The Great Game appears to have taken a couple of somersaults in Afghanistan. The announcement of Mullah Omar's death, apparently two years ago in April 2013, is a pointer towards this. The most obvious consequence of this will be the weakening of the Taliban.
Omar was no ordinary leader. He was the Amir-ul-Momineen or the commander of the faithful, and accepted as such by the various factions of the Taliban camp, the Haqqani network and al-Qaeda.
His successor Mullah Akhtar Mansoor is being opposed by the powerful Taliban dissidents, and even if accepted, will simply be the leader of the Taliban, not the near-mythical Amir-ul-Momineen.
The NATO war against the Taliban has removed a number of older field commanders from the scene and seen the rise of younger, more radicalised fighters who are outside Islamabad's control.
Almost simultaneously, there has been an announcement that the legendary Jalaluddin Haqqani, too, has passed away. He was the key ISI-backed player in Afghanistan responsible for many of the terrorist strikes, including the attacks on the Indian embassy and other India-related facilities, that took place in that country.
The news of Mullah Omar's death was communicated by Pakistan to Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani, indicating that Islamabad no longer felt the necessity of having Omar being seen as a unifying factor of the Taliban. Minus the Amir-ul-Momineen, the ISI will find it easier to handle the factious Taliban. At some point or the other, Omar would have to be produced to bless the peace agreement. Revealing his death now, Pakistan has, on one hand, weakened the Taliban, and, on the other, bought brownie points with the United States and China.
Clearly, Islamabad has retrenched its aims in Afghanistan, instead of seeking to replace the Kabul government with the Taliban, who have always been more than a handful, it is now seeking to work with Ghani who is following a policy of working closely with the Pakistan government and who has gone out of his way to signal that Kabul will accommodate Islamabad's concerns. Recall that in May, the spy agencies of the two countries signed an MoU to share information and boost anti-terror cooperation. The peace process which is being "facilitated" by Pakistan involves China, the US, Afghanistan and the Taliban and is called the 2+2+1 talks. On July 7, the first round of talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban officials took place in Murree, in the presence of the authorised representatives of the Chinese and the US governments.
On Eid, in mid-July, a written message, purportedly from Mullah Omar declared that there was nothing wrong in talking with adversaries and had welcomed "political endeavours and peaceful pathways". Further, he rejected the claim that the Taliban were Pakistan's agents. In response Ghani had expressed his gratitude to the Amir-ul-Momineen and declared that negotiations with the Taliban were the only way to end the bloodshed and bring peace to Afghanistan. You can be sure, in hindsight, that the message was crafted by the ISI. Now, with things moving its way, Pakistan now appears to be distancing itself from the Taliban. This is essential for getting the support of the US and China in the venture which will give it what it most desires - an Afghanistan fitting into its sphere of influence.
Omar's death has led to the postponement of the second round of talks that were scheduled to take place in Murree on Friday. A dissident group of the Taliban leaders has emerged to challenge the "election" of Mansoor as the successor to Omar. It has constituted its own shura, or council, and is threatening to elect its own leader. Omar's family, too, has declined to back Mansoor and have called for a consensual election based on consultation among the ulema, the Taliban, and elders. This is simply not going to happen.
India out on a limb
Where does all this leave India?
Between a rock and a hard place. New Delhi cannot avoid one essential truth - that its substantial commitments to the civilian reconstruction of Afghanistan have been based on the security cover provided by the US/NATO forces. With the US deciding to go along with the Pakistan-China option, India is out on a limb. True we have friends in Afghanistan - the supporters of former President Hamid Karzai, the left-inclined intellectuals, parts of the Northern Alliance who fought the Taliban and Pakistan.
But as of now, with Islamabad having been placed in the driver's seat by the US and China, they are marginalised. It is time for New Delhi to roll with the punches and bide its time. India lack resources and direct access to Afghanistan but it can derive some comfort from the fact that, if the past is any guide, you can always trust Islamabad to give us the opening through its propensity to overreach.