Implications of Mullah Omar’s death (II)
By Tim Foxley
The desirabilty of talks notwithstanding, I still suspect that Mullah Omar remains high on the targeting list for some international armies. I remain interested in the impact of Mullah Omar’s death (see my post here) – perhaps it would be a very unhelpful thing for the Taliban’s leader to be “taken out” in the style of Bin Laden? In the post, I said I would come back with a few further thoughts on how the Taliban might cope with the loss of their leader in the full glare of the international media and what we and they might learn from previous comparable situations.
The Taliban have never lost their leader before and so there are no directly comparable events from which to draw obvious conclusions. But they have lost senior commanders, including, in Mullah Berader, a deputy leader. Although the death of Mullah Omar would be a unique (and uniquely unrepeatable) event for the Taliban, Afghanistan and the region, there may be some clues as to how the Taliban would deal with it from past events. From open sources we can gain a sense of how the Taliban initially reacted to the death or capture of senior commanders, particularly in the media environment. Given that some of these events happened four, and even five years ago, we can also make a few generalisations about how the Taliban coped with the losses, what impact it had over the long term and what lessons the Taliban may have learnt. If we cast our net a little further, the experiences and condition of the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda may also help us to think about the implications of Mullah Omar’s death. They may also help the Taliban to think a little about this event.
We perhaps should consider whether it is too narrow to analyse merely the implications of Mullah Omar’s potential death. We should probably examine, at least briefly, the implications of his capture (and by whom) and/or his wounding/incapacitation. It is perhaps more difficult to eulogise and hold up as an example for Jihad and martyrdom someone who has been captured by the ISI with the potential for rumours that he may be co-operating, talking or otherwise in some form of political negotiation. Furthermore, the wounding and death of Baitullah Mehsud, in August 2009, was a drawn out process that apparently led to disputes and even power struggles within the Pakistani Taliban about the process of succession and the succession itself. Should we be examining the “loss” of Mullah Omar, rather than explicitly his death?
I have considered briefly the following events:
a) The death of Osama Bin Laden (Head of AQ) by US SF raid, in Pakistan, May 2011
b) Reports of Mullah Omar’s ill-health, in Pakistan, January 2011
c) Arrest of Mullah Berader (Taliban second in command), in Pakistan, February 2010
d) Death of Baitullah Mehsud (leader of Pakistani Taliban), in Pakistan, August 2009
e) Death of Mullah Dadullah-Lang (senior Taliban military commander), in Afghanistan, May 2007
f) Arrest of Mullah Akhund (Taliban senior member of leadership council), in Pakistan, February 2007
g) Death of Mullah Osmani (Taliban senior military commander), in Afghanistan, December 2006
h) Taliban media responses to bad news generally, 2001 – 2011
I have not considered anything prior to September 2001. Although the Taliban of course lost significant commanders during the 1990s, the circumstances and nature of the Taliban then are so different that they are probably not sufficiently relevant.
Although past precedent can offer some useful pointers as to the way the Taliban might handle the loss of Mullah Omar, there are also some limitations. There is no obviously close parallel that leaps out when considering the loss of Mullah Omar. The Afghan Taliban have not lost their leader before and the loss of even a second in command is not quite the same. The Pakistani Taliban have lost their leader, but they have distinctly different characteristics to their Afghan counterparts and parallels may not be as close as they might initially appear. AQ is a very different organisation to the Taliban and the loss of Bin Laden is still so fresh that it is almost too early to start turning to it as an example of “precedent”.
Most of the significant Afghan Taliban losses of their leaders have taken place between 2006 – 2009. Three of them – Osmani, Akhund and Dadullah – occurred within a 6 month period, from December 2006 to May 2007. Almost without exception, each incident was heralded by open source analysis (academic, ISAF, Afghan, regional and international) as a significant blow to the Taliban, perhaps even a critical blow to their capabilities and prospects. And yet the Taliban have gone from strength to strength each year. From the Taliban perspective, with each loss we can see:
- a period of media denial and confusion, followed by eventual acknowledgement
- a period of hiatus (sometimes quite short) while they absorb and deal with the loss
- a new commander (or commanders) filling the role of the old commander – or the old role being changed or removed
- a message that “the Jihad continues”…
- …which is demonstrated by fighting continuing, and increasingly effective each year
The death of Baitullah Mehsud offers up a couple of interesting angles. In this situation, it appears that Baitullah was badly wounded and only succumbed to his wounds around two weeks later. An interim commander was appointed while a shura was convened to appoint a replacement. But, in this period of hiatus, there was much confusion and there were strong suggestions of internal fighting between rival successors.
The Afghan Taliban’s media operation has a tendency to delay, defer or denounce any particularly bad news. In the case of the death of Bin Laden, they appear to have played it a little more cautiously and pragmatically, by issuing a brief holding statement to the effect that they would not comment until they had confirmed to their satisfaction what had happened.
The Taliban are learning lessons from their losses as well – we should recognise this. Lessons from precedent can become redundant as the Taliban move forward and evolve. The Taliban’s style is now much less reliant on small numbers of very senior commanders doing dangerous things such as fighting on the battlefield. This is probably partly due to the lessons learned from the deaths of the likes of Dadullah and Osmani and part the reality of the new and intensive ISAF approach to targeting. Either way, they seem to have now evolved in such a way that they make use of larger number of cheaper, more “disposable”, mid-level commanders, rather than more senior players. Chopping off the head of the Taliban may now suggest more fragmentation rather than less.
The Afghan Taliban have now had some experience dealing with damage to their command structure. Equally, they are gaining some useful lessons on how to handle the public media aspect of it. The obvious point to make is that, in previous situations where the Afghan Taliban have suffered the loss of a significant commander, they have dealt with it, adapted and come back more effectively than before. Even contemplating the loss of Mullah Omar, they appear to have reserves of capability, commanders and willpower to absorb the blow.
The two most plausible examples of precedent may not be the deaths or capture of Afghan Taliban leaders at all, but be instead the death of Bin Laden and the death of Baitullah Mehsud. Regional expert, Ahmed Rashid, believes that if Mullah Omar was killed, the Taliban would fragment, to the detriment of the peace process and keeping Afghanistan unstable. But the Taliban command structure has evolved, improved and modernised – perhaps a Taliban Version 2.0? After the Baitullah succession problems, the capture of Mullah Berader, the speculation over Omar’s health problems and the death of Osama Bin Laden, you could argue that it would be highly surprising if the Taliban didn’t now have a robust media and succession procedure established to deal with the loss of Mullah Omar.
If fragmentation of the Afghan Taliban does look likely in some way, the Pakistani Taliban as a whole might form a useful model to study. The TTP are more fragmented, internally argumentative and difficult to control and focus, when compared to the Afghan Taliban. But they still command a major and capable force that is dominating significant parts of Pakistan (to the country’s great detriment), resistant to political dialogue and able to reach out and destabilise the country over the long-term.
The death of Bin Laden offers another interesting angle to consider, playing to the notion that Taliban have understandably developed and improved their business and their capabilities over the years. They are better overall at command and control (well, at least given the much more difficult operating circumstances in which they now find themselves). They are slowly improving their media strategy, logistics and fund-raising capabilities and generally operating like a “professional” organisation. If this is the case, then perhaps the Taliban, like AQ appear to be doing, will respond to a hiatus of leadership in the way any international business corporation (Strauss-Kahn and the IMF??) would do:
- you don’t blindly deny things or make statements when you don’t know yet what has happened – you certainly don’t claim Omar is still alive
- you issue a holding response and impose a ban within your organisation on talking to the media
- you confirm what has happened and start pulling together your senior leadership/decision-making group (within the constraints of security, etc) and start the process of implementing your contingency plan. This may include appointing an interim leader to supervise any succession process
- The contingency plan includes a media strategy – if Omar is dead you try your hardest only to acknowledge it on your own terms and when you are ready to – probably when you have your succession plan ready to announce. Force of circumstance may prevent this (eg an ISAF Proof of Death photo-op)
- Messages and actions will all be designed to demonstrate continuity – “the Jihad goes on”, even if ultimately the nature of the Taliban has significantly shifted with the loss of Omar. We should not expect a significant policy change in the following few months.
This table summarises the cases that I have used – Taliban key leaders who have been killed or captured: