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How Death of Taliban’s Mullah Omar Could Boost ISIS in Afghanistan

Michael Kugelman

"Numerous Taliban militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, unhappy about their leader’s long absence, had already started affirming allegiance to Islamic State," writes Michael Kugelman.

The reported death of the Afghan Taliban’s spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is huge news–and a complete non-surprise.

Afghan officials on Wednesday confirmed reports of Mullah Omar’s death, while a Taliban spokesman denied claims. This could be an effort to stave off a violent leadership crisis within the Taliban, as opposed to a statement of truth.

Should we believe the allegations, particularly given that rumors of Mullah Omar’s demise have circulated for years? Consider some of the major events that rocked Afghanistan last year: the withdrawal of international troops, an extended election crisis, and challenges from Islamic State. Mullah Omar uttered not a peep. Only a dead leader would remain silent in the face of such developments.

Assuming Mullah Omar has died, the implications are immense:

He was not just the leader of a militant organization. He has been a deeply influential figure well beyond the Taliban. Even Osama Bin Laden—who was Mullah Omar’s guest in pre-9/11 Afghanistan—reportedly expressed allegiance to Mullah Omar. Last year, al Qaeda renewed its oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar. Militants across South Asia and beyond bestowed on Mullah Omar the honorific “Commander of the Faithful.”

In recent years, Mullah Omar unified an otherwise fractured network of South Asian militants. His death could shred any semblance of cohesion, certainly within the Afghan Taliban–which is afflicted by infighting–but also among jihadist factions across Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Islamic State could be a big winner from Mullah Omar’s death, confirmation of which could provide ISIS with its biggest recruitment tool to date in Afghanistan. Numerous Taliban militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, unhappy about their leader’s long absence, had already started affirming allegiance to Islamic State.

Now, great numbers of disaffected and leaderless fighters could flow to Islamic State’s ranks. The group formally announced its presence in Afghanistan in January, and ISIS supporters are battling Taliban forces in Nangarhar province. These ISIS fighters could soon get a big boost.

A more immediate implication is the potential blow Mullah Omar’s death could deal to Afghanistan’s fledgling peace process. Any serious confusion within the Taliban could distract from what have been promising talks—robbing them of momentum if not torpedoing them outright. A vacancy at the top could provide an opening for Taliban hard-liners to seek to scale back the group’s role in negotiations.

The uptake? For Afghanistan and the broader South Asia region, Mullah Omar’s death is a very big deal—perhaps even bigger than that of Osama Bin Laden, whose influence among militants of the region was much weaker.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal.

About the Author

Michael Kugelman

Michael Kugelman

Director, South Asia Institute
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Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more