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Taliban loses icon following Mullah Omar’s death

30th Jul 2015
Taliban loses icon following Mullah Omar’s death

By Shadi Khan Saif

KABUL, Afghanistan (AA): A black and white photo of the one-eyed Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar was one of the most striking images of a decade of the U.S.-led “war on terror”.

The FBI wanted poster, which placed a $10 million bounty on his head, was one of the few photographs that existed of the militant commander, who is now dead according to the Afghan government on Wednesday.

Reports of Omar’s demise two years ago in Pakistan was leaked from government and intelligence sources throughout the day but were met with skepticism by many Afghans following recurring rumors of his death over the years, all of which have proved untrue.

“I have heard via media that the Pakistani intelligence has informed the Afghans about this but this might just be an effort to hurt the morale of the Taliban,” former Taliban leader Mullah Akbar Agha told Anadolu Agency.

Others have long suggested Omar’s death. He was rarely seen and went into hiding after his Taliban regime was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Some even suggested that Omar was a myth concocted to give Afghanistan the image of a strong leader protecting it from “foreign invaders”.

“I have often said that the Taliban supreme leader is no more, he died over two years ago,” said security analyst Jawaid Kohistani, claiming that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency – accused by Afghans of sponsoring the Taliban – struck a deal with the CIA over Omar.

“When he was informed about this, he escaped Afghanistan and with the help of Pakistani militant groups and took refuge in Pakistan,” Kohistani said, claiming Omar died three years ago before his body was returned to Afghanistan.

Just two weeks ago, the Taliban released an Eid message attributed to Omar that claimed he was alive, confirmed his support for peace talks with the government and declared his superiority as the Ameer-ul-Mumineen, the leader of the faithful, in an apparent riposte to Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who also claims the title.

The message was meant to ease rumors of his death but instead focused attention at a time when analysts were questioning whether the Taliban leadership had actually sponsored peace talks that began earlier this month and as Taliban fighters left the group for a new militant formation loyal to Baghdadi.

– Rise to power

Omar rose to prominence during the fight to expel the Soviets in the 1980s but has long been a mysterious figure and his absence had begun to affect the loyalty of his fighters, who were demanding evidence he was alive.

According to Pakistani journalist and security analyst Rahimullah Yousafzai, the confusion around whether Omar was alive had already begun to cause splits within the Taliban.

He wrote in Pakistani newspaper The News on Monday that the group was divided between supporting Omar’s 26-year-old son as leader or second-in-command Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor as the next leader.

“The differences between the two competing sides came to a head when Mansoor, on the persuasion of Pakistani authorities, dispatched a Taliban delegation to Murree to hold peace talks with the Afghan government on July 7 and then managed to release an Eidul Fitr message from Mullah Omar endorsing the peace talks,” he wrote.

Omar’s dominance as the supreme commander of militant groups had previously been unchallenged. Not only did both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban swear loyalty to him, so did Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and the first renegades to leave the Taliban for Daesh.

Veteran British foreign correspondent Robert Fisk wrote in his book The Great War for Civilization that Mullah Omar believed the Prophet Muhammad had come to him in a dream and called on him to save Afghanistan.

Omar’s Taliban ranks were largely filled by young men who grew up as refugees in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation and the following civil wars. The group rose to prominence in the 1990s, gaining military victories that led to it taking control of most of Afghanistan and establishing a government based on a radical, hardline interpretation of Islam.

It was during Omar’s rule from 1996 that, according to analysts, bin Laden and his al-Qaeda fighters took sanctuary in Afghanistan.

The 2001 U.S.-led invasion forced Omar’s regime from power and he remained in hiding, with many believing he was in Pakistan, possibly in the custody of Pakistani intelligence.

– Effect on peace talks

Security analysts have questioned the timing of the announcement of Omar’s death, which came as the Afghan government prepared for a second round of peace talks that began in Pakistan earlier this month.

The announcement has raised concerns about how a new Taliban leadership would proceed in the negotiations.

“Timing of this news is definitely worth noticing, especially why the ISI has informed the Afghan government now,” Kohistani said. “This might just be a move to split the Taliban even further.”

He said some religiously motivated fighters who recognize Omar’s claim as the Ameer-al-Mumineen were likely to be affected by the news.

Pakistani analyst Tahir Khan said disunity between the Taliban could hamper the talks.

“The power struggle [after Omar’s death] may divide the Taliban into different groups, which will definitely not be a good sign,” he said. “If this happens, then it will be hard for the Afghan government and Pakistan to convince all the groups to join talks. A unified Taliban group is in the better interest of peace process.”

However, Khan noted that if the Taliban is able to elect a new leader it could have a positive impact on the reconciliation process.

“Consensus on a new leader will accelerate the peace process because the new leader will be available to discuss and direct, contrary to Mullah Omar, who understandably was not in direct contact with senior commanders,” he said.

(Aamir Latif contributed to this report from Karachi and Kaamil Ahmed from London)

[Photo: Afghan security forces take security measures around Kale-i Zal and Han Abad district of Kunduz city, against Taliban, leaving 43 killed, in Afghanistan, on July 29, 2015. Photographer: Undercover Police Station/Anadolu Agency]

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