Mullah Omar: a myth of convenience

The dismantling of the Mullah Omar myth was expected to create some fragmentation in the jihadi networks but the fracturing is proving to be messier than anticipated, as events in Afghanistan show, following the U.S. taking a back seat in the region

August 20, 2015 01:27 am | Updated April 01, 2016 04:27 pm IST

In this undated image released by the FBI, Mullah Omar is seen in a 'wanted' poster.

In this undated image released by the FBI, Mullah Omar is seen in a 'wanted' poster.

Mullah Omar, the reclusive head of the Afghan Taliban, was last seen in December 2001 when he escaped from Kandahar, Afghanistan, riding pillion on a motorcycle. Thereafter, he hid in Maiwand briefly before moving to Quetta in Pakistan. No sighting was reported subsequently. His last audio statement was issued in 2006. Two or three statements would issue in his name annually, normally around Eid or regarding a major development in Afghanistan. The last one, issued during Ramzan in mid-July, was significant as it supported, for the first time, the peace talks between the Afghan Government and Afghan Taliban representatives held on July 7, 2015, in Murree, Pakistan. The representatives of China and the United States also participated.

A fortnight later, >reports of his death surfaced , first in Kabul and then corroborated in Pakistan and the U.S. Rumours about his ill health and death had been a regular occurrence since 2008 but were never substantiated. Even this time, his death remains shrouded in mystery and nobody has seen the body. It is widely believed that he had died in April 2013 in a hospital in Karachi and not somewhere in Afghanistan near his home town, as was first claimed.

The making of a myth Omar emerged on the Afghan scene in 1994, leading the Taliban, to rid Kandahar of factional warlords and open up the road from Spin Boldak on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to Kandahar, and later, on to Herat. His military success surprised even his Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) sponsors. Thus began the exercise in myth-making. In 1996, Mullah Omar took on the title of Amir ul Mu’mineen (Commander of the Faithful) when he donned the cloak of the Prophet before a large assembly of Afghans in Kandahar. It enhanced his legitimacy to lead the jihad against the regime of Afghanistan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. The endorsement of his new title by the al-Qaeda, added to the myth. He remained notoriously camera shy and there are very few pictures of the one-eyed mujahid even when he ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Details about his jihad against the Soviets have been sketchy. However, stories about his austere lifestyle, his habit of signing permits on scraps of paper and even empty cigarette packets, his fierce piety which led him to order the destruction of the centuries old Buddha statues in Bamiyan, his taking out his own eye when hit by shrapnel and bandaging it up — all added to the mythical persona.

A hagiographic account circulated on the Internet sometime ago maintains that he was born in 1960 in Khakrez district, belonged to the Hotaki tribe and that his family had moved to Uruzgan when Omar was five. A lack of specifics has helped embroider the myth, sustained by the fact that few people have had face-to-face dealings with him, particularly after 2001. His statements strongly opposed U.S. and foreign presence in Afghanistan, were critical of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, maintained ambivalence about the Taliban’s political office, based in Doha, Qatar, and declined to anoint a successor. All this coincided perfectly with the ISI agenda and Mullah Omar’s legend continued to thrive.

When Omar’s deputy, Mullah Baradar, responded to peace overtures from Mr. Karzai, the ISI staged an elaborate operation with the Central Intelligence Agency and put Baradar in jail in January 2010, from where he emerged a vegetable after three years. According to Mr. Karzai’s advisers, Baradar was working with Mullah Omar’s approval but the ISI had been kept out of the loop and his removal from the scene was intended to reassert the ISI’s control. Incidentally, Mullah Obaidullah, Baradar’s predecessor, had been picked up by the ISI in 2007 and died in jail after three years though the announcement was made only in 2012.

Both Pakistan’s former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, and General Ashfaq Kayani, his successor as army chief, had a healthy dislike for Mr. Karzai’s Pashtun nationalism. Even though cracks were emerging within the Taliban as Mr. Karzai’s High Peace Council chaired by Mr. Rabbani continued to reach out to those willing to talk, episodic statements from Mullah Omar haunted the process and maintained a facade of Taliban unity. In December 2011, Rabbani was killed by a suicide bomber for which the Taliban claimed responsibility.

Keeping it alive A power struggle in the Taliban was underway since 2012 when Mullah Akhtar Mansour tried to oust Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir from his position of military commander but failed. Hardliners led by Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, were attracted by the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) which gradually occupied large swathes of territory in Iraq and then in Syria, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi establishing a caliphate and posing a direct challenge to Mullah Omar. Meanwhile, the emergence of regional shuras like the Miranshah shura led by Jalaluddin Haqqani’s son, Sirajuddin, and the Peshawar shura led by Qari Baryal and Mullah Abdul Latif also weakened Mullah Omar’s Quetta shura .

The year 2014 marked a transition year in Afghanistan. >The U.S. ended its combat role and President Ashraf Ghani >took over from Mr. Karzai after a controversial election. In Pakistan, its Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb against elements of the Tehreek-i- Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Mr. Ghani needed to ensure stability and realised that it could only happen with the ISI’s cooperation. Hence the overtures to Pakistan — his much publicised call on Gen. Sharif at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi during his two-day official visit to Pakistan in November 2014, the withdrawal of the request for Indian military hardware, sending Afghan military officers for training, handing over of the TTP leader, Latifullah Mehsud, and a cooperation agreement between the intelligence agencies — in return for the ISI’s support for a peace process with the Taliban. Many in Kabul thought that Mr. Ghani was going too far but he knew that the dialogue with the Taliban was only symbolic; the real discussion was about establishing a cooperative relationship with the ISI.

Chinese backing for the process became evident when a round of secret talks was held between Afghan envoys and Taliban representatives in the northwestern Chinese city of Urumqi (and facilitated by Pakistan) before the Murree meeting but there was no let-up in the Taliban offensive. Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who is close to the ISI, was managing the dialogue but it needed legitimacy. Hence the Ramzan endorsement attributed to Mullah Omar but it proved to be too much for those who were opposed to the talks and felt offended that Mullah Omar’s myth was being shamelessly exploited. Attacks in Afghanistan intensified as did leaks about Mullah Omar’s death. The myth was no longer useful and dismantling it had become necessary. The only way out was to acknowledge Mullah Omar’s death and get Mullah Mansour anointed the new leader. To support his leadership, he was provided with two deputies, Sirajuddin Haqqani, and a cleric, Maulvi Haibatullah Akhundzada. The al-Qaeda chief, Ayman Zawahiri, has backed Mansour and a statement surfaced conveying Jalaluddin Haqqani’s support though he is rumoured to have died in the Afghan province of Khost in late 2013.

Opposition to Mansour’s elevation crystallised around Omar’s 26-year-old son, Mullah Yaqoub, who is backed by his uncle, Mullah Abdul Manan, and Mansour’s old rival, Mullah Zakir. Last week, rumours emerged that Yaqoub had been killed. Tayab Agha, reportedly Omar’s son-in-law and head of the Doha office, has quit his position as he was sidelined from the new peace dialogue, whereas originally, it was the Doha office that had the mandate. Once again, the story goes that the ISI was finding it difficult to control the dialogue out of Doha. A splinter group, Fidai Mahaz, has alleged that Omar was poisoned in 2013 and holds Mansour and Mullah Gul Agha responsible.

And unmaking it Under the circumstances, the next round of talks with the Afghan authorities has been postponed even as Mansour tries to consolidate his support base with help from the ISI and the Haqqani group. Meanwhile, the IMU which was being targeted by the Pakistan Army has stepped up attacks in the Afghan districts of Kunduz, Badakhshan, Takhar, Badghis and Faryab, all bordering Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. A senior IMU leader, Saidullah Urgenji, has denounced Mansour and professed allegiance to the IS. The dismantling of the Mullah Omar myth was expected to create some fragmentation in the jihadi networks but the fracturing is proving to be messier than anticipated.

Mr. Ghani was losing patience and had conveyed his unhappiness to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, questioning Pakistan’s commitment to the dialogue. In this communication, leaked in June, Mr. Ghani demanded that the Quetta shura be put under house arrest, restrictions placed on the sale of fertilizer in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas region to prevent its diversion for bomb making, counter-terrorism operations extended against the Haqqani network, and condemnation of the Taliban spring offensive, etc. Mullah Omar’s endorsement of the dialogue was intended to help but had clearly backfired. Mr. Ghani’s outburst on August 10, 2015, wherein he said: “We hoped for peace but we are receiving messages of war from Pakistan”, reflects his mounting frustration and helplessness. Mr. Ghani knows his time frame is limited as U.S. commitment to keeping his shaky national-unity-government going may not last beyond 2016.

When he was alive, the myth of Mullah Omar was greater than the man. It served the ISI well and prevented Mr. Karzai from establishing a dialogue with the Taliban. Now the ISI needed the myth to bless the dialogue with the Afghan authorities. Finding that it was not working, it became necessary to return the man to his anonymous grave and unmake the myth. The dialogue has stalled. The U.S. had yielded the driver’s seat to Pakistan and no longer has the presence in the region to make a difference. It remains to be seen whether China will buy into the smoke and mirrors game as the ISI tries to help Mansour while keeping the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the IMU and parts of the TTP in its cross hairs. And Mr. Ghani’s disenchantment with Pakistan has just begun.

(Rakesh Sood is a former diplomat who has served as Ambassador to Afghanistan. E-mail: )

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