The numerous past reports of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar have, in the words of Mark Twain, been greatly exaggerated. This week, another round of such allegations surfaced on Afghan television and then in the Pakistani press. Does it even matter any more? Surely the more important news is that the Taliban are gradually seizing key transportation routes in Afghanistan that might allow them to control trade and smuggling, denying the government key revenue and taking it for themselves. At the same time, they have begun acting more like a political grouping, showing willingness to negotiate with the weak central government of President Ashraf Ghani. But the Taliban also face a more ruthless rival now, in ISIL.
The Taliban have in the past decade reemerged as a credible guerrilla fighting force. They have changed a great deal since their heyday of the 1990s, when they ruled most of Afghanistan and fatefully decided to host Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda troops, making them the 55th Brigade of the Taliban. The Taliban remain, however, a far-right Muslim fundamentalist organization devoted to taking and holding territory by force.
The announcement of the death of the figure lionized by followers as “Commander of the Faithful” comes on the eve of a second round of talks between the Afghan government and representatives of the guerrilla group, to be held in Qatar or China in days. A message purportedly from Mullah Omar on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr (the Festival of Fast Breaking) two weeks ago had endorsed the negotiations, a less hard-line position than the leader had taken for many years. The coincidence of this report with the new talks has raised suspicions that someone is attempting to manipulate the political context in which they take place.
The Taliban themselves are divided on whether to negotiate. Many feel they are making excellent progress on the battlefield and should fight on until victory. Others are tired of decades of war and think that with the departure of most Western forces, they have a chance to reshape the constitution through diplomacy. (NATO forces will have no role in Afghanistan after 2016, though the Obama administration wants to keep several thousand men there, apparently indefinitely, most as trainers.)
Those Taliban who want to fight on can point to real victories. Just this week, they’ve made three strategic advances. They took a large police station in Badakhshan away from the Kabul government. The police outpost in that eastern area of the country controls routes into northern Pakistan.
The Taliban also conquered Kohestanat district in Sar-e Pol province, taking another police base. This triumph took them closer to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the north. The locals fought off the guerrillas for two days, hoping in vain for air support from Kabul. When it did not come, they eventually collapsed, recalling uncomfortably the ways in which the Iraqi police and army have fallen apart over the past year.