s death is confirmed by the Taliban, we can probably expect four strands of Taliban media effort to occur simultaneously and almost immediately:
- Eulogising of the man – obituaries, etc
- A successor to be declared, biographic detail, confirming/selling him to the movement as a worthy successor and “good Jihadi”
- Strong emphasis on “the Jihad continues”, including military direction
- Attempts to attack/minimise propaganda gains of perceived enemies
f) Influences on transition/succession process
Amongst the Taliban leadership there may be key figures with leverage over the process of choosing and confirming a new leader. There may also be stakeholders outside of the Taliban who may have a direct or indirect influence. This influence could be positive or negative. We should probably give consideration (what kind of influence do they have, strength of influence, what would they be trying to achieve?) to some or all of the following:
- Pakistan, ISI
- Al Qaeda
- HIG, Haqqani network – attempts to influence succession, attempts to muscle in on Taliban territory?
- Former Taliban with links to the Taliban, such as Zaeef
- Supporters/funders locally and internationally (Middle East)
- Pakistani Taliban
- Pushtun tribal base in Afghanistan and Pakistan
- Afghan government, High Peace Council, President Karzai, other Afghans (Sayyaf?)
- Wider international community, UN, NGOs
Much depends upon whether a successor has already been chosen and whether there is a robust process of confirmation. If one has already been selected, is it wise to assume that a successor comes from within the Quetta-based senior leadership as we know it now? Are there any “wild cards” we need to consider? The strategic political context at the time of death could be important – particularly the situation regarding reconciliation and reintegration but also the ISAF process of transition to the ANSF and the downsizing of Western military forces. And it begs several questions: What do the Taliban want from a leader, what do they need and what will they get? Ideally they presumably prefer a competent combination of proven fighter, religious symbol, administrator, fund-raiser and diplomat. And these are perhaps the criteria against which we should probably assess contenders. It is perhaps natural to assume that some kind of military leader or religious figurehead would be a preference. But if the Taliban were having a hard time militarily and a political settlement was looking more attractive – or at least viable – someone with negotiating and diplomat skills might make for a more valuable asset.
h) Measuring Impact on the Taliban
Much of the media, international audiences and analytical communities will be looking to see if we “win the war” by taking out Omar. Caution will be needed when making assumptions and judging impact against likely scenarios and against sets of criteria. The type of criteria might include: level of hiatus, morale, cohesion, fighting capability, command and control, willingness to negotiate, etc. If there is some sense regarding the likely successor (or successors), they could perhaps be assessed individually against criteria, such as leadership skills (strategic skills versus tactical ability, organisational, morale…), financial ability, political and religious positions, willingness to negotiate and likely direction of negotiating goals. We should probably look at short term (0 – 6 months?) impact and long term (6 months – 24?). I sense that the short term may see little difference, but his death may cause harder to define cracks or shifts below the surface that may not emerge until later.
Policy implications, impact on international community, ISAF, Afghan government, neighbours, etc
The reaction of the wider international community – and specific stakeholders (UN, US, UK, ISAF, domestic audiences, Afghanistan’s neighbours and near neighbours, Middle East) – might also be an indirect influence on any Taliban transition. If there was less triumphalism and more political reach out from the Taliban’s international opponents, it might prove an opportunity to exert some influence in terms of bring a more moderate leader to the fore, or even to push whichever leader the Taliban may have selected towards dialogue. Perhaps consideration should be given to the possibility that there might be opportunities to shape Taliban attitudes and thinking before, during and after the death of the Taliban leader.
Specific questions that might be occurring to policy-makers and stakeholders might include:
- What do we want from Mullah Omar’s death?
- Is it necessarily good or bad?
- Are there Afghans (including former Taliban) we could ask?
- How can we shape the environment?
- Do we need an “Action Plan” to cover his death?
- How would we deal with a situation where we think he is dead but the Taliban say he is not?
We should be careful of our assumptions – how do we know Omar is alive now? Should we assume the Taliban would want to acknowledge Omar is dead? Does the Taliban actually need a new leader? The international community, ISAF in particular, will need to avoid premature confirmations of Omar’s death and premature declarations of victory. It is very possible that, other than a hiatus of some weeks/months, most of the Taliban will continue to function as it did before Mullah Omar’s death – “the Jihad continues”.
There will be no guarantee that Omar’s death is a “tipping point” from where the decline (let alone defeat) of the insurgency is inevitable or indeed that Omar’s death would even necessarily be linked to the decline. A Rand study looking at how insurgencies end suggests that neither side may know that it has “won” or “lost” for many years and insurgencies generally only end when the root causes of the conflict have been addressed.
 In response to allegations that Mullah Omar had heart problems, the official spokesman had this to say: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan categorically refutes this baseless and fatuous claim and believes that circulation of this rumor, is part and parcel of the propaganda war launched by the enemy.”, Jihadi website, 20 Jan. 2011, http://www.theunjustmedia.com/Afghanistan/Statements/Jan11/Remarks%20of%20the%20Spokesman%20of%20the%20Islamic%20Emirate%20of%20Afghanistan%20about%20the%20Baseless%20Rumor%20of%20Illness%20of%20Amir-ul-Momineen%20Mullah%20Mohammad%20Omar%20Mujahid.htm