The death of a hermit

Published August 5, 2015
The writer is an author and a journalist.
The writer is an author and a journalist.

ENIGMATIC and reclusive in life, his death is no less mysterious. Since his famous escape on a motorbike from Kandahar after the US invasion in October 2001, very little was heard of Mullah Omar except for occasional audio messages. Those too went silent few years ago.

Well-crafted Eid messages posted on the Afghan Taliban website attributed to him remained the only hypothetical communication with his supporters. The last such message appeared just a week before the breaking of the highly kept secret about his death, which it seems occurred some two years ago.

The circumstances and place of Mullah Omar’s death are still not known. The belated disclosure was bound to fuel all kinds of conspiracy theories. But the news of the death of a man with a bounty of $10 million on his head did not stir the world. Rather, there is concern over the possible unravelling of the radical Islamic movement.


Being out of the field turned Mullah Omar into a symbolic figure who kept the Taliban organisation united.


Mullah Omar was neither a revolutionary nor a military strategist, but an ordinary village cleric who lost one eye fighting Russian occupation forces. He became a legend after he executed a mujahideen commander who had raped two young girls near his village of Maiwand, and left his body hanging from the barrel of a tank for several days. With this symbolic strike against the mujahideen’s abuses of power, spontaneous expressions of support came in from all over the district for Mullah Omar, and thus the Taliban were born in 1993.

Nevertheless, not much was known about him. The world heard his name only after the Taliban swept across the strife-torn country, establishing a retrogressive regime there. He only ventured out of Kandahar once during the entire Taliban rule; very few outsiders ever met him. There was no change in his austere lifestyle even after he declared himself “Amirul Momineen”. According to a former Pakistani diplomat who met him frequently, the only noticeable change at the end was that he had a new pair of shoes and carried a Montblanc pen in his pocket.

He had a reputation of being extremely determined and obstinate, with complete command over his followers. “He would barely utter a word during the whole conversation. The only time he went into argument was when Pakistani officials tried to persuade him to withdraw his decision to obliterate the Buddha statues in Bamiyan,” the diplomat said.

Mullah Omar was not even prepared to listen to his patrons in Pakistan. A highly embarrassing episode occurred in early 2001 when he snubbed the Musharraf government’s interior minister, Moinuddin Haider, who sought the extradition of Riaz Basra, the leader of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi who had taken refuge in Afghanistan.

The Bamiyan incident manifested the growing influence of Osama bin Laden who Mullah Omar had detested earlier. ‘He is like a chicken bone stuck in our throat,’ he once told a senior Pakistani diplomat. The Taliban and Al Qaeda were very different in their aims and political and religious philosophy.

Yet over the years, Bin Laden had expanded his influence as the Taliban became increasingly reliant on his financial support and foreign fighters to extend control over the rest of Afghanistan. There was a visible hardening in Mullah Omar’s stance with the improvement in relations with his “Arab guest”. Bin Laden constructed a new house for him after a massive bomb blast destroyed Mullah Omar’s old residence.

Few people would know that Mullah Omar still wanted Bin Laden to leave Afghanistan after the 9/11 strikes but would certainly not violate Pashtunwali and throw out a “guest”. That cost him and Afghanistan dearly.

Meanwhile, the Taliban had lost significant mass support with their regressive social policies, which included forcing women to wear burqas, banning music and television, and implementing harsh criminal punishments for petty offenses. Afghanistan under an obscurantist and harsh rule did not have any future.

The revival of the Taliban as a powerful insurgent force having been routed in 2001 should not come as a surprise. Its fighters melted into the population or took sanctuary across the border in Pakistan among their Pakhtun brethren. Most of the leadership, including Mullah Omar, had survived the offensive and also moved to Pakistan.

Over the past 13 years the Taliban resistance has been built under his banner, though little was known about his whereabouts and his role in the battlefield. Most of the field commanders had, perhaps, never met him. Notwithstanding the successes on the ground, the thinking within the Afghan Taliban concerning the future of Afghanistan remained obscure.

Although Mullah Omar enjoyed absolute loyalty of the leadership council, his influence seemed to have waned over the years with the growing radicalisation of a new generation of field commanders. Being out of the field for so long — believed to be operating from the Pakistani side of the border — had turned Mullah Omar into more of a symbolic figurehead. Nevertheless, that kept the faction-ridden organisation united.

What is most curious is the timing of the announcement of his death, a day before the second round of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Interestingly, the disclosure came just a week after the release of a purported Eid message by Mullah Omar that indicated a paradigm shift in the Taliban stance on peace negotiations with the Kabul government.

One wonders whether, given his stubbornness, Mullah Omar would have agreed to reconciliation. Maybe not. Perhaps his death will pave the way for moderates to assert themselves and take a more rational path to end the Afghan war.

With the death of their supreme commander the Taliban are much more divided now. The succession issue is never easily resolved in an organisation so deeply invested in an undisputed authority. It is now a battle for leadership between his handpicked deputy and family members. Whatever the outcome may be, the ensuing power struggle has further fractured the militant group. That leaves a big question mark hanging over the peace negotiations and the future of the Taliban movement itself.

The writer is an author and a journalist.

Published in Dawn, August 5th, 2015

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