Taliban succession games: What it means for India


The world was taken by surprise recently when it was announced that Mullah Omar, the undisputed and feared leader of Taliban, had died two years ago in a Karachi hospital. Taliban Spokesman Zabhiullah Mujahid confirmed the report, but disputed that Mullah Omar died in a Karachi hospital, saying that he never left Afghanistan after the US attack in 2001. Mystery over circumstances and location where Mullah Omar died will continue to persist, though everyone is in agreement that the Taliban supremo is no longer alive.

Even before the formal announcement of Omar’s death, sources in Taliban had begun telling journalists that Mullah Akhtar Mansoor had been chosen as the successor. He was reportedly elected as emir at a consultative meeting of the group after news of Omar’s death became public.

Mansoor was earlier Omar’s deputy and headed the Taliban’s seven member consultative council. Khalifa Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of chief of Haqqani network, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and former deputy chief justice during Taliban era, Maulvi Haibatullah, were named as Mansoor’s deputies.

News about Mullah Mansoor’s elevation to the top position was quickly denounced by Mullah Yakub, the son of Mullah Omar (who fancies himself stepping into his father’s shoes) as also by the younger brother of Mullah Omar. Some other influential members of the Quetta Shura also challenged Mansoor’s appointment by questioning the process and charging that he was elected in a non-transparent, unrepresentative and opaque manner..

This declaration and subsequent comments have thrown wide open the highly emotive and contested issue of succession in the organization that remains shrouded in secrecy.

Power Games

The first casualty of this announcement was the talks between Afghan Government and Taliban, the first round of which had taken place under the aegis of Pakistan in Murree near Islamabad on 7th July, 2015. It was declared a day after the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death that the second Round of talks would take place on July 31. However, seeing the strident opposition to the elevation of Mullah Mansoor, Pakistan hurriedly announced that the second round of talks had been postponed indefinitely.

Mullah Mansoor, who was apparently running the affairs of the Taliban at least for the last two years, if not more, is known to be a proxy for Pakistan. The immediate reaction hence was that his elevation signalled Pakistan’s victory. However, the equally sudden and vigorous opposition to Mansoor’s promotion has come both as a surprise and shock for Pakistan.

Rifts and factions

The rift and dissension in Taliban over the succession issue will adversely impact upon its unity and effectiveness in its dealings with the Kabul government. It will make the organisation weaker and splinter it into different power centers. Some leaders might also feel disillusioned with the ineffective leadership and feel tempted to join th ISIS which has of late been trying to make inroads in the country. The struggle for leadership of the Taliban will be viewed with anxiety and concern by China and the US who have been standing behind Pakistan, encouraging it to play a proactive role in brokering peace between the two warring parties.

India’s stakes and choices

From India’s perspective, these unfolding developments need to be keenly studied and analysed, and appropriate action taken. The situation since Ashraf Ghani became president of Afghanistan last September has been none too encouraging for us. We have been out of the negotiating process between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Our influence with the Afghan government has got significantly eroded as Ghani is looking more or less exclusively towards China and Pakistan to deliver on bringing peace to the country. As expected, this has failed to produce any results.

Increased dissensions within the Taliban ranks are likely to result in greater violence and killings in the country as factions of Taliban fight against each other while also fighting the Central Government in Kabul. This will lessen the influence and control of Pakistan over different factions of Taliban. This should not be totally undesirable from our viewpoint. This could diminish the trust and reliance of the US and China on Pakistan to usher in peace in Afghanistan.

SCO factor: Forging regional approach

India’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization could result in greater engagement with its other Member states, particularly Central Asia and Russia who would be keen to assume a greater role in stabilization of Afghanistan. PM Modi’s successful visit to Central Asia, the first ever by an Indian prime minister to all these states, has reinvigorated relations across the spectrum. Security and defence cooperation was a significant element of discussions between PM Modi and leaders of these countries, particularly with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. All these countries are highly vulnerable to a deterioration in the security situation in Afghanistan and possible spillover of terrorist elements across the borders of that country. Some indigenous terrorist outfits like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hizb-ut-Tahrir etc are waiting in the wings to come out in the open. Under these circumstances, India needs to strengthen its dialogue with Central Asia, Russia and Iran to ensure that all regional countries are pro-actively engaged in bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan and the Region.

In a scenario of such considerable uncertainty, India needs to pro-actively engage itself with other regional players like Central Asia, Russia, Iran and China who share our concerns, and with regional groupings like SCO to ensure that the unfolding changes in Afghanistan do not have an adverse impact on security and peace in India and the region.

(Ashok Sajjanhar is a former ambassador of India and a commentator on foreign policy issues. This article has been written exclusively for India Writes Network)

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