Rise and fall of village cleric who fought 'criminals and traitors'

War on terrorism
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The Independent Online

The surrender of Kandahar by Mullah Mohammed Omar may, as far as the West is concerned, mark the end of militant Islam in Afghanistan.

His own rise and fall, from village cleric to ruler of the world's most obscurantist state and back to his mud-walled home, took only five years. Reluctant at first, later tinged with a country boy's ambition, it tells in miniature the story of the rise and fall of the world's most implacable Islamic movement.

Was Mullah Omar the protector of Osama bin Laden, his Muslim brother in a Muslim land, as he claimed? Or did the well-educated Mr bin Laden broaden the international perspective of the humble priest from Noudi, suggesting to him that the corruption which Omar fought in Afghanistan existed in – and was the fault of – the Western world, which had supported and then blithely abandoned the mujahedin once the war against the Soviet Union was over?

Journalists like to talk about Mullah Omar as a "shadowy", "secretive" figure, but much is known about the Taliban's spiritual leader.

Far from being a messianic, arrogant preacher, Mullah Omar remains a revered figure among the Pashtuns, not just for his piety but for the courage he showed as he grew up among the dirt and poverty of Kandahar province, working as both a schoolteacher and anti-Soviet partisan.

He lost his eye in battle against the Soviet army but went on to fight the Najibullah communist regime that took over Afghanistan after the Russians retreated. As a guerrilla in the ranks of Younis Khalis' brigade of the Hizb al Islam (the Islamic Party), he was wounded four times.

Mohammed Omar was born in 1959 in the tiny village of Noudi, near Kandahar, the son of a poor farmer of the Pashtun Houtak tribe who died after the family moved to Tarinket, in the province of Arouzagan, leaving Omar, still a boy, to care for his relatives.

He did so by starting a small school near the mosque at Sangasar where he also preached. He never completed his studies, remaining a mullah rather than amawlawi – one who has graduated from a religious college.

Around him, Afghanistan was disintegrating into anarchy, Pashtuns and Tajiks and Uzbeks and Hazaras fighting each other as the Northern Alliance – our "allies" in our "war for civilisation" today – raped and pillaged Kabul. Mullah Omar called them, "a criminal and treacherous group who sold themselves and their country to foreign colonialists''. He would say the same today.

The murder and rape of women – and boys – in Kandahar enraged the young cleric. The opium trade had corrupted the city.

The first incident in which he became actively involved, the crucible in the foundation of the Taliban, followed the kidnap of two teenage girls who had their heads shaved and were then gang-raped in the barracks of a local militia leader. With 30 of his students and just 16 rifles, he rescued the girls and hanged one of the rapists from a tank.

His fame spread, especially among the Pakistani religious schools of Mawlana Fadlurahman, who led the Jamiyat Ullama Islami (Congregation of Islamic Scholars) and who was an ally of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's Prime Minister at the time. In 1996, his Taliban membership grew by the day as provinces fell to the austere but law-enforcing young men – some only 14 years old – who followed the still-youthful 37-year-old cleric.

But he remained a shy, reclusive man, reportedly spending hours in contemplation on his prayer mat, a cleric who initially appeared to be a social reformer but who – once the Taliban had captured most of Afghanistan – adopted an extreme version of the Hanafi Sunni religious sect, believing the duty of a Muslim was to create the ideal society that supposedly existed under the Prophet. Amusement, the social role of women, distraction and leisure were all to be erased. A literal interpretation of Islam, which laid down that a man's beard must be the length of two fists, suddenly dominated Afghanistan. Rather than plan a future for the country – the economic rebuilding of the world's most bombed nation with its 20 million mines, its wrecked roads, bridges and dams – he regarded individual and group morality as the focus of human society.

Hence the Department for the Suppression of Vice and Promotion of Virtue was busier than the ministries of economy or defence. Punishment was an educative process – and a brutal one.

No one is certain how the relationship between Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden developed. Mr bin Laden's arrival followed shortly after the Taliban's 1996 victory and, in the years that followed, the Taliban's political statements, such as they were, became increasingly anti-Western and anti-American.

Mr bin Laden's "War against Crusaders and Jews'' may not have been encouraged by Mullah Omar, but his desire to bring down the "treacherous Muslims'' running the pro-American regimes of the Gulf must have seemed uncannily similar to Mullah Omar's earlier campaign against the "criminal and treacherous group'' of Afghans who were the Taliban's original enemy.

Now that "treacherous" group is at the gates of Kandahar, how true his claim that they had sold themselves to "foreign colonialists" must seem to Mullah Omar today. Back on 24 September, he announced that handing over Mr bin Laden "would mean we were no longer Muslims and that Islam was finished".

Now Mullah Omar is reported to be in the city he made great, but his Taliban appears almost finished. Unless, of course, he decides to keep his word and fight to the end, "to the last breath'', as he put it, against the Americans and the "traitors'' of the Northern Alliance.