War and Peace
10 Aug 2013
Home » Reports » War and Peace » “I, Mulla Omar”: Two takes on the Taleban leader’s Eid message
It has become a regular exercise by now: Taleban leader Mulla Muhammad Omar addressing “our pious people” on the occasion of religious and national holidays. As this year’s Eid al Fitr message again plays some conciliatory strings – except towards the government in Kabul and its foreign military allies – many have argued that deeds should count rather than words, particularly after the attacks that harmed civilians during Ramadan and the first day of Eid again. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig and AAN guest author Susanne Schmeidl have given attention to the words – and the deeds.
The Taleban looking beyond 2014 – by Thomas Ruttig
Reading Taleban leader Mulla Muhammad Omar’s Eid messages is rather reminiscent of the old days of Kremlinology: looking at who is standing next to Stalin (Khrushchov, Brezhnew…) on the podium in Red Square during the 8 May parade and deducting who is out of power and who is in. One can argue, as some justly do, here on the social media, that you should measure the Taleban by their deeds, not their words. They cite the latest attacks all over Afghanistan on the eve of the Eid al Fitr holidays and on the day itself, another low point: the planting of the bomb on a cemetery in Ghanikhel, Nangahar province, that killed 14 mainly female family members of a reconciled former Taleban commander who were visiting the commander’s first wife’s grave.(1) Or, one could say, as Barney Rubin did on Twitter that none of this is new. “All in Chantilly, Tokyo, Eid statements over past 2-3 years. Need to test through real negotiations.” Exactly because of that, and because during negotiations(2) words signed up to may count more than deeds, one still needs to give the messages some attention.
The first thing remarkable in Mulla Omar’s message is the recurring big ‘I’. Although it has been used before (read the previous message, to Eid al Adha, from October 2012 here), it looks as if it is meant to refute repeatedly raised opinions that “the reclusive” Taleban leader, as he is often called and whose signature is on this message, is dead and emphasize that he is actually alive and in full command:
“I reiterate once again that we do not think of monopolizing power. … I assure you that I will not reach any illegitimate compromise or unlawful deal…”
The statesmanlike tone, even the use of a “message of felicitations” says: we are the real government, we are the government in waiting, you have to figure us in. The message also contains propaganda that overstates the Taleban’s strength, for example: “the centers of the enemy … are now on the threshold of collapse”. (By the way, the Taleban favour American English). Thus, the message is not about its content only, but also the form that is used.
This fits with its attempt to sound reconciliatory to everyone who is not an “invader” or one of their “hirelings”. Remarkably, Mulla Omar – or whoever the author is because his signature does not prove this, of course – turns to those he calls “patriotic Afghans”:
“…who detest the (foreign) occupation and de facto oppose the presence of the invaders, though far-off they may be from us in distance…”
This is not fully clear and might be addressed at those who feel distant from the Taleban politically and emotionally, but maybe also at those physically distant from Afghanistan, those who left the country because of the Taleban. He tells them that the insurgents “appreciate their emotions of Afghanhood” and continues to assure them that “no personal revenge will be taken on any one [after] the end of occupation”.
In its second element, the message goes at great length to project the Taleban as reliable and trustworthy. It reiterates earlier messages saying twice that “we do not think of monopolizing power”, that (four times, with different wordings), in post-occupation Afghanistan, there will be “only an Islamic, just, independent … system … based on transparency and commitment, in which all Afghans will see their full participation.” In an assertion which mirrors President Karzai’s statements that peace will break out once the foreign soldiers leave, the Taleban leader says that, “when the occupation ends, reaching an understanding with the Afghans will not be a hard task.”
He further encourages “our young generations” to “arm themselves with religious and modern educations” [sic] to run the country in the future. He adds that the Taleban fighters, too, “increasingly obtain new experience of work and success in political, cultural, economical, administrative and allurement [?] fields.” The message even speaks of a “spirit of reform”, picking up a term that is used by Islamists in other countries, like by the Yemeni al-Islah (Reform) party or an eponymous Muslim Brotherhood-linked group in the United Arab Emirates that came under persecution recently. (Just because those Islamist parties participate in parliamentary democracy does not necessarily mean the Taleban are planning to follow this path, though.)
Although the message encourages international humanitarian organisations, “which keep away from political and espionage motives and which [are] not established by the invaders for the purpose of collecting intelligence or inviting people to non-Islamic ways,” and, “carry out… selfless activities in areas under our control,” the message emphasises that, first, such organisations need to play to the rules the Taleban set (“on the basis of our conditions and policy and in coordination with the relevant commissions”). But secondly, it is made clear the Taleban prefer autarky: “instead of reliance on foreign assistance and skills, the Afghans should qualify themselves and serve their country by utilizing their own resources.”
The message shows also that the Taleban have problems with leaping beyond their own shadow, namely assuming that the whole world is against them. Reacting to a recent United Nations’ report which said the Taleban were responsible for 74 per cent of civilian casualties over the last six months (see AAN take here), the Eid message refers (without mentioning any name) to “some entities, who claim to be neutral”, clearly including the UN.
On the other hand, the message to the western forces and the Afghan government is quite clear and often brusque. It rejects all major elements of the transition process, military and political. The presidential election in April 2014 is lambasted as a “deceiving drama” in which “our pious people will not tire themselves… [by] participat[ing in]” – an indirect call for a boycott. It tries to undermine the build-up of the ANSF by calling on soldiers and policemen to “to turn [the] barrels of their guns against the infidel invaders and their allies” and telling them that when they leave “the rank[s] of the enemy”, they are welcome. It rejects any “permanent bases” of the “occupying countries” [our emphasis, is this a loophole that would enable them to say yes to some foreign presence if needed at some point?]. Finally, it brushed of the Kabul government’s plan to convene a Loya Jirga to okay the strategic security agreement with the US as a “fake”. Despite recent claims from Kabul that it has been able to re-establish some contacts with the Taleban in Qatar and elsewhere, the Taleban Eid message doesn’t leave much space for assumptions that there is much they and the Afghan government have to talk about.
The message says yes to “contacts and talks” with the US, ie the “invaders”, however, through the Political Office in Qatar. But it is made clear that this would only be “to put an end to [the] occupation of Afghanistan” – possible talks about the political future of Afghanistan are left for the time after 2014 and for Afghans only. The blame for latest “obstacles” in the Qatar talks process with the US (read our analysis of it here) is put on the other side. It says there will not be “any illegitimate compromise or unlawful deal”, which seems to rule out a power-sharing with the government in Kabul. Interestingly, it is stated that “the Mujahideen of the resistance of the Islamic Emirate” will not accept “material privileges, and personal security [assurances] and government slots while [the] occupation is in place”. Does this mean, they might afterwards?
On foreign policy (this term is used in the message), it is reiterated that “we do not intend to harm anyone, nor we allow anyone to harm others from our soil” and the Taleban want good and equal relations with all countries, “whether they are the world powers or the neighbors or any other country of the world.” The first part can be read as an indication that, at some later point in negotiations, the Taleban might indeed fulfil one central demand repeatedly raised by the US and the Afghan government – to distance itself publicly from al-Qaeda. Going beyond earlier messages, Omar conveys a message of solidarity to the “oppressed and believing people of Syria and Egypt” and puts the Taleban’s struggle in this context.
Finally, the issue of civilian casualties – this is the most disappointing part of the message. As already mentioned, the Taleban earlier rejected the UN report on the issue as “guesswork…, politically motivated and tailored to meet the interests of America” by conflating killed “enemies” with killed civilians, explaining that, “the incidents claimed by us are all the losses of our enemy and calling them civilians is UNAMA’s own judgment.” (The Taleban further claimed they had not targeted civilians “in a single incident”, read here and here). Mulla Omar’s Eid message confines itself on ordering his fighters to
“…increase efforts for [the] prevention of civilian casualties and help the newly-founded office of the Islamic Emirate which has been established to prevent civilian casualties”.
It concedes, however that, “occasionally… a Mujahid is found being careless as regards the prevention of the civilians casualties” and that he then “must be referred to the leadership after identification for handing over to the judicial courts”. That this really happens has been rarely if ever reported. A first step of goodwill by the Taleban would be to be transparent about such cases and make both the Qatar and their new “civilian casualty” office accessible, including for those civilians who have claims about relatives killed during and by Taleban action. Apart from that, the UNAMA demand stands to be responded to:
“Comply with international humanitarian law, uphold the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautionary measures, and apply a definition of ‘civilian’ that is consistent with international humanitarian law;
Cease the deliberate targeting and killing of civilians and withdraw orders that permit attacks and killings of civilians, in particular, religious personnel, judicial authorities and civilian Government workers.”
The practice during the month of Ramadan and on the first day of Eid al Fitr show that this message has not been heard yet, as the long (and here incomplete) list of attacks harming civilians shows, whether in Janikhel, Paktika, or Samangan, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Lashkargah, Ghazni or Ghanikhel.
(1) Attacks on graveyards seemed to be en vogue among militant Islamists on the first day of Eid: a suicide bombing during the funeral of a policeman in Quetta killed at least 28 people.
(2) There are reports about attempts to kick start negotiations again between the Kabul government and the Taleban, through the High Peace Council (HPC) (read here, here and here); between the Taleban and the US, read here, and, also by the HPC, with Hezb-e Islami, read here.
Mulla Omar’s Message: Path to Peace or ‘My Way or the Highway’? – by Susanne Schmeidl
As Afghans celebrate the end of a tense (and extremely hot) Ramazan, Mulla Omar, the Taleban leader who has not been seen in public since 2001, made his traditional Eid message to the Afghan people.(1) In it, he wishes “Peace be on you all” at a time when violent incidents are at a record high and when there is a 23 per cent rise in civilian casualties (in the first six months of 2013 as compared to the same period in 2012) – 74 per cent being attributed to anti-government elements.(2) Indeed, peace would be a pleasant prospect. Although Mulla Omar tries to reassure us several times in his letter, I worry more than ever for the Afghan people. In tone, the letter clearly shows that the Taleban sees future peace ‘the Taleban way’, meaning more of what we have seen so far.
First, right from the start, Mulla Omar likens the struggle in Afghanistan to that in Syria and Egypt, their plight, generally, being that of Islamic versus Western values or interests:
“I pray to Allah (SwT) to bring to an end, the sufferings and miserability [sic] of the Muslims both in Afghanistan and in the entire world, particularly, may Allah save the oppressed and believing people of Syria and Egypt who spent the (whole) month of Ramadan under beating, bloodbath, arrest and torture in squares, prisons and hospitals.”
Second, throughout the letter, he absolves the Taleban (and their mujahedin) of the bloodshed in the country. After all, we (the Taleban) “do not intend to harm anyone, nor [do] we allow anyone to harm others from our soil”. (Might this be a reassurance that no ill-will to Pakistan or Iran is intended?). Then who is to blame for all the killing – the 23 per cent rise in civilian casualties noted above – and bloodshed in Afghanistan? Of course, the blame lies on ‘others’, as civilian casualties are “caused by the enemy” – meaning foreign forces – and possibly the odd ‘careless’ Taleban fighter who when found guilty must of course “be referred to the leadership after identification for handing over to the judicial courts”. Referring to them, he says:
“Those people who harm the commoners by misusing the name of Mujahid or kidnap people for ransom or follow personal goals under the name of Jihad, they are neither Mujahideen nor belong to the Islamic Emirate.”
Mulla Omar even argues that the new – and soon again closed – Taleban political office in Qatar had been established for the purpose of preventing more bloodshed:
“I order the Mujahideen to block the way of activities of these tyrants if possible and increase efforts for prevention of civilian casualties and help the newly-founded office of the Islamic Emirate which has been established to prevent civilian casualties and present on ground [sic] facts to our people and the public of the world.”
But what about the recent UNAMA report attributing 74 per cent of civilian casualties (1,038 civilian deaths and 1,825 civilian injuries in the first six months of 2013 to anti-government elements (a 16 percent increase compared to the same period in 2012) (3), you may ask? Well, that is “the enemy . . . spreading misinformation about civilian casualties. Some entities, who claim to be neutral, publish reports based on these distorted reports.” This denial, of course only makes sense, when the reader or listener understands that in their own opinion, the Taleban only kill ‘puppets, spies and criminals’, but (of course) never civilians, as they define civilian, and that is the crux of the problem. The Taleban’s definition of what constitutes a civilian diverges from that accepted under International Humanitarian Law (IHL) – agreed upon by a majority of the rest of the civilized world, including Muslim states. Rather than focusing their fight on those who participate directly in hostilities (a.k.a. armed combatants, according to the IHL rule), the Taleban, as stipulated in their own rulebook – the Layha(4) – sweepingly consider all those working for the Afghan government (including in civilian positions),(5) even contractors and drivers working for the international military,(6) legitimate military targets. Recently added, at least according to interviews with community leaders in Afghanistan’s Southeast, is anybody seen as associated or engaging with the Afghan government (which pretty much would include many tribal elders because of their community leadership role), and occasionally also those working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) (though the presence of contractors and for-profit companies blur the definition of ‘NGO’) are thrown into the non-civilian pile. This, in the end, does not leave many ‘true’ or ‘innocent’ civilians – hence a broadly justified killing field is established – and a moral high ground absolving the Taleban of any guilt in killing the innocent (which Islamic law, or sharia, of course prohibits). In addition, the Taleban establish who is a spy or not, with, again according to interviews with community leaders and members in Helmand, Paktia and Kunar, no adequate trial for those accused of aiding the enemy (again under sharia spies have a right to a trial), and with summary execution the norm.
Third, having established the moral high ground of the Taleban, Mulla Omar makes further reassurances about Afghanistan’s future – as clearly some of us, the worry mongers– need those. For those who fear that the Taleban is slowly fragmenting, he has the message that, politically, they are united as ever, and not fragmented as alleged in media (especially in reference to the Haqqani network):
“The Mujahideen have been waging their struggle against the enemy in all provinces of Afghanistan like brothers under a sole leadership and flag.”
Then, I wonder, why in the letter Mulla Omar needs to call for this unity that already exists:
“I would like to remind the Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate to further focus on implementation of the by-laws, the instructions of the leadership of the Islamic Emirate and perfectly obey your chiefs. Strength of array (a group) lies in unity. Real unity comes from obedience. So maintain your ranks united by obeying (your superiors).”
So, dare we suspect, after all, that there might be a tiny problem with unity and toeing the line? Of course not, all under control, except for the odd fighter!
For those who worry about education, he reassures more than once that some form of secular education might be OK as:
“Our young generations should arm themselves with religious and modern educations [sic] because modern education is a fundamental need of every society in the present time.”
But, of course, this is again likely only on their terms and under their rules (which are conveniently not spelled out):
“The Mujahideen should pay necessary attention to the education of the new generations in accordance with the plan of the Education Commission so that our emerging generation will have both religious and modern education and serve their people and country as pious and professional Afghans.”
Then Mulla Omar goes on to reassure international humanitarian organizations that may worry about humanitarian access that:
“every humanitarian organization which keeps away from political and espionage motives and which is not established by the invaders for the purpose of collecting intelligence or inviting people to non-Islamic ways, it can carry out its selfless activities in areas under our control on the basis of our conditions and policy and in coordination with the relevant commissions, whether they are working in the health sector or in the refugees or in food supply sectors or any other sector.”
But unless I misread the statement, the message is clear: ‘you follow our conditions and rules or else’. That is, assuming we are clear about what these roles and conditions are (are they found in the Lahya perhaps? – but the Layha clashes with the IHL definition of civilians, as mentioned above, which humanitarians adhere to). And how do the Taleban see humanitarian principles then, I wonder, such as that “humanitarian action must be carried out on the basis of need alone, giving priority to the most urgent cases of distress and making no distinctions on the basis of nationality, race, gender, religious belief, class or political opinions”?(7) Can humanitarian organizations then equally assist women and men? Can they assist those the Taleban consider pro-government without being seen as pro-government themselves, hence becoming a legitimate target for the Taleban? But maybe I am over-thinking this and worry too much. It’s about trust after all and the Taleban tries to reassure that they respect “independence on the basis of humanitarian sympathy and Islamic fraternity”.
Finally, and importantly for those of us who may have misunderstood, the Taleban’s struggle is exclusively about liberation from “foreign oppressors” and not for the “achievement of personal gains nor personal power”. And, according to Mulla Omar in his address, the Taleban would say of themselves “we do not think of monopolizing power” (mentioned actually twice, so he must mean it), but “we believe that only an Islamic, just, independent and all Afghan-inclusive system can bring well-being and prosperity to our countrymen.”
Presumably ‘inclusive’ means that women have a seat at the table? Though the letter only elaborates that “those who truly loves Islam and the country and has [sic] commitment to both, whoever they may be or whichever ethnicity or geographical location they hail from, this homeland is theirs.” (Presumably this is a message to the Hazara that they need not worry.) Still, I’d like to see the reassurance for women’s right in black and white and not just alluded to. I continue to be wary; possibly the frequent reference to brothers (and not also sisters) makes me so.
Mulla Omar makes it clear that the 2014 elections are not the path to such an ‘inclusive government’; they are all but a “deceiving drama” and “waste of time” in which their “pious people will not tire themselves out, nor will they participate in it.” With an allusion to the last fraudulent elections, Mulla Omar alleges that whoever wins is chosen by Washington; this ignores of course the increasingly difficult relationship between Washington and President Karzai. Here the Taleban may need to update their rhetoric as Karzai is no longer Washington’s man – though clearly he once was. Mulla Omar’s allegation, however, should be a strong warning to any king-making plans Western policy makers have: The 2014 elections are not about the West choosing its preferred candidate – the West had its chance with Karzai and failed. Instead, the 2014 elections are about assisting the Afghan people, and a rather active civil society, who want to own the 2014 elections and give the country a chance to peacefully choose a new leader. Are you hearing this Mulla Omar?
So then, how, are we to achieve an Afghan-inclusive government? Mulla Omar’s address is vague about this, though it seems the Taleban
“believe in reaching understanding with the Afghans regarding an Afghan-inclusive government based on Islamic principles”.
Again, does this mean women get to be part of this decision-making process? And of course, the Taleban think, coming to such an understanding is not hard, that
“by adhering to and having common principles and culture, the Afghans understand each other better.”
Here I guess Afghanistan is different from the rest of the world, where a diversity of people have a diversity of views and peace is built on compromises and majority views. Though, Mulla Omar again reiterates that the Afghan people
“should be left to form an independent Islamic system as per their aspirations”.
Are we to believe he will let the Afghan people decide, when he also asserts that they have strived for
“an Islamic system and complete independence are values . . . [and] are not willing to strike a deal on them with anyone.” And that “no one should perceive that the Mujahideen will relinquish of their lofty religious principles and national interests. I assure you that I will not reach any illegitimate compromise or unlawful deal.”
Am I the only one that sees a possibly contradiction in Mulla Omar’s rhetoric here? What happens when the people’s views differ from the Taleban’s “lofty religious principles” – as many ordinary Afghan citizens in rural and urban areas alike have aspirations that increasingly diverge from the Taleban’s goals, such as wanting secular education for boys and girls, development and reconstruction, jobs, democracy and above all an end to fighting and killing.
So, I really would like Mulla Omar to help me with my confusion: it is now really up to the Afghan people to decide? If Mulla Omar truly believed that Afghans should decide the fate of their own country, then would he not call for fighting to cease to allow Afghan people in their full diversity – men and women, young and old, rural and urban, educated and uneducated, sedentary and migratory or displaced – to come together to discuss their future? I would like to ask Mulla Omar, if he would accept that Afghanistan and its people have changed and possibly want a different path: a country that embraces Islam as well as democracy and secular education, justice and human rights that respect the rights for women?
For the sake of peace, Mulla Omar, maybe you should begin listening to your own people, as I am afraid you have not done this much over the past twelve years. Assumptions don’t get us anywhere; learn from the mistake the West has made in assuming what Afghans wanted – don’t make the same mistake, allow the Afghan people to voice their views, even if you don’t agree. How else can ”Peace be on you all”? Fighting seems to have gotten us nowhere.
Susanne Schmeidl is a Visiting Fellow of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, Australian National University and a member of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
(1) ‘Message of Felicitation of Amir-ul-Momineen (May Allah protect him) on the Occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr’, 6 August 2013 (read here).
(2) ‘Afghanistan Mid-Year Report 2013: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict’ by United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Kabul, July 2013; p.1; this percentage varies by year. In all of 2012, for example, the percentage of civilian casualties attributed to anti-government elements was 6% higher: 81%; see ‘Annual Report 2012 on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict’ by United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Kabul, March 2013), p.1.
(3) ‘Afghanistan Mid-Year Report 2013: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict’, p.3 (see FN2).
(4) Last revised in May 2010, the Layha draws from local norms and sharia in an effort to bring greater discipline and uniformity among their ranks. See AAN report by Kate Clark, ‘The Layha: Calling the Taleban to Account’.
(5) Albeit here the application to teachers remains sufficiently vague, allowing individual insurgent commanders to interpret whether they are counted among government officials.
(6) Clark, ‘The Layha’, pp 9–11 (see FN4).
(7) See ‘OCHA on Message: Humanitarian Principles’, April 2010 (Version I), p.1.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020