Seeds of the future

A brief encounter with Taliban leader Mullah Omar, as divisive in death as in life

A longtime South Asia expert recalls a trip to Afghanistan in 1995.

Mullah Mohammad Omar, the spiritual leader of the Afghan Taliban, is no more. The disclosure that he died in 2013 has revealed a serious rift in Taliban ranks, which has been in the making for some time. Hopes for peace in Afghanistan had risen recently, as Taliban joined the latest round of reconciliation process being facilitated by Pakistan and China. Now peace in the war-torn nation hinges on whether the key Afghan insurgent group remains intact or falls apart in the days to come.

The reported division in the ranks of the Afghan Taliban is not unusual, as the fatigue of a long war often produces rival factions from within the same insurgent movement. In the case of the Taliban, the chasm is essentially between the old lot of leaders who have lived mostly outside Afghanistan since 2001 and are willing to reconcile, and a new generation of military commanders who have fought in the country during this period and are unwilling to abandon the armed struggle.

In a sense, the Afghan Taliban has indeed come of age since its rapid emergence on the battle scene over 20 years ago.

Back then, it was a unified movement led by a charismatic leader – a reclusive figure who had lost right eye in the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. In the wake of Afghan-infighting, he chose to run a madrassa in Kandahar. But in 1994, atrocities committed by rival commanders in the province compelled him to lead a group of 20 or so of his faithful madrassa students and take on these leaders. Later, he rescued a Pakistani trade convoy heading to Central Asia.

That is how the news about this new Afghan movement generated interest in Pakistani media at the time. I was then the correspondent with an English newspaper in Islamabad. In February 1995, the editor asked me to travel to Kandahar to report on who the Taliban were and what they wanted. So I took the flight to Quetta, hired a Taliban member named Ali to help me, and we both sat on a van that took us across the Chaman border.

Behind the curtain

Here is a glimpse into the Taliban movement in its infancy, which I reported extensively at the time, and my recollection of a chance meeting with Mullah Omar that is hard to forget:
“It’s the sacred month of Ramadan, the 17th of February, a Friday, when we cross the Chaman border. The only difference I notice between Pakistan and Afghanistan is when the van driver suddenly moves from right- to left-hand drive. Our first stopover is in a small Afghan border town of Spin Boldak, where we visit a makeshift Taliban compound. It is a place where rusty weaponry is spread around, and fresh reinforcements of Taliban from Afghan madrassas in Pakistan make first arrive en route to Kandahar and the battlefields beyond.

There I meet Mullah Khairullah, a Taliban Shoora member in his thirties and in-charge of three Afghan border districts, including Spin Boldak. He proudly claims that there is no shortage of manpower for the movement. With a pack of Pak rupees in hand, he tells me, ‘We live simple lives. Hundred rupees are enough for me for the week. So, money is also not an issue for us.’

We soon beg leave from him and resume our journey to Kandahar city. It’s about 4 in the afternoon when we reach there. Busloads of Taliban have already arrived, while others are on the way. They are graciously welcomed with loud calls of ‘Marhaba,’ Marhaba’ by a Talib with a megaphone in hand.

We head straight to Taliban headquarter, which was used as a Governor House before and perhaps still is – located close to the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Durrani and the Shrine of the Sacred Cloak, belonging to Prophet Muhammad.

It is a white, wide building with a spacious compound, and gates on the front boundary wall. As we enter the exit gate, I see a dozen or so people standing along the driveway, as if waiting for some important guests to arrive. My Taliban companion alerts me that Emir-ul-Azeem, as Mullah Omar was addressed then, is among them.

White uniforms
I look for the leader in the group, but they all look alike, clad in white shalwar-qameez and turban. It doesn’t take long to figure him out – as everyone else looks at him and pays close attention to what he says.

So, I ask Ali, my Taliban companion, to request his leader for a short interview, introducing me as a reporter from our sister Urdu newspaper, well known for conservative views.

The message is passed. Mullah Omar looks at me and murmurs in Pashto asking whether I am fasting or not. Ali translates this to me. As I make the ‘yes’ gesture, the Taliban leader says something in Pashto again, and the entire group bursts into laughter. Ali is quick to tell me why: ‘Amir-ul-Azeem says these Pakistanis always lie.’

The conversation stops there, and I also prefer to step aside. Soon the much-awaited convoy of guests arrives. Mullah Abdul Salam Rocketi and his brother – who was recently released from a Quetta prison in a prisoners exchange deal with Pakistani authorities – are greeted by Mullah Omar and his associates, as they come out of a Toyota Hilux fixed with two aircraft guns on the back.

Mullah Omar needed their support, as the Taliban attack on Ghazni was in full swing at that time. A former governor of Zabul province, Mullah Salam got the title of Rocketi for his expertise in firing rockets during the 80’s jihad. And he had brought along enough arsenal and fighters for the Ghazni campaign.

After brief conversation with him, Mullah Omar writes down war instructions on a paper foil taken out of a Silk Cut cigarette packet, which Mullah Rocketi then passes on to his commanders ready for the Ghazni battlefront.

Damp conversations
It rains heavily that evening. I take shelter inside the Taliban headquarter. After saying the long Traveeh prayers in the main hall, I sit with some Taliban Shoora members in one of the carpeted rooms. A fellow journalist Rahimullah Yousafzai also joins in. The discussion over several cups of Afghan kehva, with a candy in mouth, is mostly about whether to attack Kabul now or capture more Afghan provinces.  Every one among the Taliban seems to know Rahimullah, but he has still been unable to interview Mullah Omar. We both spend the night at a guesthouse of a German NGO offering medical services in the province.

In the afternoon, I manage to meet the young Maulvi Amir Muttaqi, who introduces himself as the Director of Television and Radio of Kandahar province and takes me to his small office in the Taliban headquarter. It has an old printing machine, with bundles of newsprint lying around. He explains the atrocious circumstances that led to Taliban’s rise, especially the reign of terror by rival Topkan (commanders) like Mansoor of communist Ismat Muslim Militia loyal to Kabul regime, ‘who kidnapped three girls, shaved their heads and sodomised them’.

Muttaqi tells me, ‘People love us in Kandahar and every other place under our control because we have brought peace and got rid of these Topkan. Now people are also approaching us for help from places as far away as Samangan, Badakhshan, Takhar, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jozgan and Farayab. ’

I ask him about Mullah Omar’s vision for Afghanistan: ‘To establish an Islamic Emirate based on the Sunni Hanafi code of Islamic jurisprudence. He is the only true leader who can bring peace to the country and enforce real Islam.’

The spirit of jihad
In the afternoon, I visit a couple of Taliban barracks, abuzz with sweet tunes of Pashto music and smelly fumes of hashish. But the spirit of jihad among hundreds of Taliban zealots is overwhelming.

I spend the remaining day moving around in the city bazar, filled mostly with products from Pakistan. Ordinary Afghans I meet in the marketplace seem to have taken a sigh of relief under Taliban. Traders are happy that they don’t have to pay road taxes at so many pickets on the highway manned by rival warlords. But there are no women around. The only place you see them in light blue shuttlecock burkas is at the Shrine of the Sacred Cloak – begging.

I have so many stories to report, but no means to communicate. So getting to Quetta becomes a priority. We leave Kandahar next morning, but get stuck at a hilly patch on the way due to heavy snow. Rahimullah takes out his camera, and we have a quick photo session before the journey resumes."

Mystery man

Rahimullah did travel to Kandahar again a couple of weeks after we left the city and manage to get the debut interview from Mullah Omar. Several more followed in subsequent years. But the camera he probably took during each trip couldn’t take a single shot of the Taliban leader.

Part of the reason why Mullah Omar remains a mystery figure is because he never allowed anyone to take his picture. Most of the photos that appeared in global media or released by American intelligence were fake. The only picture that seems to resemble him is the one taken from a distance where Mullah Omar is seen displaying the Sacred Cloak before a crowd of faithful followers.

As I reported at the time, the Afghan Taliban did restore peace in the provinces under their control. Their rise was a natural response to anarchic conditions in the province, and their military profile was surely on the rise – yet “long-term peace in Afghanistan was a distant dream”.

In subsequent months, the Taliban continued to make one military gain after another. Charasayab fell later in the year, Kabul in the following year, and with that began Taliban’s own five-year reign of terror in Afghanistan. Mullah Omar declared himself as Emir-ul-Momineen. Other Taliban leaders I met in Kandahar assumed important portfolios.

The Taliban’s vengeful and violent conduct in power was certainly in stark contrast to their claim to rise for the sake of peace and disarmament – with Afghanistan’s minorities paying the biggest price in the process. Surely sanctioned by the Emir-ul-Momineen, Taliban’s religious police from the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice played havoc with public life in Kabul and other places under their control.

While tales of atrocities during the Taliban rule are well documented, the fact that it was always a house divided between the moderates and the hardliners is little known.

A division presence

One major source of division was the presence of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Moderates who dealt with the outside world and understood the limits of Taliban power genuinely sought a compromise on the issue, but Mullah Omar would always veto them, citing Islamic tradition or Pashtunwali code.

The recalcitrant Mullah Omar would also not budge on the issue of Bamyan Buddha statutes – which were eventually destroyed, despite appeals from Pakistan, the biggest outside supporter of the Taliban role.

On the bin Laden issue, the Taliban leader had also snubbed Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal, when he travelled to Kandahar in June 1998. Some years ago, I had a chance to speak to him in Oxford. The former chief of Saudi intelligence, who had played a crucial role in the previous Afghan fight against Soviet occupation, was still upset and told me what happened:
“I had gone there with a sincere message that keeping the al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan was not in Taliban’s interest. Rather than listening to me with patience, Mullah Omar became so furious that he poured a bucket full of water on him and asked me to leave immediately. I felt so disgusted by his arrogance and ignorance.”

This very issue eventually cost the Taliban their rule. What was gained after months-long battles was lost in in a matter of days. Several of the Taliban leaders spent years in Guantanamo Bay prison.

Motorbike escape

Mullah Omar reportedly managed to flee on a Honda motorbike from a village hideout in Helmand province in January 2002, as the US-led assault on Afghanistan geared momentum in the southern provinces. Since then, there have only been speculative accounts about his possible places of abode in Pakistan or Afghanistan – as there are now about where he actually took his last breath over a decade later.

Even during these trying times, Mullah Omar’s symbolic leadership value remained a major factor in sustaining the Afghan Taliban’s insurgent struggle against Afghan, NATO and US forces. The disclosure of his death deprives the Taliban of their primary source of unity, and hence the current rifts in their ranks.

Mullah Mansour, the Kandahar airport commander-turned-aviation minister who acted as Mullah Omar’s deputy in recent years, has now taken over as Taliban’s new Emir-ul-Momineen. But his leadership faces serious challenge from hardliners in Taliban Shura and military commanders opposed to talks with Kabul, as well as from Mullah Omar’s family members, who are furious for being kept in the dark about his death.

Never before has the fate of Taliban been as uncertain as today. In the end though, their founding leader is proving as mysterious in death as he was in life. His reclusive life kept the Taliban movement going for over 20 years, but secretive death now threatens to rip this movement apart.

This isn’t surprising. For the Taliban tale since the start has anyway been about him and his Islamic vision for Afghanistan.

The writer is Pakistan fellow at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. His Twitter handle is @ahmadishtiaq.

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