Mullah Mohammad Omar has been dead for more than two years, at least according to Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency. Many are skeptical of the claim, however, since the enigmatic leader of the Taliban has been reported dead before. After this most recent claim was first announced his death on Wednesday, at least one Taliban spokesman has claimed that Omar is “still alive and leading the movement.”
The questions surrounding Omar’s death are due, in part, to the reclusive nature of the man who became the unlikely head of the Taliban in 1996. He has not been seen in public since the United States first began bombing Afghanistan in the fall of 2001.
“No leader in the world today is surrounded by as much secrecy and mystery as Mullah Mohammad Omar,” Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid wrote in his book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia.
What is known about Omar, however, is that the decision to combat the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan rested exclusively with him. By refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden to American authorities Omar defied many of his top commanders — and engaged in a war that has claimed the lives of some 26,000 Afghan civilians.
Omar was a small-time cleric with little military experience who came from a family of landless peasants from just outside of the once opulent city of Kandahar. How he came to hold the title “Commander of the Faithful” is a matter of dispute.
“Some Taliban say Omar was chosen as their leader not for his political or military ability, but for his piety and unswerving belief in Islam,” Rashid wrote. “Others say he was chosen by God.”
Either way, it was the one-eyed Taliban leader who had to decide whether to give in to President George W. Bush’s demands to turn over bin Laden, or, to face the consequences.
Osama bin Laden’s presence is like a chicken bone stuck in my throat. I can neither spit him out nor swallow him.
“We will make no distinction between those who committed these acts and those who harbor them,” Bush said in a nationally televised address just after the two commercial airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers.
The threat left Omar with a difficult choice. Anand Gopal described the stakes in his book No Good Men Among The Living:
Omar was a religious parvenu, a small-time priest giving orders to bishops. Projecting theological credibility to his more lettered colleagues, and by extension to the entire Muslim world, was everything, and the symbolism of surrendering bin Laden to non-Muslims would have been damaging to the very soul of the Taliban project. Their legitimacy as a state, such as it was, rested upon the notion that Islamic law had saved the country. In their view, they had ended the anarchy and bloodshed of the civil war by restoring society to its Islamic roots and submitting everyone — warlords and foot soldiers, landlords and peasants, men and women alike — to God’s law. How then could Omar justify extraditing bin Laden and subjecting him to the vagaries of secular Western justice? Bin Laden’s presence was a problem that he saw no way to resolve.
“Osama bin Laden’s presence is like a chicken bone stuck in my throat,” Omar once said. “I can neither spit him out nor swallow him.”
The Taliban leader attempted to negotiate with American officials. He offered to force bin Laden to stand trial in Afghanistan or to sent him to a neutral Muslim country.
But Bush was intransigent. He wanted bin Laden to be handed over directly to the American military.
“These demands are not open to negotiation or discussion,” he said. “The Taliban must act, and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate.”
More than 3,000 had been killed by Al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center and many in America were eager for revenge. Still, not all members of the Taliban felt that they — or their country — should suffer for the actions of Al Qaeda.
That’s because as Gopal noted, the Taliban had very different aims than Al Qaeda.
“Bin Laden was waging international jihad to overthrow U.S. global hegemony, while the Taliban were concerned largely with politics within their country’s borders,” he wrote. “Bin Laden rallied against the West, and his acolytes had bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, while the Taliban were seeking Western diplomatic recognition.”
Still, as Gopal put it, “Quickly, America’s bin Laden problem had become the Taliban’s as well.”
Many among the Taliban tried to push Mullah Omar to give up bin Laden for the sake of the Afghan people who would suffer the consequences of his decision.
“Taliban pragmatists could see all too clearly the dangers that would them if the impasse continued,” Gopal wrote. “A week after the 9/11 attacks, they visited Omar in his modest Kandahar home. ‘We pleaded with him for hours’ to expel bin Laden, one of them recalled, ‘but it was as if he covered his ears.’”
Omar became even more defiant in the coming weeks. On October 6, 2001 he was informed that an American attack on Afghanistan was in the works. Mullah Omar gathered his senior lieutenants and, according to Gopal, told them, “My family, my power, my privileges, are all in danger, but still I am insisting on sacrificing myself, and you should do likewise.”
The next night, Omar’s compound in Kandahar was bombed and one of his sons killed. He retreated along with his relatives into his familial village and was never seen in public again.