So Taliban leader Mullah Omar is dead, and apparently no one noticed for two whole years. His death is a good thing, insofar as it saves American taxpayers the $10 million bounty the United States was offering for his capture. Still, if I were to drop dead, I’d like to think that someone might notice a bit more promptly, if only because my kids might wonder why no one was cooking dinner anymore. But perhaps that explains the delay: Mullah Omar hadn’t been making dinner for anyone in the U.S. intelligence community.
Nonetheless, Mullah Omar’s belatedly recognized demise suggests several lessons for the United States.
1. We don’t know what’s going on.
Mullah Omar was on America’s most wanted list for almost 15 years — and we couldn’t even figure out whether he was still alive. Take all intelligence assessments with several grains of salt.
Better still, add a whole bushel of salt: Reports now suggest that Jalaluddin Haqqani, leader of the Taliban’s lethal Waziristan-based Haqqani network, has also been dead for the last year — and he actually did make dinner for people in the U.S. intelligence community, back in the day.
What’s next? Soon, I imagine, we’ll be told that Angela Merkel has also been dead for a decade and that the Germans have just been wheeling her effigy to and fro ever since.
2. Reports of the Taliban’s demise have been exaggerated, though reports of Mullah Omar’s demise were not.
Although constantly reported to be in disarray, the Taliban still managed to keep Mullah Omar’s death a secret for two years (see 1), and the group still poses an urgent and ongoing threat to Afghan and Pakistani stability. Significant Taliban attacks continue in both countries, and in a May report, the Brookings Institution noted that “the 2015 fighting season between the Taliban and Afghan security forces is turning out to be the bloodiest on record since 2001.” Not bad for an organization led by a bunch of dead guys.
3. “Decapitation” strategies have questionable value.
For years, the United States has operated on the premise that if it could just get rid of top terrorist leaders, their organizations and ideological movements would be undermined. The fact that neither the rank-and-file Taliban nor the rest of the world even noticed Mullah Omar’s death for two whole years suggests that this is not necessarily so.
Numerous studies have called into question the efficacy of going after senior terrorist leaders. Ask yourself how many times Washington has triumphantly announced the deaths of senior terrorist leaders since the 9/11 attacks — and ask yourself whether the global threat posed by violent Islamic extremists has diminished.
Meanwhile, though U.S. President Barack Obama has declared that “our combat mission in Afghanistan is over” because “our war in Afghanistan [has come] to an end,” there are still thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And Stephen Preston, when serving as the Defense Department’s general counsel, noted that the “the U.S. remains in a state of armed conflict against the Taliban.” (See also Bill Clinton, 1998: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” God bless lawyers!)
And don’t count al Qaeda out yet. Frequent assertions that the terrorist group is, like the Taliban, in disarray haven’t prevented the group from kidnapping several of the small number of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels or blowing people up in Yemen.
As for the Islamic State, it’s doing just fine, thanks very much: “After billions of dollars spent and more than 10,000 extremist fighters killed,” concluded the Associated Press last week, “the Islamic State group is fundamentally no weaker than it was when the U.S.-led bombing campaign began a year ago.” And no one, least of all in the White House, seems to have a clear notion of the endgame. So far, the main U.S. response to recent Islamic State gains has been to announce plans for a 60-mile-long “Islamic State-free zone” in northern Syria. (Maybe they’ll mark off the area with traffic cones?)
5. When senior terrorist leaders die, it’s hard to predict the consequences.
When Osama bin Laden’s death was announced in May 2011, some commentators declared it “a “significant symbolic victory” and “a blow to [al Qaeda].” Others worried that it would lead to “retaliatory attacks,” and others still declared it “irrelevant.” Already, journalist and pundits have variously declared that Mullah Omar’s death “could pave the way for an end to years of fighting” or “scuttle the most promising peace talks in Afghanistan in a decade.” At the very least, it “will complicate the Afghan government’s negotiations with the Taliban.” In other words, no one knows.
But I wouldn’t count the Taliban out. The organization has persevered and remained a formidable threat despite more than two decades of vicious internal infighting and international condemnation, not to mention 14 years of relentless pummeling by the U.S. military.
6. The near-term winner is likely to be the Islamic State.
Taliban infighting is nothing compared with the broader battle to control the global forces of violent Islamist extremism. For several years now, al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria have been duking it out with the forces of the self-styled Islamic State, which declared itself a global caliphate in June 2014. Active fighting between al Qaeda-linked groups and the Islamic State has spread to Iraq, Yemen, and beyond. Over the last year, the Islamic State has sought to gain control of territory in Afghanistan as well; in January 2015, the Islamic State announced the creation of a new Afghan “province,” led by a group of Taliban defectors.
Both Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the now-deceased Mullah Omar have claimed to be the true amir-ul-momineen (“emir of all the faithful”) and leader of global Islam. With the revelation of Mullah Omar’s death, we may see more Taliban members defecting to the Islamic State. Some al Qaeda followers may also shift their loyalties: Nominally, at least, al Qaeda has long been bound to support Mullah Omar through the bayat — an oath of allegiance sworn by bin Laden and renewed by his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Under the terms of the bayat, al Qaeda and all its members “fight under [the] victorious banner” of Mullah Omar. But the bayat is an oath of allegiance to an individual, not to an organization, and in the minds of at least some al Qaeda members, Mullah Omar’s death will likely be seen as freeing them to follow a new emir of the faithful — such as the Islamic State’s Baghdadi.
7. Take this stuff seriously.
Oaths of allegiance! Leadership of all the faithful! In our secularized world, it’s tempting to dismiss all this as little more than rhetorical nonsense. Obama himself has repeatedly insisted that the so-called Islamic State “has no vision other than … slaughter” and “can never possibly win [anyone] over by its ideas or its ideology — because it offers nothing.”
But that’s not true. The Islamic State — and the Taliban and al Qaeda — have plenty of vision and have amply demonstrated their ability to win people over. We find their vision loathsome, but it’s still a vision, and it’s backed by elaborate argumentation as well as by brutality. We may be unmoved by talk of religious oaths, but we shouldn’t assume that Islamic militants also see it as empty rhetoric.
The Islamic State’s most recent English-language magazine, Dabiq, published before Mullah Omar’s death was confirmed, contains a lengthy article purporting to answer a question posed by “a prominent person from the ranks of Taliban who … wants to pledge allegiance to … al-Baghdadi,” but is troubled by the fact that he is already bound by an oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar. If Mullah Omar is alive, he asks, doesn’t that mean that Baghdadi’s claim to be caliph is “questionable”? Don’t good Muslims need to wait for Mullah Omar’s death to “be confirmed with certainty” before they can give their loyalty to Baghdadi?
In response, the Islamic State offers a dense, pedantic, six-page analysis making reference to everything from the appointment of ad-Dahhak Ibn Qays as a sort of temporary caliph in Damascus in the year 64 A.H. (the late seventh-century in the Gregorian calendar) to the scholarly views expressed by Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni in his book Ghiyath al-Umam, written about 1,000 years ago.
You don’t pull together a heavily researched 8,000-word argument unless you believe that words and ideas matter as much as sheer brutality. Dismissing our enemies as having “no vision” is foolish. If we want to counter their ideology, we would do well to try to understand it.
8. Mullah Omar’s death may be irrelevant.
The Islamic State’s anonymous pundits eventually reach the ponderous conclusion that no one need be conscience-stricken over a potential shift of loyalty from the Taliban’s Mullah Omar to the Islamic State’s Baghdadi, for even “if we suppose Mulla Umar is still alive … then it is obligatory upon him and those with him to obey [Baghdadi] and submit to him.… It is also obligatory upon everyone who [pledged allegiance] to Mulla Umar … to know that this pledge has been overtaken by a more authorized and obligatory pledge, and that is the [pledge] to [Baghdadi].” After all, Baghdadi is the legitimate leader of all the faithful, while Mullah Omar was “at most … a former leader of one of the Islamic lands.”
Take that, Mullah Omar.