Dead or Alive, Mullah Omar Is a Relic

The Taliban leader helped shelter bin Laden, but he wasn't as brutal as the thugs ISIS is recruiting inside Afghanistan.

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN:  TV grabs taken secretly by BBC Newsnight shows Taliban's one-eyed spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar (C) during a rally of his troops in Kandahar before their victorious assault on Kabul in 1996. AFP PHOTO            MANDATORY CREDIT BBC NEWS/NEWSNIGHT (Photo credit should read AFP/Getty Images)
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN: TV grabs taken secretly by BBC Newsnight shows Taliban's one-eyed spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar (C) during a rally of his troops in Kandahar before their victorious assault on Kabul in 1996. AFP PHOTO MANDATORY CREDIT BBC NEWS/NEWSNIGHT (Photo credit should read AFP/Getty Images)

They’ve been wrong before, but Afghan officials say that this time they’re really, absolutely, 100 percent certain that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar died two years ago in a Pakistani hospital.

The office of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Wednesday that Mullah Omar was dead “based on credible information,” while the country’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, confirmed he had died in April 2013 at a hospital in the Pakistani city of Karachi. The Taliban, which have routinely released letters purportedly written by the shadowy militant, have yet to issue any public comment on his possible death.

American officials, meanwhile, refused to confirm the reports, but the White House said the accounts were “credible.”

The United States put a $10 million bounty on Mullah Omar’s head after the 9/11 attacks. In its description for why he was being sought, the State Department’s Rewards for Justice program said Mullah Omar had sheltered Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda’s founder, and “represents a continuing threat to America and her allies.”

Alive or dead, however, Mullah Omar’s style of leadership — and his views of the West — are entirely out of step with the positions of the Islamic State and its associates around the world. By their standards, Mullah Omar stands as a relative moderate.

The Taliban chief was willing to enter into negotiations with Western governments and recognize international borders, but a new generation of militants has no interest in peace talks or boundaries. The leaders of the Islamic State are seeking to spread their brand of terrorism across countries and continents, and their brutal methods and atrocities surpass even the Taliban’s record of cruelty and violence.

The report of Mullah Omar’s death came just two days before a second round of face-to-face peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents. If Mullah Omar is indeed out of the picture, it remains unclear how his absence could affect the discussions. But some analysts have portrayed the Taliban chief as a hard-liner instinctively opposed to bargaining, and the Afghan president’s office expressed optimism that it would provide fresh momentum.

How much influence Mullah Omar exerted over the Taliban in the years since its ouster from Kabul has “always been a hard question to answer,” said Derek Harvey, a retired U.S Army colonel, who was the director of U.S. Central Command’s internal think tank, the Afghanistan-Pakistan Center of Excellence, from 2009 to 2013.

“He’s this mythical figure that seemed to be limiting engagement and providing the rallying cry for unity,” Harvey told Foreign Policy. “Without him, or the idea of him, the Taliban are going to break up.”

A fracturing of the Taliban could mean a new element of uncertainty for the United States and its allies, which are desperately seeking a way of ending — or reducing — Afghanistan’s endemic violence, as American troops stream out of the country.

A Pashtun of humble origins who lost his right eye to shrapnel when he fought the Soviet occupation, Mullah Omar became Afghanistan’s head of state when the Taliban ruled the country from 1996 to 2001.

His deputies traveled to Washington in 1997 to lobby the United States to recognize the Taliban regime. The effort failed, but at one point, there was talk of a possible oil pipeline project involving the now defunct California-based energy company Unocal.

In April 1998, U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson paid a visit to Kabul, pressing for a negotiated end to the country’s protracted civil war and also issuing a request for the regime to hand over a wanted terrorist named Osama bin Laden.

After the 9/11 attacks, the United States led an invasion of Afghanistan after Mullah Omar’s regime refused to hand over bin Laden.

Mullah Omar fled to Pakistan, where he helped the Taliban regroup and wage a guerrilla war against the Western-backed government in Kabul. Pakistan’s directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence is widely believed to have provided him support as part of a strategy to counter any potential influence from India in Afghanistan.

Mullah Omar’s phantom existence out of the public view generated an aura of mystery and endless speculation about his power over the insurgency and his ties to Islamabad. There are only two known photographs of the Taliban founder, and — unlike other militants or al Qaeda’s chiefs — he never issued video messages, though there were occasional audio messages.

The Taliban released a written message allegedly from Mullah Omar two years ago that struck an unusually conciliatory tone, in which the insurgent leader supported “modern” education and access for international humanitarian organizations. But that message came in August 2013, four months after the Afghan government claims the Taliban leader died in Pakistan.

The last audio recording purportedly from Mullah Omar came in 2006, but its authenticity has been questioned. And the last written message attributed to him by the Taliban came this month, in which he appeared to back peace talks. But that message would have come more than two years since his death, according to the Afghan government’s account.

Ghani, for his part, responded to the message with a public greeting at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, expressing appreciation for Mullah Omar’s support for negotiations: “We welcome the message released by Mullah Mohammad Omar Akhund in which he has said that negotiation is the solution.”

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Seán D. Naylor is the author of Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. Twitter: @seandnaylor