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Thursday, July 30, 2015
Mullah Omar: the one-eyed man who was king
Mullah Omar: the one-eyed man who was king
The Islamist group lose a leader and their unity
AS RECENTLY as July 15th Mullah Muhammad Omar, the one-eyed leader of the Taliban, reassured his followers that no religious prohibition barred negotiations with the hated American-backed government in Kabul, the Afghan capital. After all, he wrote in one of the missives he traditionally issued to mark Islamic holidays, the Prophet himself had conducted "face-to-face talks with warring infidel parties".
It was a message from beyond the grave. On July 29th the Afghan government confirmed claims by Pakistani intelligence officials that the mysterious leader had in fact died in Pakistan in April 2013. For two years the insurgency chose to keep this quiet. It put out twice-yearly messages in the name of the former village mullah who claimed to speak with the authority of "Amir ul Momineen", or commander of the faithful. In 2014 even Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as leader of al-Qaeda, pledged allegiance (perhaps unwittingly) to a dead man.
Mullah Omar cemented his status as spiritual leader in 1996 by waving a holy relic—the cloak of the Prophet—from the roof of a mosque in Kandahar, the Taliban’s former stronghold in Afghanistan’s south. It was essential to his control over the revolutionary posse of hard-line seminarians that emerged from civil war to conquer almost the entire country. After its government in Kabul crumbled under American air power in 2001, he played a minimal role in running the insurgency it became. But his religious authority maintained the movement’s cohesion in a country riven by rival warlords.
Today the Taliban’s need for a unifying figurehead has never been greater. Despite the battlefield successes of the current summer fighting season, it is no closer to regaining power. And the rise of Islamic State (IS) has turned many Taliban heads. In July one of the best-known jihadist leaders of the 1980s, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, announced he had ditched the Taliban in favour of the IS caliphate. Mullah Omar’s stature helped stem the tide of similar defections. In consequence, says a senior Afghan official plugged in to jihadi chatter, there had been a sharp increase in demands for proof he was still alive.
The Taliban are split over whether the time has come for peace talks. Pragmatic senior exiles fed up with living under the thumb of Pakistan’s spy agency have long argued for an end to the war. But they are resisted by hardliners, particularly among field commanders and fighters steeped for years in propaganda promising all-out victory. Divisions between the two factions seem to be widening.
The strains on the Taliban’s unity have been intensified by regional pressures. China, worried about domestic extremism, has demanded that the Islamist fires in Afghanistan and Pakistan be extinguished. Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, has jettisoned the animosity towards Pakistan that characterised Afghan foreign policy under his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. This has led Islamabad to put unprecedented pressure on the Taliban to engage in direct talks with the Afghan government, which took place on July 7th, in the Pakistani hill station of Murree. Reflecting the outrage of some within the movement, the talks prompted the publication on the Taliban website of a scathing critique, later deleted, that dismissed the negotiators as mid-level figures representing no one.
The next round of talks were due to take place on July 31st. If they do go ahead the news of Mullah Omar’s demise will seriously undermine the Taliban team. Afghan diplomats concede it is a serious blow. That might even have been the purpose of confirming the death. "Spoilers" abound on all sides, including in the Afghan and Pakistani establishments. Hopes of avoiding a violent splintering of the movement into competing groups rest on finding a credible unifying successor. One candidate is Mullah Omar’s eldest son, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob. An Afghan official closely involved in the peace effort says the government would prefer to negotiate with a cohesive movement. If any more than two or three factions emerge, he warns, any chance of reaching a deal would vanish.