Less than a week ago, Afghanistan seemed to be edging toward peace. Taliban insurgent leaders were preparing to attend a second round of negotiations with Afghan officials, prodded by Pakistani authorities amid a thaw in their long-chilly relations with Kabul and reinforced by a supportive recent statement from the supreme Taliban leader, Mohammad Omar.
Today, that hopeful scenario has been blown sky-high with the seismic revelation that Omar has been dead for the past two years. New peace talks have been abruptly postponed, and the Taliban official named to replace Omar has just vowed to keep its religious war going in a desperate bid to unify the increasingly fractured movement.
“We will continue our jihad until the creation of an Islamic system. The enemy with their talk of peace is trying by this propaganda to weaken the jihad,” a voice introduced as Akhtar Mohammad Mansour said in a speech on the Taliban Web site on Saturday. “Where there is disunity, Allah will be unhappy and only the enemies will be happy. We have fought for 25 years and we will not lose our achievements.”
Despite the display of bravado and the release of an official Taliban video showing a variety of Afghan clerics and elders pledging loyalty to Mansour, he faces internal opposition from relatives of Omar, militant commanders and other influential Taliban members who question the hasty, secretive meeting in the Pakistani city of Quetta at which Mansour was chosen. Analysts here said the power struggle has aggravated existing divisions over whether to keep fighting or join negotiations, as well as tribal and regional rivalries that were once suppressed by Omar’s absolute religious authority.
Although it is too soon to know how these dynamics will play out, analysts and diplomats said the Taliban now faces an acute existential crisis that could lead to a permanent split, with some factions deciding to reconcile with the government and others lured into the embrace of the Islamic State, whose presence is rapidly growing in parts of Afghanistan.
U.S. officials, who until just days ago were optimistic that the peace talks would bear fruit after a 14-year conflict that has cost thousands of U.S. lives and billions of dollars, now say they have no idea which direction the post-Omar Taliban will take or what impact his death will have on the group’s mind-set, cohesion or tenuous appetite for ending the conflict.
“This is a moment of opportunity” for the Taliban to choose war or peace, Washington’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Daniel Feldman, told journalists here Friday. “We hope they will embrace the second option,” he said, but added that U.S. officials could not yet speculate on the outcome. “We are watching and waiting,