Taliban, AQ and ISIL: Whither the Global Jihadi Movement. By Farooq Ganderbali


A lot of ink has been used to write on the ‘death’ of the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. The reclusive chief of the Taliban reportedly died in 2013 in Karachi. Once again the finger points to a Pakistan hand in the Taliban narrative. It is the Pak ISI which created and nurtured the Taliban from its inception. Of course, the other part of the story is that during the cold war the US backed the ISI of the Zia days to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Anyone wanting to know the details of this episode only has to turn the pages of Steve Coll’s masterly work “Ghost Wars”.
The world has been aware for sometime now that Mullah Omar is no longer the head of Taliban and messages that used to periodically appear were issued from his grave, by his Pakistan friends to ensure that the Taliban (read Quetta Shura) stood united. Over the years, the Taliban has become prone to factionalism, with the younger lot of leaders forming the Peshawar Shura and wanting to continue the armed struggle to eventually control Afghanistan.
Therefore, it was necessary for Pakistan to maintain the charade of Mullah Omar’s continuance as leader, to make sure that rank and file of the Taliban remained unified. But as time passed and more players came into the picture, Islamabad began to discover that they were losing control of the organization and this was bad news for them. Recent talks between the Taliban and Afghan government got off to a good start. But the announcement by Afghan officials of Omar’s death signified that the Ghani establishment had developed cold feet and decided to take a break from the dialogue. Recall that it was President Ghani who kept harping on the need for Pakistan’s good offices to talk to the Taliban.
There is a great deal here that is still grey. For instance the Qatar connection; after all, the Taliban’s Doha office has just witnessed the resignation of Tayyeb Agha, who represented the Taliban during the conversation with Kabul. Qatar has played a role in shaking hands with terrorists the world over, the Taliban being no exception. Even the US used Qatar as a negotiating partner to free their citizens. The Taliban’s political organ needed for the dialogue with the Afghan government is now a split entity.
The Taliban is at its height today in Afghanistan in military terms, but politically it is weak. It’s Pakistani masters have for their own safety ‘elected’ Mullah Akhtar Mansoor as leader of the Taliban. Taliban’s military commander Ibrahim Sadar is also a known ISI protégé. However, challenges to the Taliban are not only internal.
Taliban is also being challenged in its own territory by Daesh or Islamic State of Syria and Levant (ISIL). This has seen both parties sending missives about not interfering in each other’s jihad. The essence of this story is that Daesh wants to take control of Afghanistan with or without the help of the Taliban. Interestingly, however, both parties seem to be in ‘control’ of several parts of northern Afghanistan suggesting that there is tacit collaboration between the two.
The Taliban will now have to do much more than just win military battles. It will have to find itself political space in the fabric of Afghanistan if it wants to exist as an entity. Pakistan knows that and this is precisely why it is seeking to re-establish control over its former fighters who ran a government in Kabul from 1996 to 2001. Which leads to an intriguing thought – did the ISI and President Ghani decide together to announce the belated death of Mullah Omar? It does seem very likely that this indeed the case. It suited both parties to make the announcement when they did.
While a great deal has been debated on the issue of Mullah Omar’s death, the question of its impact on the leadership of the global Islamist militancy remains moot. Will the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death give the Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi more room for manoeuvre and win him more adherents? This is very likely and in the coming days and weeks one could well witness more Taliban cadres joining the Daesh.
One has to only recall that bin Laden’s death in 2011 saw the Al Qaeda (AQ) leadership rocked and subsequently, the US took to targeting its leadership to ensure that it became inconsequential. What is left now is the AQ Core which is based in Pakistan. Susequently, AQ became a de-centralised organization with global reach with each group in various parts of the world operating on its own, but under the overall ‘command’ of Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The dramatic rise of ISIL in 2013 in Iraq saw a struggle for supremacy in the world of Islamic militancy. Actually, this began in 2012 when the AQ sent its representative to Syria to warn al-Baghdadi that his methods were hurting the AQ cause. Baghdadi refused to heed their voices and converted AQ in Iraq into ISIL. Al-Baghdadi today has an upper hand in terms of resources, territory and personnel. ISIL has a global agenda, the Taliban, on the other hand, has its sights on Afghanistan. This is part of the grand design that its masters the ISI set for it.
With internal rifts within the ranks of the Afghan Taliban giving Daesh an opportunity to make ingress into Afghanistan, the AQ will find itself even more on the backfoot. Remember, even AQ leader Zawahiri used to pay homage to Mullah Omar as commander of the faithful. Now, will AQ swear allegiance to Akhtar Mansoor? Interestingly, one faction of the Afghan Taliban calling itself as Fidayee Mahaz has sent emissaries to meet Baghdadi to convey the message that ISIL activities are not inimical to Afghanistan. More the merrier!
What of the Pakistani based terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Haqqani Network? As is well known, these and other groups remain the main striking arm for the Pak ISI against India and its interests in the region. However, some reports suggest that top LeT leaders did meet Baghdadi in Iraq last year. The Pak TTP, on the other hand, is a splintered entity with some factions swearing allegiance to Baghdadi. Therefore, the balance of power in the global jihadist movement is clearly moving towards ISIL.
The Taliban, therefore, has a delicate balancing act to perform in the coming days. It will have to work towards establishing the leadership of Mansoor and ensuring that cadres follow him. Next task will be to ensure that the dialogue with the Ghani government moves ahead to the satisfaction of Islamabad. Short of Mansoor getting killed by a US drone, it seems likely that Taliban will move in the direction on dialogue. Incidentally, the Chinese are right behind Islamabad in this game and are backing them to the hilt. Therefore, it came as no surprise that Xinhua carried a report backing the appointment of Akhtar Mansoor as Supreme Taliban leader. What remains to be seen is how far Beijing will go to keep their flock together. To rephrase Sherlock Holmes: “The Great Game is afoot.”

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