Afghan Taliban: Yes, We Did Cover Up Mullah Omar’s Death
Amid leadership struggle, Taliban leader's supporters back his experience.
The Afghan Taliban have used a hagiography of their new leader to issue a blunt confession about their former one, Mullah Mohammed Omar. The death of the militant leader, the insurgents admit, was covered up for nearly two years to ensure that Taliban fighters remained fully committed to the fight against the United States and its Afghan allies.
In a 5,000-word biography and apologia published in five languages, the Afghan Taliban say that Mullah Omar died on April 23, 2013. Messages nominally in his name were sent to Taliban fighters as recently as this past July, however, and Taliban leaders now admit they used the hoax to maintain solidarity in their ranks.
”Several key members of the supreme leading council of the Islamic Emirate and authentic religious scholars together decided on concealing the tragic news … and keep this secret limited to the very few colleagues who were already informed of this incorrigible loss,” the group of anonymous Taliban leaders write. “One of the main reasons behind this decision was due to the fact that 2013 was considered the final year of power testing between the Mujahidin and foreign invaders who in turn had announced that at the end of 2014, all military operations by foreign troops would be concluded.”
Indeed, the U.S.-led NATO coalition ended its combat operations at the end of 2014, and the number of international troops in Afghanistan has fallen from a peak of 130,000 in 2011 to 12,000 today, with the Obama administration pledging to withdraw the remaining 9,800 U.S. troops by the end of 2016.
Fighting has raged this summer in a series of seesaw battles in the south and east of the country, most recently in Musa Qala in Helmand, which government troops claim to have recaptured after killing more than 200 Taliban fighters. This has been a bloody year for Afghan government troops, with more than 4,300 Afghan soldiers and police killed in action along with 8,000 wounded. Overall, new estimates from the U.S. Defense Department claim that 13,000 Afghan security forces have been killed over the past three years.
The letter comes as hundreds of members of the Afghan Taliban leadership meet in Quetta, Pakistan, to resolve the continuing debate over who should lead the group in the wake of Mullah Omar’s death.
The biography of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour portrays him as a humble academic and reformer who was seriously wounded fighting the Soviets, and whose only ambition was to serve as an “ordinary worker” before being nominated and then named head of the Taliban earlier this month by the group’s leadership council.
The naming of Mullah Mansour as head of the Taliban has exposed deep rifts within the group’s leadership, however, with the family of Mullah Omar objecting to the choice, sparking an internal power struggle. Many fighters support Mullah Omar’s brother, Mullah Abdul Manan, or his son, Yaqub, as their next leader and have forcefully — and publicly — challenged Mullah Mansour’s appointment.
The rift also comes at a critical time for the Afghan Taliban, as they have been challenged by fighters from the Islamic State who are attempting to set up a power base in the country, while fighting it out with government forces who are still backed by American air power.
The letter makes sure to lay out Mullah Mansour’s role in forming the Taliban both before it took power and once it assumed control over Kabul in 1996. Once the capital fell, Mullah Mansour served as the minister of aviation and tourism, and from the account authored by his supporters, he got things done.
It’s here where the letter takes an unexpected turn, devoting hundreds of words to his work reforming the nation’s airports and aviation infrastructure, such as it was.
Unlike most other religious leaders looking to lead an internationally recognized insurgent group, Mullah Mansour appears to have thrown himself into the world of aviation, having “managed to renovate Kabul International Airport and its related buildings despite the inapt financial circumstances. Then he equipped the International Ariana Afghan Airlines for national and international flights in accordance with international standards.”
This was all done, his supporters claim, with one particular end in sight: “The first time thousands of Afghans were able to perform the Hajj pilgrim via Afghan Ariana Airlines.”
Photo credit: BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images