By Sandy Gall
30 July 2015
Mullah Mohammed Omar
Mullah Mohammed Omar’s rise from obscurity as a minor Mujahideen commander to leadership of the extremist Taliban movement was meteoric, even by Afghan standards. From 1994, when he emerged as a Robin Hood figure in the post-civil war chaos of Kandahar, until his death in 2013 aged about 53, he was the Taliban’s undisputed head. Its largely unrecognised Islamic emirate ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 until late 2001, after which Omar was not seen in public. Despite his symbolic importance to his followers, little was known of him in recent years, and his death has been announced only now.
A fanatic and recluse who hardly ever met outsiders and knew little of the world at large, he was perhaps best known as the man who gave asylum to the equally fanatical Saudi Arabian founder of al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden. And it was from the safe haven of Afghanistan that Bin Laden ordered the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001 that killed nearly 3,000 people.
The American retaliation, massive bombing, reinforced on the ground by US Special Forces and Afghanistan’s own Northern Alliance, brought about the collapse of the Taliban regime that November. Omar and his entourage fled to Quetta, over the border in Pakistan, where the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), the powerful intelligence wing of Pakistan’s army, gave them sanctuary and helped them to rebuild their organisation. In 2006, when Britain sent more than 3,000 troops to Helmand province to help reconstruct the shattered economy, they ran into a full-blown, Pakistan-backed insurgency. The ensuing battles between 3 Para, the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, and waves of Taliban fighters were said to have been more vicious than any since the Korean war.
Born in a village in Kandahar province – some reports say Nodeh, while in a website biography published three months ago, the Taliban said Chah-i-Himmat – Mohammed Omar was the eldest son of landless but pious peasants, Ghilzai Pashtuns of the Hotak tribe. His father, Maulvi Ghulam Nabi, died at an early age, leaving the young Omar as head of the family. He became a village mullah and ran his own madrasa, or religious school, when not fighting with Yunus Khalis’s Hisb-i-Islami Mujahideen party – first against the Soviets and later against the pro-Moscow Najibullah regime. He was wounded four times, losing his right eye when a rocket exploded beside him.
He would almost certainly have returned to obscurity after the collapse of the Najibullah government in 1992, had it not been for the breakdown of law and order in his home province of Kandahar. When, in early 1994, a local commander kidnapped and raped two teenage girls, Omar felt obliged to take action (or so the story goes). He recruited about 30 young religious students or Talibs, armed them and attacked the commander’s base, freeing the girls and hanging the commander from the barrel of his own tank gun. “We were fighting against Muslims who had gone wrong,” Omar said later. “How could we remain quiet when we could see crimes being committed against women and the poor?”
Omar and his Talib army went on to rout the region’s petty warlords and take control of Kandahar, almost without firing a shot. Neighbouring provinces soon fell almost as swiftly and bloodlessly. The Taliban, however, soon showed they could be ruthless. Their message was simple: lay down your arms and obey our orders, or suffer the consequences. Although the harsh enforcement of law and order was initially applauded, it became increasingly unpopular. The Taliban imposed draconian rules and regulations, all of which it claimed were sanctioned by the Qur’an. Girls’ schools were closed. Women were forced to wear the burqa, their vision restricted to a small, mesh-covered peephole, and were forbidden to go out to work or indeed to leave the house without being accompanied by a male relative.
These were the restrictive customs of Pashtun village life, but anathema to educated women, especially in Kabul. The Taliban banned television, music, dancing, and almost every other pastime, from kite-flying to cinema-going. Public executions, the stoning to death of women for adultery and the amputation of thieves’ hands became commonplace. The night of medieval obscurantism had descended on Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s first big success outside the Pashtun area came in 1995, when they captured Herat. Cultured, sophisticated and Farsi-speaking, the inhabitants of the ancient city did not take kindly to the Taliban. Soon after the victory in Herat, Omar turned his attention to Kabul. It was now clear he had ambitions to rule the whole country. For a year, his troops laid siege to Kabul without success. But in the late summer of 1996, in a blitzkrieg planned by the Pakistani army and financed by Saudi intelligence, who paid for a fleet of 400 new pickup trucks, the Taliban took the provincial capital of Jalalabad, and then the strategic crossroads of Sarobi. Hours later, they were at the gates of Kabul. The capital fell in September 1996.
Ahmed Shah Masud, the redoubtable Tajik guerrilla commander who had captured Kabul in 1992 after the Russian departure in 1989, made a strategic withdrawal to his base in the Panjsher valley, inflicting heavy casualties on the pursuing Taliban. Over the next five years, with little help from the US or other western countries, Masud’s Northern Alliance held out in the north-east while Omar’s forces conquered the rest of the north, massacring thousands of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. All pretence at restoring law and order with popular consent had long been abandoned. Then, two days before 9/11, still undefeated, Masud was assassinated by two Arab suicide bombers posing as television journalists, sent by Bin Laden.
Two other significant events took place in 1996. In a rare public appearance, Omar donned what was said to be the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad in Kandahar, and was proclaimed Amir ul-Momineen, Commander of the Faithful, making him the leader of all Muslims, a claim that many found presumptuous. The second was the arrival in Afghanistan of Bin Laden, who had been expelled from Sudan. In return for Omar’s hospitality, Bin Laden helped finance the Taliban, and encouraged Omar’s dream of creating a pure Islamic state. Knowingly or not, Omar had committed Afghanistan to becoming a terrorist haven and base for al-Qaida, which had virtual carte blanche to recruit and train terrorists on Afghan soil.
As the Taliban regime became increasingly unpopular internationally – it was denied a UN seat, and the Security Council imposed sanctions – it reacted in 2001 by intentionally destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two famous monumental sixth-century statues. Omar became even more remote and autocratic, repeatedly rejecting American demands for Bin Laden’s extradition, and declaring “America itself is the biggest terrorist in the world.”
Throughout the long-running insurgency against the US presence in Afghanistan, and convinced of ultimate victory, Omar consistently rejected peace talks – until early 2011. Then, apparently as a result of heavy losses stemming from the US president Barack Obama’s 30,000-troop “surge”, planned and executed by General David Petraeus, he agreed to negotiations for the first time, sending a close aide, Tayeb Agha, to meet senior American officials, while continuing to deny he was talking.
In the end, like so many fanatics before him, his extremism and inflexibility caused his country untold damage and its people incalculable suffering.
In late November 2014, against a background of increasing Taliban-inspired suicide bombings, both in Kabul and the rest of the country, reports began to circulate that Omar had died, and that his legacy was being disputed by three rival factions within the movement. According to the BBC’s former Kabul correspondent, David Loyn, the continuing failure to demonstrate that Omar was alive encouraged several senior Taliban commanders to defect to Islamic State.
The posting of the website biography in April may have been intended to counter the influence of Isis. Earlier this month another website text appeared, purporting to be from Omar and supporting peace talks with the Afghan government. However, a statement by a government spokesman that Omar had died more than two years ago in a hospital in Karachi was followed by news that the Taliban had chosen a new leader.
Omar had three wives and five children.
• Mohammed Omar, mullah and Taliban leader, born c 1960; died 2013