The Afghan government confirmed reports on Wednesday that Taliban founder and spiritual leader Mullah Omar is dead. What's more, Afghanistan says it has credible evidence that the reclusive leader died two years ago in a Karachi hospital.
While the Afghan government hasn't released the full information, the timing of the report is notable. The Taliban and the government are scheduled to begin long-awaited peace talks on Friday, and allegations of Omar's death could have a major impact on the negotiations.
The talks are a point of contention within the Taliban, with different factions divided over whether to consider a potential power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government.
Those divisions could intensify with the loss of such a central figure and the potential crisis over who will replace Omar as leader. That, in turn, would make negotiations more difficult, a diplomat close to the talks told The Guardian.
Some in the government of President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani may see Omar's death and the Taliban fragmentation differently, though. Officials from his administration told The New York Times last December that the Taliban's instability could make it easier to target individual insurgent leaders, as opposed to brokering an agreement with the group as a whole.
"The government of Afghanistan believes that grounds for the Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before, and thus calls on all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity and join the peace process," the government said in a statement on Wednesday.
The divisions among the Taliban predate the announcement of negotiations between the militant group and the Afghan government.
Mullah Omar has been largely a mystery since he allegedly made an escape from Kandahar to Pakistan atop a motorcycle after U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan. While he was suspected to be in the mountains of Pakistan, the Taliban leader hadn't been seen since late 2001, and in the years since has been the subject of numerous death rumors.
Because Omar was a spiritual leader, but supposedly not involved in the actual political or military running of the Taliban, his physical presence wasn't necessary to keep the group functioning.
There have been noted fractures in the Taliban's unity in recent years, The Washington Post notes, with different ideologies and command structures emerging as different factions break off. Part of this has been due to the inaccessibility of Omar and the lack of a strong bureaucracy within the group, as well as the deaths of some of its commanders.
In April of this year, the Taliban's leadership published a biography of Omar that analysts saw as an attempt to reassert his authority over the group and confirm he was still among the living. On July 15, Omar supposedly sent a message backing the peace talks and calling for unity.
More evidence of a split within the Taliban occurred this month, when the group's official office in Qatar said peace talks were invalid, while deputy leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour at the same time declared they were approved.
A week after Omar's message, a Taliban splinter group issued a statement similar to the one now confirmed by the government, saying the leader had been dead for years. That group, Feday-e-Mahaz, is made up of hardliners who oppose the peace talks, and the statement was seen as an attempt to disrupt the negotiations.
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