After almost two days of silence, the Taleban have finally admitted that their supreme leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahed, as they call him, has died. On 31 July 2015, they also announced the appointment of Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, previously Omar’s deputy, as their new leader. Reportedly, this also includes the key title of amir ul-momenin – commander of the faithful – in an attempt to transfer the dead leader’s religious legitimacy to the new man at the top. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig (with input from Borhan Osman) begins his report on the death of Mullah Omar and its immediate aftermath with some recollections from Kandahar, October 2000, before looking at how news of the death unfolded and what the new leadership looks like.
It was a sunny day – in Kandahar October was still late summer. Francesc Vendrell, the United Nations special envoy for Afghanistan, and this author, his political officer, had just ended a session with Taleban foreign minister Mullah Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkel putting the last touches to a one-page document that would be the basis for peace negotiations between the Taleban’s Emirate and their remaining adversary, the United Front, more widely known as the Northern Alliance.
We were supposed to be going from the negotiation venue on the outskirts of town, a building erected for the United States-financed Helmand and Arghandab Valley agricultural project in the 1960s, to the airport. However, Mutawakkel, smirking, turned toward us from the front of the car: “And now you want to see Mullah Omar?” Very few non-Muslims had seen the Taleban’s amir. We agreed. Mutawakkel and Mullah Omar’s assistant and translator, Rahmatullah Hashemi, also our driver that day, took us to the Kandahar governor’s palace where we sat on two sofas in the corner of a large room and were joined by the leader of the Taleban.
The meeting lasted for almost three hours, and it was Mullah Omar who did most of the talking. Tall, lean and with his one eye socket – his eye had been lost to shrapnel during the war with the Soviets – uncovered, he leaned backward and forward, playing with a large antennaed radio-set, his Pashto monologue going around in circles. He had few diplomatic words for the agreement we had just finalised, concentrating mainly on how the world misunderstood the Taleban. We sat, sipping the Pepsi that was served and listened, happy that we already had the signed document in our pocket. (1)
What struck me most was the total lack of the charisma that had been ascribed to him in many media reports. His words were long-winded but simple; he sounded like a village mullah – which indeed he was. Electing such a person as the leader of the Taleban movement might have been unintentional, but it was probably what was needed then: someone who was pious, simple and unambitious for political office. Afghans had had enough of charismatic warlords and commanders that had been popular among Afghans after they pushed the Soviet army out of their country, but then proved unable to rebuild the country, plunging it into new rounds of war instead.
But already by then, Mullah Omar and the Taleban were very conscious about his religious standing, reflected in the title of the amir ul-momenin, bestowed on him in Kandahar after ulama, higher-ranking Islamic scholars, had gathered from across the country and appeared in front of a large crowd on 4 April 1996. The ceremony was even more religiously charged when the kherqa-ye mubarak – ‘the Holy Cloak’ which is believed to have once belonged to the Prophet Muhammad (read an AAN dispatch about its history here) – made a rare public appearance and was laid around Mullah Omar’s shoulders. In those early years, fellow Taleban and the Taleban-controlled media would call him the “Second Omar,” an allusion to Omar ibn al-Khetab, the second caliph after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Mullah Omar succession
Our meeting in Kandahar and its aftermath – the agreement was finally signed by the Taleban’s chief negotiator, then education minister (and now head of the Cultural Commission), Mullah Amir Khan Mutaqi – epitomised how the Taleban was already working. Mullah Omar stayed in the background, delegating the work on detail to people like Mutawakkel and Mutaqi, reserving only the final blessing for himself.
This has also been the case for all of the 13 years and nine months since the Taleban regime was toppled. (Their headquarters, Kandahar, fell in November 2001.) Mullah Omar has not been seen or heard of directly, not even by audio or video message, since then (2) and he became an increasingly mythical figure. According to one narrative widely believed, Mullah Omar was in Quetta until 2008, then was alerted about a threat to his life (there were several reports about attacks on him, and even reports of his violent death over the years) and left to Karachi. The next year, he reportedly disappeared from Karachi, apparently leaving to the area of Karak on the Pakistani side of the border, in the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa [not Kurram, corrected 1 Aug.] . From then onwards, he seems to have been unreachable to most members of the Taleban leadership.
Dutch journalist Bette Dam who is researching Mullah Omar’s life for a book (see her 29 July piece about Mullah Omar on the Guardian website here) told AAN in an email that, “the people in Kandahar and Quetta had a fairly good idea where he was going all the time – then, in 2009, it stopped.” One participant in recent meetings with Taleban told AAN this spring that there still was a direct line to pass information to Mullah Omar, through an unnamed relative. However, such assertions may never have been true: Omar is now reported to have died in 2013. Certainly, for many, many years he has been amir literally in name only, cited in Eid messages and important announcements, but having no obvious actual leadership role. In recent years, most assumed he was dead or so controlled by the Pakistani ISI as to be incommunicado.
Early on, around 2005/06, when the Taleban insurgency began to develop in earnest, Mullah Omar appointed two deputy leaders, Mullah Baradar (actual name Abdul Ghani) and Mullah Obaidullah, the Taleban regime’s former defence minister, both of whom could assume his place if the need arose. They led the movement during the period when it rose from the ashes of the 2001 defeat (when even the self-dissolution of the Taleban movement was declared (media report here).
However, both men were eventually removed from any effective leadership by Pakistan. Baradar was arrested in 2010 after he met representatives of the Karzai government without the consent of the Pakistanis. This was followed by a whole wave of arrests of Taleban. (See an article by the author about these events here.) Baradar was effectively relieved of his deputy position, as the Taleban feared he would be pressured by the Pakistanis to do their bidding. Obaidullah had been arrested even earlier and died in Pakistani detention in the same year, 2010. His death was only announced by the Taleban two years later, though. Over the following years, the Afghan government under Karzai tried time and again, but to no avail, until late 2013, to meet Baradar, in an attempt to get talks going through him. They sought the help of Pakistan who had control over him. In the one possible allowed meeting, it was reported he was unable to speak (see our dispatch here). (3)
It was during this time that Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur came into the game. He was the Taleban regime’s aviation minister, so in control of the state airline, Ariana, as well as commander of their air force (made up of the remnants of the old communist air-force still in government hands – United Front leader, Ahmad Shah Massud, also had some helicopters). Mansur took Baradar and Obaidullah’s place, becoming head of the Taleban leadership council, the so-called Quetta Shura (which always claimed it was reporting to the amir ul-momenin). Mansur was officially the number two of the Taleban, deputy to the mythical Mullah Omar by that point. Mansur’s official title was “Afghanistan Islamic Emirate
Deputy Leader and acting Leader of [the] Leadership Council“, as shown, for example, in his warning letter to Daesh (the ‘Islamic State’ in Syria and Iraq) leader al-Baghdadi in mid-June 2015.
After almost two days of silence since the first (new) rumours about Mullah Omar’s demise (there have been many, many rumours over the years) appeared in the international media, the Taleban – via their main website Voice of Jihad (De Jihad Ghag, in Pashto), also known as al-Emara(t) – published two official statement on 31 July 2015. In the first, they confirmed Mullah Omar’s death. In the second one, they announced that Akhtar Muhammad was succeeding Mullah Omar in both his political and religious position, as “the new leader of the Islamic Emirate” and as amir-ul-momenin.
The statement also says that “the former judiciary chief of the Islamic Emirate, religious scholar, [Mawlawi] Haibatullah Akhunzada and the son of the renowned Jihadi and scholarly figure [Mawlawi] Jala[l]uddin Haqqani (may Allah safeguard him), a well-known Jihadi commander Mullah Sirajuddin Haqqani, as the deputy heads of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” This means that one of the most important and strongest non-Kandahari networks within the Taleban is seem to be on board with the new leader. The Haqqanis are also known to be extremely close to Pakistan, so Islamabad has its person now in the highest leadership of the movement.
On the “selection” (a word carefully chosen, as the Taleban do not believe in ‘Western’ democracy) and subsequent appointment of Mullah Akhtar Muhammad, the statement says that the decision has been taken “unanimously” by “the leading [leadership] council of the Islamic Emirate, authentic scholars and venerable people of the country.” Elsewhere in the text, this group of people are called “members of the leading council of the Islamic Emirate, saints and scholars, all of them discerning and influential people.” (The “saints” surely refer to what usually is called “spiritual leaders,” like Pirs and other religiously prestigious groups.) The statement says that the participants of the meeting, the venue of which is not given, “pledged their allegiance with Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor as Amir-ul-Momineen.”
This is important for a number of reasons. The blessing by ulama and other religious leaders is needed – in mainstream Islamic thought – for the amir ul-momenin to be legitimate. In Islam, there are two ways of determining the successor for an amir ul-momenin: by ‘selection’ in a shura, or by the old one appointing his successor. The second way would be for Mullah Omar to have chosen his successor, if his decision-making power was ‘institutionalised’ enough to survive him. However, it is difficult to imagine getting the required people together to make this selection. The meeting may well be as fictional as Mullah Omar has been in recent years, a purported authority cited as a way of trying to get legitimacy.
The statement says “members” of the leadership council, not “the” or “all” members” have participated. This could indicate that not all council members attended. (4) Also Pakistani media reported, with reference to Taleban sources, that the meeting was attended “by all available members” [our emphasis]. Another Pakistani newspaper has also reported dissention among the ranks:
A former Taliban minister told The Express Tribune that Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir and several other top leaders and council members are unhappy with the decision to name Mansoor as supreme leader.
“Mansoor has not been elected by the leadership council, but by his own group,” said a Taliban leader who was also involved in the discussions about the election of the new leader. “We cannot call a decision with a consensus.”
On Mullah Omar’s death, the Taleban statements contribute no new facts. It is extremely bland, only saying that he died “as a result of an illness.” However, it states that also “the family” has confirmed his demise. (The names of his maternal brother, Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund, and his eldest son, Maulawi Muhammad Yaqub, appear later in the text.) Numerous media reports have attributed Mullah Omar’s death variously to tuberculosis, a heart disease or the effects of hepatitis. He has been reported as having died in a Karachi hospital or in Afghanistan (either in Zabul or Kandahar), the latter mainly by Taleban sources who are naturally interested in maintaining his (probably) fictional presence in Afghanistan. For the same reason, the text claims that Mullah Omar “in the previous fourteen years never for a single day [left] Afghanistan to visit Pakistan or another country.”
The power struggle and the Taleban’s future
Mullah Omar’s death heralded the end of the so far relatively well-protected unity of the Taleban movement that had survived sometimes intense internal debate. Despite the fact that the Taleban had established a clear mechanism for Mullah Omar’s succession, a power struggle has broken out. This is reflected by the dissident voices who rejected Akhtar Muhammad’s succession and reportedly have pushed for the candidacy of Mullah Omar’s 26-years old son Mullah Muhammad Yaqub. (His mentioning in the official Taleban statement does not necessarily imply his participation in the selection meeting.)
Mullah Omar, in his religious function of amir ul-momenin, did not only symbolise this unity, he actually held the numerous and, at least in their day-to-day tactical behaviour, largely autonomous Taleban fronts together by providing what might be called ‘religious centralism’. The religious legitimacy embodied by his person and title – even in recent years where Mullah Omar was more myth than man – constituted the vertical, ideological backbone of the movement, while the autonomy of the local fronts and networks kept the commanders happy by not overloading them with too much micromanagement.. This tactical autonomy of their fronts made the Taleban flexible and resilient in the face of the US surge and other onslaughts. (More detail on this in my 2010 AAN paper “How Tribal Are the Taleban?”)
Akhtar Muhammad Mansur will not have the same unifying power. For many, not only rivals within Taleban ranks, his and other leaders’ use of Mullah Omar as a figurehead over many years leaves them looking like liars or tricksters. It is, at the very least, an uncomfortable position to be in. However, Mansur is not without standing. He is a veteran, if not a founding member of the Taleban. (5) He has also been the effective leader of the rather successful Taleban military campaigns at least over the last three years since he officially became the deputy head of the movement.
More controversial in the Taleban ranks has been his role as an, albeit, not very urgently-minded proponent of peace talks – although not of talks held under Pakistani control, such as those in Murree on 17 July. (More about this in an upcoming dispatch by my colleague Borhan Osman.) He – or his supporters – appear to be the authors of most statements published by the Taleban leadership council in the name of Mullah Omar, including about Omar’s allegedly positive stance towards negotiations with “the enemy,” as long as they are aimed at ending what the Taleban call ‘the foreign occupation’ (see for example in this recent Taleban statement).
Mansur also gave the green light for early channels of contact, from opening the Qatar office to the Pugwash-organised talks earlier this year, also in Qatar. He also seems to have been the driving force behind the recent move to make the Political Committee independent of his own Quetta Shura. (In contrast, there was controversy about whether he had really blessed the Murree talks, too, or not. More about this in our following dispatch.) This policy of trying to make the Taleban more independent of Pakistan’s direct control, by moving its main political instrument to Qatar, has put him on the hit list of the anti-talks (but not necessarily pro-Pakistan [added on 1 Aug.]) forces among the Taleban, widely believed to be led by Mullah Qayum Zaker, and of Islamabad itself. (6) This, by the way, was a significant moment, creating for the first time something like an independent ‘political wing’ of the Taleban, if, of course, it remains credible with those fighting on the ground.
Pakistan’s induction of its own favoutire Taleban leaders, opponents of Mansur’s course, into the Murree talks amounted to a coup to take over the whole Taleban movement. To push forces more amenable to its own interests, it gambled on either a complete take over (in case the Mansur group would give in) or a final split of the Taleban. (Some Afghan observers AAN talked to see similarity in this move to Pakistan dropping Hekmatyar in favour of Mullah Omar’s Taleban in the mid-1990s.) This had, and still has, some chance of success, particularly as the Afghan government bought into the Pakistan-organised talks with that faction and when this faction gains more support within the Taleban. But then, the appointment of Mansur by his own group, to the disgruntlement of the opponents, was a counter-coup. The outcome is open, apparently also in Islamabad’s and Kabul’s eyes, as the new round of Murree talks was scheduled for today, 31 July 2015, but called off.
For the time being, it will be insufficient to talk of ‘anti-‘ and ‘pro-talks’ Taleban, as there are now more currents with clear, distinctive agendas. We have ‘anti-talks’ Taleban who oppose a Pakistan-led approach (Mansur) but who are pro-talks when they can carry them out independently. We have ‘pro-talks’ Taleban who support the Pakistan-led approach (including those attending the talks in Urumchi and the first round in Murree). And we have Taleban apparently opposed to any talks (Zaker).
If Mansur can not re-establish the Taleban movement’s unity, it could easily break into official factions now. Who then will gain the upper hand depends on who will get most external support and the most support from field commanders. Pakistan’s backing will be crucial as the Taleban continue to rely on Pakistan as a safe haven and (now more tacit) political backer. If the US and China join in, it could be a done deal. Ironically, as Barnett Rubin points out in his recent article on The New Yorker website, the split was a plan originally proposed by the – so very anti-Pakistan oriented – Karzai government, telling Islamabad basically: if there are some Taleban you don’t control, at least organise a meeting with some you do control.
The central remaining question now is: would a split Taleban movement be sufficient for meaningful peace talks and, in the end, able to bring peace for the Afghans? Most likely not. As the Israeli-Palestinian experience and other examples show, it is much easier to talk with a Yassir Arafat-type, charismatic and inclusive person than with half a dozen competing faction leaders. (7) On the other hand, as a December 2014 paper by Chatham House pointed out, ‘a “partial peace” can be struck, and can hold, even in the face of armed activity by non-signatories to an agreement. But, again, why deliberately increase the number of hostile actorswhen you are just about to enter into a dialogue?
Were was the Afghan government in all this?
The Afghan government changed its stance diametrically within hours of Mullah Omar’s death breaking. News of the death originally came in a post on the Facebook page of an obscure Taleban splinter group, the Fedai Mahaz, dated 24 July. It reads: “The current place of MULLAH MOHAMMAD OMAR MUJAHID is the tomb in Zabul province” [capitals in the original]. (8)
AAN had raised serious doubts about the credibility of this group in the past, given how it has promoted itself by an aggressive media campaign but with little actual on the ground presence. It has, for example, claimed a number of high-profile assassinations. In 2012, the group said it killed former Taleb minister-turned-reconcilee, Arsala Rahmani, and, a year later, Indian writer (married to an Afghan) Sushmita Banerjee in Paktika and Logar governor Arsala Jamal. In March 2014, it received even more coverage when it claimed it assassinated the Swedish journalist Nils Horner in Kabul (read our dispatch here). The only ‘operation,’ though, for which the group’s responsibility seems confirmed was the 2009 abduction of New York Times journalist David Rhode.
All in all, this group seems to be more of an opportunistic outfit without much real clout on the ground. Its main function might be doing the dirty work (and spreading ‘information’) on behalf of other people interested in maintaining ‘plausible deniability’, a tactic Pakistani governments have used over their decades-long relationship with the Taleban.
The report made it eventually into the Afghan, then international media. This forced the Afghan government and eventually the Taleban to react. The Afghan government was quicker, but its information seemed to have had a shaky foundation. In the early afternoon of 29 July, the president’s deputy spokesman cautiously stated at a hastily convened press conference (quoted here) that the government was “aware of the reports of the passing away of Mullah Omar” but was “still in the process of checking those reports.” The spokesman promised more information “as soon as we get confirmation or verification.”
Before the verification had been done, the Afghan intelligence service, the NDS, pre-empted the presidential office with a statement in the afternoon categorically calling the information true: “We confirm officially that he is dead.” According to the British Guardian, the spokesman indicated that the NDS had possessed this information “for the last one-and-a-half years” and that it now was “happy that foreign forces [sic] are confirming this as well.” The same evening, the presidential office joined in with a two-sentence statement:
The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, based on credible information, confirms that Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban died in April 2013 in Pakistan.
The government of Afghanistan believes that grounds for the Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before, and thus calls on all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity and join the peace process.
However, was the NDS really sure? In December 2014 – ie, within the 18 months period the NDS now claims it had been aware of Mullah Omar’s death – the then and current NDS chief Rahmatullah Nabil told The New York Times in an interview that they were not 100 per cent sure, but were more convinced than not that Mullah Omar was alive then (quoted here):
“There is a lot of doubt whether he is alive or not. But we are more confident that he is in Karachi,” acting Afghan intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil was quoted as saying in the New York Times regarding Omar’s whereabouts.
A European official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said in the NYT report that there is a “consensus among all three branches of the Afghan security forces that Mullah Omar is alive”.
“Not only do they think he’s alive, they say they have a good understanding of where exactly he is in Karachi,” the Pakistani metropolis where some say Mullah Omar is hiding.
This lack of coordination on what is communicated, the shifts of position and the confidence finally displayed regarding the credibility of the information also made President Ghani look bad in hindsight. Still two weeks ago, he had thanked Mullah Omar by name for his Eid message in which the Taleban leader had called “talks with the enemy” legitimate. (Also Ghani’s predecessor Hamed Karzai has repeatedly appealed to the Taleban boss up to the end of his tenure.) If the government had already known about the Taleban leader’s death, this was a little strange to say the least.
The ISI and other Pakistani security officials, anonymous, as usual, were also speaking with different tongues at the same time. The Guardian had a “Pakistani intelligence official” telling it “they had been aware of Omar’s death since January 2014, based on information received from ‘close aides’ of the militant chief and family members.” The AP, meanwhile, had “a Pakistani security official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to brief journalists,” calling Mullah Omar’s death reports “speculation” designed to disrupt peace talks. So, we have a choice of which version to believe.
(1) In that October agreement, both Afghan parties to the conflict committed to “enter into dialogue process” with UN mediation and not to leave it as a unilateral process. The document provided for indirect or direct talks, but at the UN, we thought it better to start with indirect ones, in order to prevent both parties going immediately into direct confrontation. The document did not specify a ceasefire, as both sides were not ready yet to rule out the military option. However, it would be one aim of the talks. (The Taleban, after making territorial gains in late summer that year, including the capture of the United Front’s provisional capital Taloqan in Takhar province, were even convinced they could win militarily – not unlike their current thinking.)
A few days later, the United Front’s political leader and still the officially recognised president of Afghanistan, Professor Borhanuddin Rabbani and his military commander Ahmad Shah Massud also agreed. Both sides signed the document on 30 October 2000 and it was published by the UN in New York on 3 November. The first round of the shuttle negotiations started on the very next day, with the Taleban; another day later, Vendrell met the United Front chief negotiator, foreign minister Dr Abdullah in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. However, soon after, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on the Taleban, including a weapons embargo, because of their harbouring Osama bin Laden, they pulled out of the talks.
(2) Only Afggan journalist Sami Yusufzai claims to have an audio from 2007.
(3) When the meeting finally happened, though, Baradar was unable even to communicate, as participants of the meeting later related (read here); he appeared to be drugged, due to illness or, as some feared, torture. In 2013, Pakistan’s government claimed it had released him but he never made it to his family. Even Pakistani newspapers say (see here) that he might still be “kept in a safehouse and watched by his Pakistani [ISI] handlers.”
(4) But it might just be a linguistic issue; Pashto and Dari grammar have no article, ie “the” or “a”.
(5) For example, Ahmed Rashid’s 2000 book Taleban does not mention him among the founders.
(6) Zaker, a former deputy head of the Taleban military commission, had been expelled from this position in 2014. Reportedly, this has not prevented him from continuing a role in the Taleban leadership bodies, though.
In a letter published on the Taleban website on 31 July 2015, he now has denied any conflict with Mansur.
(7) I am of course aware that those negotiations did not end with a success.
(8) Earlier, the number of people concerned about Mullah Omar’s years-long silence was already growing. This started with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) that had received shelter by the Taleban when still in power and, in return, swore allegiance to Omar. Last November, though, a statement allegedly by IMU chief Usman Ghazi was posted on a pro-IMU Facebook (now inaccessible), falling just short of a cancellation of the former oath. But also commanders and leaders within the Taleban movement itself have reportedly approached the Quetta Shura asking why Mullah Omar was not talking to them directly.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020