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29 Jul 2015 15:58
A picture taken in Kandahar on an undisclosed date in 1996 apparently shows Mullah Mohammed Omar. (AFP)
autumn of 2001, as a US-led invasion loomed, Taliban leader Mohammed Omar
addressed his followers. He told them they faced a powerful enemy, and that
death and defeat were probable in the struggle lying ahead.
Taliban has long maintained – in the face of increasing scepticism - that its
leader is still alive.
However, if claims
reported on Wednesday are true,
one of the major figures in the turmoil that has been wracking western parts of
south Asia for decades will have disappeared.
was born the son of a minor cleric – a mullah – in about 1960.
the 1970s a series of increasingly radical Marxist governments in Kabul
introduced reforms that brought unrest to the region. When the Soviets sent
troops in 1979, the farmland around Kandahar was a key conflict zone, and Omar
fought the invaders and their local auxiliaries with a faction called
Harkut-e-Islami. He was wounded repeatedly, losing an eye.
followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989 as Afghan factions fought each
other. Out of the chaos, the Taliban emerged, first as a vigilante group led by
Omar in Kandahar targeting rapacious local warlords, then as a national
movement. The name meant student of religion, and many fighters were youngsters
from faith schools. A high proportion were refugees living in Pakistan. Almost
all were from the Pashtun ethnic community, as was their leader.
significant help from Pakistan, the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996 and extended
its nominal control to 80% of Afghanistan. Omar declared himself
emir-ul-momineen (commander of the faithful) but remained in Kandahar, meeting
only a small group of advisors.
bin Laden, the Saudi-born leader of al-Qaida, had only arrived in Afghanistan
shortly before the fall of Kabul, invited by warlords. Bin Laden’s
internationalism contrasted with Omar’s deeply parochial and xenophobic
worldview, and relations with the Taliban were thus initially frosty. However,
these improved, greased by cash, charm and the US air strikes on Afghanistan in
1998 that followed al-Qaeda’s bombing of embassies in east Africa. There was
never a chance Omar would hand Bin Laden over, as demanded, in the aftermath of
the 9/11 attacks.
No public appearances
Kandahar fell to US-led forces, Omar reportedly escaped the dragnet on a
motorbike. His whereabouts since have been unclear. The Taliban’s leadership
largely withdrew to Pakistan – from where they mounted offensives which continue to this day. He has
made no public appearances.
exact location is unknown, though rumours repeatedly place him in Pakistan. His
last public intervention was nine years ago – a leaked audio speech - though he
is supposed to have been behind a series of rulebooks aimed at instilling a
modicum of discipline to an increasingly fragmented force. Always more a
spiritual than an operational leader, Omar’s apparent absence has often
prompted complaints from Taliban ground commanders. Rumours of his death have
circulated for years.
authority has also been increasingly questioned by a younger generation of
leaders within the Taliban, which appears split between more pragmatic elements
and “die-hards” who reject the stuttering peace negotiations.
retained the nominal allegiance of al-Qaeda’s leaders, however. In 2014, Ayman
al-Zawahiri, who had succeeded Bin Laden at the terrorist group’s head three
years before, renewed
his own pledge of loyalty to Omar. If the leader of the Taliban was indeed
dead by then, it would indicate that Zawahiri was either consciously hiding the
truth, which seems unlikely, was genuinely ignorant, which indicates distance
between the two organisations, or that Omar was alive when the statement was
death, if true, would likely weaken the Taliban in the face of a concerted
effort by the Islamic State to gain ground in Afghanistan. It would
dramatically change the dynamic of peace negotiations too. If he is still
alive, the credibility of president Ashraf Ghani’s struggling administration
will be significantly damaged.
address to his followers in 2001, Omar spoke of how faith and “Afghan bravery”
would bring victory against the odds. His followers are still waiting. - ©
Guardian News and Media 2015
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