The good and bad Taliban

After the deaths of Mullah Omar and Malik Ishaq, new questions arise about the Taliban talks.

Perhaps the distinction between the so-called good and bad Taliban has been abandoned, writes Nasir [Getty]

Even by Pakistan’s standards, Wednesday was an explosive news day.

What started as mere murmurings a few days ago about Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s death, was confirmed on Wednesday when the Afghan government went on record to say the reports were true.

Throughout the day a steady stream of unnamed Afghan, Pakistan, and even some Taliban officials suggested Mullah Omar was no more.

With the confirmation, the obvious question that popped up into many minds was what impact this development will have on the recently initiated peace talks between the Ashraf Ghani government and Taliban representatives in Pakistan, backed by the country’s powerful military.

There were fears of Mullah Omar’s death leading to a power struggle within the Afghan militant movement and even leading to fragmentation.

Until the new hierarchy is not demonstrably in place, the situation would cast a shadow over any talks. 

But because [Mullah Omar] had evaded capture or death, he acquired a mythical status and was seen as the inspiration behind all militant activity directed against the foreign troops present in Afghanistan, for a very long period.


However, all major players, particularly Pakistan’s all-pervasive security services, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), reputed to enjoy huge influence with the Afghan Taliban, would have known of this development and prepared for it.

Fostering negotiations or thwarting talks

Admittedly, it is too early to say if making Mullah Omar’s death public at this stage, when it supposedly happened in April 2013, was aimed at making the militant movement more amenable to negotiations or to thwart the talks.

For example, if it is the latter, and there are influential sections within Afghanistan’s delicate power structure who are hostile to these talks – in fact, they are hostile towards having much to do with Pakistan – then the news will bring into question the efficacy of any talks where the representative status of Taliban interlocutors is questionable itself.

If the whole idea was to make the announcement so the new leadership is quickly in place and so an embarrassing situation – like the one when the Taliban Qatar office representatives decried the talks while those still claiming to hold a brief for Mullah Omar were engaging in these – would not happen again.

Nonetheless, the international media had its top story.

Mullah Omar, whose rule in Afghanistan triggered a chain-reaction of events that would change the world beyond anybody’s recognition, was dead.

He may not have been hunted with the same fervour as Osama bin Laden, a guest of the Taliban emirate when he owned up to directing the 9/11 attacks on the United States, was but the Taliban “emir” hosted the man and refused to hand him over to the US and its allies.

The military action that followed the 9/11 attacks saw him dislodged from power in Kabul.

But because he had evaded capture or death, he acquired a mythical status and was seen as the inspiration behind all militant activity directed against the foreign troops present in Afghanistan, for a very long period.

Another shocking death

The news will have a telling effect on the region, including Pakistan, even though the country had woken up to equally dramatic but different news – the killing of Malik Ishaq.

Following Ishaq’s death, a photograph, released to the media, of his bullet-riddled, bloodied corpse with one glazed eye seemingly staring at nothingness in disbelief on the cold, tiled floor of a mortuary in southern Punjab may have represented the adage live by the sword, die by the sword.

But it was wholly inadequate to tell the story of the terror perpetrated by the man who was lying dead there in the company of his two sons and about a dozen other comrades.

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Malik Ishaq, who by his own admission, was responsible for the murder of more than 100 Shia Muslims in Pakistan, was the head of the outlawed Lashkar-e-Jhangvi – a terrorist organisation committed to the “extermination” of Shia Muslims whom it considers to be heretics.

Despite spending a decade and a half in prison on charges relating to the murder of 70 Shia Muslims, he was never convicted.

Witnesses were intimidated. Those who refused to withdraw were killed. Prosecutors were reminded of the fate of the others who did not oblige.

Nurturing terrorists

A judge trying him was said to have buried his face in his hands before leaving the court in a rush when Malik Ishaq got up and started to rattle off the names of his children. Ishaq had been freed by the Lahore High Court in 2014, but was recently rearrested.

He is quoted to have told the former chief of army staff retired General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani: “General, Sir, we are like your children but we can’t do as you say.”

In a meeting, Kayani had reportedly asked him to stop the murder of Shia Muslims.

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This incident was never denied by the military, which has been blamed in the past for nurturing such terrorists and their groups for use in Indian-administered Kashmir and Afghanistan.

Such was the villainous record of the man that even the usually vocal human rights activists did not question whether the “shoot-out” between his comrades and the police escorting him to a weapons cache was actually what happened: Was it an attempt to spring him from custody, or a staged extrajudicial killing as had become the wont of the security forces when they can’t secure court convictions?


More significantly, as the day ended, many people in Punjab were nervous and bracing for possible retaliation by Malik Ishaq’s group as he enjoyed a considerable following in the southern part of the country’s most populated province.

Most also wanted to know if his death finally meant an end to the military’s use of proxies and if it was now committed to crushing all terror groups as the army chief has publicly pledged. Perhaps the distinction between the so-called good and bad Taliban has now been abandoned.

Abbas Nasir is a former editor of Pakistan’s English language newspaper Dawn and former executive editor at BBC Asia Pacific region.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.