Harold Cluff discusses why the West could have much to learn from the mysterious founder of the Taliban
In 2001, as the United States thundered into Afghanistan, a tall, one-eyed man was seen fleeing the city of Kandahar on the back of his brother-in-law’s motorbike. It was the last confirmed sighting of the mysterious founder and promoter of the talib movement, Mullah Omar. Revered equally to Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri by wahibits across the world, Mullah Omar’s astronomical rise from impoverished country preacher to established emir of Afghanistan is oddly forgotten in the West. In contrast to his close ally and sometimes rival, Osama Bin Laden, Omar shunned the limelight and developed a withdrawn demeanour, often being described as ‘shy’ and ‘cautious’ by the few journalists permitted to meet him. Unlike Bin Laden, his swift and sudden absconcement proved a successful escape. According to the Taliban, he died in 2013 of natural causes, supposedly a mere three miles from a US base in Zabul. The legacy of this enigmatic emir has culminated in the recapturing of Kabul and the return of the Taliban to government almost 20 years to the night that he was seen speeding away from his beleaguered capital. Understanding the origins, motives and perspectives of perhaps the most mysterious head of government in recent times, may afford us a useful insight into the intentions of the Taliban today.
Born sometime around 1960, to a local religious leader, much like most of Omar’s life, his precise birthplace
remains unknown. Researchers believe he was likely brought up in the rural region surrounding Kandahar and reportedly received a religious education at the famous Pakistani madrasa, Jamia Uloom-ul-Islamia, in Karachi. A native Pashtun, Omar hailed from the Hotak tribe and made use of his prestigious religious education by wandering the mud-hutted hamlets and modest villages of his province where he preached an austere exegesis of Islam and encouraged fellow adherents to strive towards the ideals of the Prophet. When the Soviets invaded, the young preacher took up arms against the Russians and joined the Mujahideen. It was during a particularly brutal firefight that he is said to have lost one of his eyes. When a fellow fighter turned to his hideously injured comrade to offer him medical assistance, he was astonished to find his compatriot unphased by the shocking wound. According to legend, he fought on with an undaunted determination until his foes were repelled. This story helped spark the myth of Mullah Omar and is considered an example of his zealous devotion to the trials of jihad.
After the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the country descended into civil war, with numerous local chiefs vying for regional supremacy. Violence and corruption reached an untenable level and soon the vast and vulnerable agricultural class began to clamour for a new movement to lead the nation out of its lamentable plight. The tale told by the Taliban is that during this chaos a bloodthirsty warlord kidnapped and raped two teenage girls. Omar, who had amassed a small force of fighting ‘talibs’ (religious students) confronted the chief and his larger following. Despite their numerical disadvantage, Omar and his men managed to overcome the warlord, executing him and his entourage in the wake of the skirmish. News of the reprisal against this murderous local leader spread across the country and within a few weeks Omar commanded a force comprised of thousands of young male religious students, eager to liberate Afghanistan from the influence of non-believers and self-interested criminals.
Of the six or seven major factions fighting for territory, none seemed able to counter or control the momentum of this new militant movement. By mid-1995, Omar ruled almost half of Afghanistan, taking the provinces of Kandahar and Herat under his administration. In 1996, he travelled to the Shrine of the Cloak (kirka sharif) where the shroud that the Prophet purportedly wore on his mystical night journey from Damascus to Jerusalem is kept and venerated. The cloak was invested there by the hallowed father of Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Durrani, and has become a symbol of religious and political leadership. Rarely removed from its pyx, the cloak was dramatically presented to a convocation of mullahs by Omar to assert his authority and to attest his legitimacy. These theatrics were highly effective and he was declared ‘the leader of the faithful,’ a title that validated his right to rule not only in the eyes of Afghans but also in the eyes of muslims all over the world.
A brief and blurry clip of Omar exhibiting the sacred material to a congregation of religious leaders is the only known footage of him we have. Keen to avoid cameras, he seldom spoke in public, commissioning others to recite his speeches, and regularly evaded international media investigations by appointing communication officials to talk on his behalf. One journalist who was able to get a phone interview with the mysterious mullah said ‘I was not sure if he was clueless or a genius,’ his reticence was such that it was difficult for non-talibs to discern his true perspective.
After pressure was put on the Sudanese government to eject Bin Laden, Omar offered him safe haven in Afghanistan. Bin Laden’s growing notoriety and popularity among conservative Muslims made him a potential rival to Omar’s recently acquired authority in the fractured country. To assuage any concerns, Bin Laden took a public oath of loyalty to the mullah and reaffirmed his faith in his leadership at every possible opportunity. This did not mean that Bin Laden and Omar agreed on every point.
The American invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 was what Bin Laden wanted. He and the Al-Qaeda high command hoped that their terrible provocation would entice the US into sending troops to Afghanistan, and it did. Their wish was to instigate another glorious conflict against a non-Muslim enemy, one similar to their clash with the Soviets. Mullah Omar, however, had little interest in overseeing a war against an insurmountable adversary. The assumption that Omar supported the attack on the Twin Towers was a major mistake. Suspicions about Omar’s sponsorship of jihadis were ostensibly confirmed when the mullah refused to surrender Bin Laden and his cronies to America. But observers failed to understand the basic tenets of hospitality in Islam. To betray a guest is considered a serious sin by Muslims no matter the issue at hand, but the White House saw this as tacit support for the tragic events of 11 September 2001. The scant information we have about the internal disputes of the Taliban immediately after 9/11 provides limited insight into the relationship between Bin Laden and Omar, but as he rode into the night on the back of his brother-in-law’s bike, abandoning his emirate palace, executive power and control of his country, Omar must have felt a degree of resentment. We know that the news of 9/11 was greeted with adulation by many former members of the mujahideen and so for Omar to have taken issue with the attack would have undermined his political interests at home.
The first American operatives deployed in Afghanistan were tasked with the locating and capturing or killing of Bin Laden, Al-Zawahiri and Omar. It quickly became apparent that much of Al-Qaeda had retreated across the border to Pakistan, where, 10 years later, they eventually found the evil mastermind of 9/11 hiding. Analysts were generally convinced that Omar, like Bin Laden, had been spirited over the border and was living under the protection of the ISI. However, according to Omar’s followers, he lived quietly in a traditional Afghan hut, a short walk away from a US military base, until he succumbed to a lack of treatment for tuberculosis in 2013.
In reviewing the life of this secretive and shadowy director of the Taliban, we are confined to hearsay, folklore and an interpretation of his actions. Despite his modest origins and apparently basic grasp of statecraft, Omar changed the course of Afghan history forever. His son is now tipped as a potential leader of the group his father created and has acted as military chief for the organisation since his father’s death.
Like an inscrutable antagonist in a John Buchan novel, Omar expertly used the staging of religious ceremonies to achieve political power. His inability to control forces under his jurisdiction ensured his country’s descent into chaos, but his legacy once again looms large and will likely exert a profound influence on Taliban policymakers for years to come. As the anniversary of his escape fast approaches, the symmetry of events is striking. What awaits Afghanistan in the next stage of its saga is anyone’s guess. Nonetheless, an appreciation of his story, struggles and misadministration offers a deeper comprehension of the Taliban’s intentions today.