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WASHINGTON: Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Umar spent his final years near a US base in Afghanistan and rejected suggestions from his aides to move to Pakistan, according to a book published last month.

The book, Searching For An Enemy, by Dutch journalist and author Bette Dam, says the late leader feared that Pakistan would turn him over to the Americans.

Dam spent five years researching and interviewing Taliban members for Mullah Umar’s biography, which was published in the Dutch language last month. A summary of her findings was published in English by a US-based think tank, Zomia.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, when US troops forced them out and they launched a resistance that continues to this day.

After 9/11, the United States put a $10 million bounty on Mullah Umar’s head. Dam interviewed a number of Afghan and US officials for the book and in December, she gained “unprecedented access” to Abdul Jabbar Umari, who was Mullah Umar’s bodyguard from the moment he vanished in Kandahar until his death in 2013, and has been in the Afghan intelligence’s “protective” custody since 2017.

Taliban founder spent final years of his life near a US base in Afghanistan

“The story that emerges is that the US, and almost everyone else, had it wrong. After 2001, Mullah Umar never set his foot in Pakistan, instead opting to hide in his native land — and for eight years, lived just a few miles from a major US base,” Dam writes.

The book reveals Umar lived in Zabul’s capital, Qalat, until 2004, when US troops began building Forward Operating Base (FOB) Laghman, just a few minutes’ walk from his hideout. Umar then moved to Shinkay district, and the United States soon afterward started building FOB Wolverine five kilometres away.

At the peak of the war, FOB Wolverine housed more than 1,000 troops from the United States and its Nato allies, but Umar did not move again, Dam says.

She explains that Mullah Umar “refused to go to Pakistan because of his deep-seated mistrust of that country” and his involvement in the resistance was minimal.

“He never lived in Pakistan. Instead, he spent the remainder of his life in a pair of small villages in Zabul,” Dam writes.

“Despite persistent US and Afghan intelligence claims that Mullah Umar was in Pakistan, some officials had inklings from the beginning that he might be hiding under their noses,” claims Dam. She recalled that in December 2001, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai had told reporters that Mullah Umar and other Taliban had fled to Zabul.

Dam reports that while Umar could not run the Taliban group from his hiding places, he did approve a Taliban office in Qatar, where US and Taliban negotiators have been holding peace talks in a bid to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan.

Haroon Chakhansuri, a spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, rejected the book, tweeting: “We have sufficient evidence which shows he lived and died in Pakistan. Period!”

Diplomatic sources in Washington, however, say the book endorses Pakistan’s position that Mullah Umar never lived in Pakistan and also justifies their claim that they were not aware of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, who was discovered and eliminated by US special forces in Abbottabad in 2011.

The book shows that Mutasim Agha Jan, a good friend of Mullah Umar’s and the former Taliban finance minister, took one of Mullah Umar’s four wives and her children to Pakistan, where he helped settle them, but “Mullah Umar never saw his wife again”.

On Dec 5, Mullah Umar convened a meeting of top Taliban leaders in a cellar in Kandahar and agreed to transfer power to Mullah Obaidullah, his minister for defence.

For almost two days after handing over power to Mullah Obaidullah, Mullah Umar remained in Kandahar. But on Dec 7, he left the city in a convoy consisting of a Land Cruiser and a white Toyota station wagon, which carried Mullah Umar and two other men. By evening, they arrived in Qalat, the provincial capital of Zabul.

They left Zabul when a new US- backed governor, Hamidullah Tokhi, took power. Tokhi, a close associate of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, began to target retired Taliban leaders, prompting most to flee to Pakistan.

“Jabbar Umari knew he could help settle Mullah Umar into a more comfortable life in Pakistan. But Mullah Umar simply didn’t trust Pakistan,” Dam writes. “He told Jabbar Umari, ‘Whatever happens, I will not go there.’”

Jabbar Umari decided that if not Pakistan, then it was safest to remain in Qalat. They lived with Abdul Samad Ustaz, a Taliban supporter. But Ustaz’s family, including his wife, were not told the identity of the person staying in the L-shaped room. Mullah Umar did not venture outside in the four years they lived there.

US forces came close to the Qalat house twice during those four years and in 2004, Washington set up FOB Lagman, just a few minutes’ walk from Mullah Umar’s hiding place.

“As military engineers built the base, Mullah Umar decided it was time to move. With Ustaz’s help, he and Jabbar Umari relocated to Siuray, a district around 20 miles (over 30 kilometres) southeast of Qalat,” says Dam.

They built a small shack for Mullah Umar behind a larger mud house in the remote outskirts of the village, around five kilometres from the main road.

Soon after Mullah Umar’s arrival in Siuray, the Americans built forward operating base Wolverine, about five kilometres from his new home. It housed around 1,000 US soldiers. In 2007, Lithuanian troops arrived at the base to train Afghan police and the British Special Air Service and US Navy Seals were also sometimes present.

Explaining how Mullah Umar lived so close to an American base, Dam writes: “As the population turned against the government due to its corruption and American atrocities, they began to offer food and clothing to the household for Jabbar Umari and his mysterious friend.”

Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2019