New Age Islam Edit Bureau
20 August 2015
• Mullah Omar: A Myth of Convenience
By Rakesh Sood
• Hamid Gul: Terror’s Godfather
By Bruce Riedel
• India and UAE: A Thali of Prospects
By Talmiz Ahmad
Mullah Omar: A Myth of Convenience
By Rakesh Sood
August 20, 2015
The dismantling of the Mullah Omar myth was expected to create some fragmentation in the Jihadi networks but the fracturing is proving to be messier than anticipated, as events in Afghanistan show, following the U.S. taking a back seat in the region
Mullah Omar, the reclusive head of the Afghan Taliban, was last seen in December 2001 when he escaped from Kandahar, Afghanistan, riding pillion on a motorcycle. Thereafter, he hid in Maiwand briefly before moving to Quetta in Pakistan. No sighting was reported subsequently. His last audio statement was issued in 2006. Two or three statements would issue in his name annually, normally around Eid or regarding a major development in Afghanistan. The last one, issued during Ramzan in mid-July, was significant as it supported, for the first time, the peace talks between the Afghan Government and Afghan Taliban representatives held on July 7, 2015, in Murree, Pakistan. The representatives of China and the United States also participated.
A fortnight later, reports of his death surfaced, first in Kabul and then corroborated in Pakistan and the U.S. Rumours about his ill health and death had been a regular occurrence since 2008 but were never substantiated. Even this time, his death remains shrouded in mystery and nobody has seen the body. It is widely believed that he had died in April 2013 in a hospital in Karachi and not somewhere in Afghanistan near his home town, as was first claimed.
The Making of A Myth
Omar emerged on the Afghan scene in 1994, leading the Taliban, to rid Kandahar of factional warlords and open up the road from Spin Boldak on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to Kandahar, and later, on to Herat. His military success surprised even his Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) sponsors. Thus began the exercise in myth-making. In 1996, Mullah Omar took on the title of Amir ul Mu’mineen (Commander of the Faithful) when he donned the cloak of the Prophet before a large assembly of Afghans in Kandahar. It enhanced his legitimacy to lead the jihad against the regime of Afghanistan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. The endorsement of his new title by the al-Qaeda, added to the myth. He remained notoriously camera shy and there are very few pictures of the one-eyed Mujahid even when he ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Details about his jihad against the Soviets have been sketchy. However, stories about his austere lifestyle, his habit of signing permits on scraps of paper and even empty cigarette packets, his fierce piety which led him to order the destruction of the centuries old Buddha statues in Bamiyan, his taking out his own eye when hit by shrapnel and bandaging it up — all added to the mythical persona.
A hagiographic account circulated on the Internet sometime ago maintains that he was born in 1960 in Khakrez district, belonged to the Hotaki tribe and that his family had moved to Uruzgan when Omar was five. A lack of specifics has helped embroider the myth, sustained by the fact that few people have had face-to-face dealings with him, particularly after 2001. His statements strongly opposed U.S. and foreign presence in Afghanistan, were critical of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, maintained ambivalence about the Taliban’s political office, based in Doha, Qatar, and declined to anoint a successor. All this coincided perfectly with the ISI agenda and Mullah Omar’s legend continued to thrive.
When Omar’s deputy, Mullah Baradar, responded to peace overtures from Mr. Karzai, the ISI staged an elaborate operation with the Central Intelligence Agency and put Baradar in jail in January 2010, from where he emerged a vegetable after three years. According to Mr. Karzai’s advisers, Baradar was working with Mullah Omar’s approval but the ISI had been kept out of the loop and his removal from the scene was intended to reassert the ISI’s control. Incidentally, Mullah Obaidullah, Baradar’s predecessor, had been picked up by the ISI in 2007 and died in jail after three years though the announcement was made only in 2012.
Both, Pakistan’s former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, and General Ashfaq Kayani, his successor as army chief, had a healthy dislike for Mr. Karzai’s Pashtun nationalism. Even though cracks were emerging within the Taliban as Mr. Karzai’s High Peace Council chaired by Mr. Rabbani continued to reach out to those willing to talk, episodic statements from Mullah Omar haunted the process and maintained a facade of Taliban unity. In December 2011, Rabbani was killed by a suicide bomber for which the Taliban claimed responsibility.
Keeping It Alive
A power struggle in the Taliban was underway since 2012 when Mullah Akhtar Mansour tried to oust Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir from his position of military commander but failed. Hardliners led by Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, were attracted by the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) which gradually occupied large swathes of territory in Iraq and then in Syria, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi establishing a caliphate and posing a direct challenge to Mullah Omar. Meanwhile, the emergence of regional Shuras like the Miranshah Shura led by Jalaluddin Haqqani’s son, Sirajuddin, and the Peshawar Shura led by Qari Baryal and Mullah Abdul Latif also weakened Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura.
The year 2014 marked a transition year in Afghanistan. The U.S. ended its combat role and President Ashraf Ghani took over from Mr. Karzai after a controversial election. In Pakistan, its Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb against elements of the Tehreek-i- Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Mr. Ghani needed to ensure stability and realised that it could only happen with the ISI’s cooperation. Hence the overtures to Pakistan — his much publicised call on Gen. Sharif at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi during his two-day official visit to Pakistan in November 2014, the withdrawal of the request for Indian military hardware, sending Afghan military officers for training, handing over of the TTP leader, Latifullah Mehsud, and a cooperation agreement between the intelligence agencies — in return for the ISI’s support for a peace process with the Taliban. Many in Kabul thought that Mr. Ghani was going too far but he knew that the dialogue with the Taliban was only symbolic; the real discussion was about establishing a cooperative relationship with the ISI.
Chinese backing for the process became evident when a round of secret talks was held between Afghan envoys and Taliban representatives in the north-western Chinese city of Urumqi (and facilitated by Pakistan) before the Murree meeting but there was no let-up in the Taliban offensive. Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who is close to the ISI, was managing the dialogue but it needed legitimacy. Hence the Ramzan endorsement attributed to Mullah Omar but it proved to be too much for those who were opposed to the talks and felt offended that Mullah Omar’s myth was being shamelessly exploited. Attacks in Afghanistan intensified as did leaks about Mullah Omar’s death. The myth was no longer useful and dismantling it had become necessary. The only way out was to acknowledge Mullah Omar’s death and get Mullah Mansour anointed the new leader. To support his leadership, he was provided with two deputies, Sirajuddin Haqqani, and a cleric, Maulvi Haibatullah Akhundzada. The al-Qaeda chief, Ayman Zawahiri, has backed Mansour and a statement surfaced conveying Jalaluddin Haqqani’s support though he is rumoured to have died in the Afghan province of Khost in late 2013.
Opposition to Mansour’s elevation crystallised around Omar’s 26-year-old son, Mullah Yaqoub, who is backed by his uncle, Mullah Abdul Manan, and Mansour’s old rival, Mullah Zakir. Last week, rumours emerged that Yaqoub had been killed. Tayab Agha, reportedly Omar’s son-in-law and head of the Doha office, has quit his position as he was sidelined from the new peace dialogue, whereas originally, it was the Doha office that had the mandate. Once again, the story goes that the ISI was finding it difficult to control the dialogue out of Doha. A splinter group, Fidai Mahaz, has alleged that Omar was poisoned in 2013 and holds Mansour and Mullah Gul Agha responsible.
And Unmaking It
Under the circumstances, the next round of talks with the Afghan authorities has been postponed even as Mansour tries to consolidate his support base with help from the ISI and the Haqqani group. Meanwhile, the IMU which was being targeted by the Pakistan Army has stepped up attacks in the Afghan districts of Kunduz, Badakhshan, Takhar, Badghis and Faryab, all bordering Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. A senior IMU leader, Saidullah Urgenji, has denounced Mansour and professed allegiance to the IS. The dismantling of the Mullah Omar myth was expected to create some fragmentation in the Jihadi networks but the fracturing is proving to be messier than anticipated.
Mr. Ghani was losing patience and had conveyed his unhappiness to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, questioning Pakistan’s commitment to the dialogue. In this communication, leaked in June, Mr. Ghani demanded that the Quetta Shura be put under house arrest, restrictions placed on the sale of fertilizer in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas region to prevent its diversion for bomb making, counter-terrorism operations extended against the Haqqani network, and condemnation of the Taliban spring offensive, etc. Mullah Omar’s endorsement of the dialogue was intended to help but had clearly backfired. Mr. Ghani’s outburst on August 10, 2015, wherein he said: “We hoped for peace but we are receiving messages of war from Pakistan”, reflects his mounting frustration and helplessness. Mr. Ghani knows his time frame is limited as U.S. commitment to keeping his shaky national-unity-government going may not last beyond 2016.
When he was alive, the myth of Mullah Omar was greater than the man. It served the ISI well and prevented Mr. Karzai from establishing a dialogue with the Taliban. Now the ISI needed the myth to bless the dialogue with the Afghan authorities. Finding that it was not working, it became necessary to return the man to his anonymous grave and unmake the myth. The dialogue has stalled. The U.S. had yielded the driver’s seat to Pakistan and no longer has the presence in the region to make a difference. It remains to be seen whether China will buy into the smoke and mirrors game as the ISI tries to help Mansour while keeping the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the IMU and parts of the TTP in its cross hairs. And Mr. Ghani’s disenchantment with Pakistan has just begun.
Rakesh Sood is a former diplomat who has served as Ambassador to Afghanistan.
Hamid Gul: Terror’s Godfather
By Bruce Riedel
Aug 20, 2015
Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, who passed away on August 15, was the epitome of a Pakistan army officer who became an advocate and supporter of the global jihad. His legacy is an army that remains both a patron and a victim of terror. South Asia and the world are more dangerous thanks to his years of duplicity and violence.
Gul died at the age of 78 in Murree. He joined the Pakistan army in 1956 and fought in the 1965 and 1971 wars with India as a tank commander. He became a protege of General Zia-ul-Haq and succeeded his patron as commander of the powerful First Armoured Division in 1980 after Zia had seized power in a coup.
Zia gave Gul command of the ISI in March 1987, replacing General Akhtar Abdur Rahman. Akhtar had devised the strategy of supporting the Mujahideen in Afghanistan that bogged the Soviet Union’s 40th Red Army down in a quagmire. Zia and Akhtar trained, equipped and led the Afghans while securing the support of the United States and Saudi Arabia to fund the war. China provided the bulk of the weapons. It was a careful strategy, devised to keep the pot simmering in Afghanistan, not to let it boil over and provoke a Soviet attack on Pakistan. By 1987, the Russians were losing in Afghanistan and preparing to withdraw in defeat. Zia and Akhtar died in a mysterious airplane crash just as victory seemed close.
Gul pushed a new strategy once the Russians left in early 1989. The Mujahideen would transition from guerrilla warfare to conventional warfare. They would take on the Afghan communist army the Soviets had left behind in Kabul and other cities for a decisive final offensive. Gul told Pakistan’s young Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, that the war would be over in a few months and Pakistan would install a puppet government in Kabul. Victory was in sight, it seemed. The US Central Intelligence Agency was equally certain of victory.
In early 1989, the ISI commanded the Mujahideen to lay siege to Jalalabad. It was a disastrous mistake. Moscow poured weapons into the battlefield and the communist Afghans held their ground. The Mujahideen were slaughtered and turned to infighting. Instead of a decisive victory, the ISI was stalemated. Benazir sacked Gul. Gul blamed the Americans, claiming that they had somehow betrayed the cause.
As director general of the ISI, Gul also devoted major resources to the India front, as Zia wanted. The ISI trained Muslim and Sikh terrorists. Gul was a godfather for the creation of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and a close associate of Hafiz Saeed. The jihad grew stronger on two fronts, east and west.
After leaving the army in 1991-92, Gul became an apologist for jihadist terrorism. He met with Osama bin Laden (who had worked closely with the ISI in the war against the Soviets) and became an ardent supporter of al-Qaeda. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, he initially blamed the attacks on the US on an inside job conducted by the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. When the US Navy Seals found bin Laden hiding in the frontyard of the Pakistan Military Academy on Kakul road in Abbottabad, Gul claimed he had really been killed in Afghanistan. The US reportedly asked the United Nations to label him a supporter of terror but the Chinese, the Pakistan army’s protector, vetoed it.
Gul also pursued a vendetta against Benazir. He helped orchestrate her removal from the prime minister’s office in 1990. She accused him of supporting assassination plots against her. He gloated at her death, for which al-Qaeda claimed credit.
The Zia era transformed Pakistan into a factory for jihad. The army itself became a state within the state committed to patronship of jihadist causes. And Gul was a central figure in that project.
Today, the ISI remains a major patron of terror. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani accused it this month of running bomb factories and training camps for the Afghan Taliban — another favourite of Gul — to terrorise Kabul and other Afghan cities. The ISI suppressed news of the death of Taliban founder Mullah Omar in a Karachi hospital for two years in order to manipulate the Afghan insurgency behind the scenes, much like the wizard of Oz. The LeT remains another major beneficiary of the ISI and army generals. It attacked India’s consulate in Herat, Afghanistan, just over a year ago.
At the same time, some of the Jihadis have turned on their patrons. A year ago, bin Laden’s al-Qaeda attempted its most audacious terror plot in over a decade — an attempt to hijack a Chinese-built Pakistan navy frigate named the Zulfiqar. The plan was to seize the frigate with al-Qaeda recruited members of the Pakistan navy, take the ship into the Arabian Sea and attack an American aircraft carrier or other suitable target.
The goal was to spark a war between the US and Pakistan, a history-changing terror attack even bigger than 9/11. Bold and dangerous, it was a vintage al-Qaeda plot, truly worthy of bin Laden’s disciples. Thankfully it was foiled.
Gul failed the Mujahideen at Jalalabad, and the result was the war without end in Afghanistan. Inevitably, it has spilled over into Pakistan, bringing decades of terror and violence. But the army he was a product of continues to play both sides of the war on terror.
Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, retired from the CIA in 2006 and is author, among others, of ‘What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-1989’.
India and UAE: A Thali of Prospects
By Talmiz Ahmad
Aug 20, 2015
The Prime Minister’s recent visit to the United Arab Emirates had many firsts: it was the first visit of an Indian Prime Minister to the UAE in 34 years; the first occasion when such a high-level visit was organised in just 10 days; the first time an Indian leader met his nationals at a labour camp; the first time an Indian leader took a “selfie” with his accompanying ministers during the official visit; and the first speech by an Indian Prime Minister to the Indian community at a cricket stadium.
Besides these “firsts”, the visit was historic in several other ways as well: in almost all the curtain-raisers before the Prime Minister’s arrival there were references to the fact that this was Mr Modi’s first visit to an Arab capital. Mr Modi is, of course, being watched very closely by the media for indications whether his Hindutva credentials are getting diluted or re-affirmed. Hence, his visit to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque evoked special attention.
In the event, Mr Modi got everything right, and the UAE leaders responded with extraordinary enthusiasm as well. Thus, the visit became a celebration of India and UAE’s historic ties, stressed the central importance of the Indian community’s role in the region’s development, and laid the foundations for a significant enhancement of political and economic relations in coming years. At the outset itself Mr Modi set the right note: at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the Prime Minister wrote in the visitors’ book that the mosque is “the symbol of peace, piety, harmony and inclusiveness that are inherent in the faith of Islam”.
To business persons, Mr Modi presented India as a land of opportunity, not just idle talk, but backed up by specific projects valued at around $1 trillion. While his lunch on day one was with the political head of the Abu Dhabi emirate, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, also the crown prince, his dinner was with the sheikh’s younger brother, Sheikh Hamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the chairman of the country’s sovereign fund, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA). Valued at around $800 billion, it is perhaps the second-largest sovereign fund in the world.
The dinner went beyond dollars and cents: India’s celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor prepared a Gujarati meal, described as a “royal Gujarati thali” that had great delicacies, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, from the Prime Minister’s home state, a wonderfully sensitive touch by the host. Enthused by this great food, the Emirati royals did their best to prepare the basis for bilateral ties to scale new heights: in a dramatic gesture, they agreed to set up with India a joint fund valued at a staggering $75 billion to build railways, ports, roads and various other national development projects. This is not only a robust vote of confidence in India’s political and economic prospects, it also makes the UAE a long-term partner in this national endeavour.
Of course, the UAE officials and business persons did not mince words in conveying their unhappiness with several aspects of India’s economic policies, particularly its regulations and the unfriendly business environment, a clear reference to several UAE projects in the areas of ports, real estate, industry and telecommunications that have fallen foul of our rules, with their failure having soured ties in the past.
In the political area too there was considerable meeting of minds: the Abu Dhabi crown prince noted the two countries’ “common vision” on a number of regional and global issues and their shared commitment to “tolerance, co-existence, fostering understanding, dialogue and openness to other cultures”. In the joint statement issued at the end of the visit, the two leaders strongly rejected extremism and the use of religion to justify terror. More importantly, they were equally sharp in their criticism of states that sponsored terror in the name of religion, and called on them to dismantle terror structures on their soil.
Prime Minister Modi’s address to the Indian community at the cricket stadium in Dubai replicated his public engagements with the Indian diaspora in New York and Sydney, but the difference in Dubai was that here he was speaking to Indian nationals, people whose interests are firmly anchored in India, who follow Indian affairs very closely and, indeed, whose well-being is directly affected by policy decisions taken in India. Mr Modi is thus their Prime Minister in the truest sense.
And Mr Modi did not let them down: he celebrated India’s ties with the UAE and paid fulsome tribute to its leaders, briefed his community about their country’s recent initiatives at home and in the region, delighted them with his references to “new-look” India, recognised the major presence of Keralites in the Gulf by saying a few words in Malayalam, and was inspirational about India’s prospects and its global profile.
India’s ties with the UAE have peaked in terms of energy and economic cooperation and the presence of the Indian community: the country is the fourth largest source of oil to India, is its major trade partner, and is home to an Indian community of about three million. With this visit, the ground has been prepared to take India-UAE relations to the level of a strategic partnership that includes enhanced economic ties in the shape of investments and joint ventures and also has political, security, defence and intelligence components.
Every one of these aspects is reflected in the pronouncements of the leaders on both sides and in the documents they have concluded. But it will require tremendous effort, stamina and consistent application on both sides to realise the vision and programmes that have been agreed to. The real hard work to reap the benefits of the visit has just begun.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former ambassador to the UAE