As in birth, it isn't clear when or where Mullah Mohammed Omar died. The founding leader of Afghanistan's Taliban, who presided over a brutal fundamentalist regime and gave sanctuary to the world's most wanted terrorist, was confirmed dead this week. But he may have died as long as two years ago, and we do not know if it was in a Pakistani city or an Afghan village.
The notoriously reclusive leader of a rag-tag army that stormed to power in Kabul in 1996 was born some time between 1959 and 1962. For much of his early life, he was a student who learned the Koran by rote. His father, Maulvi Ghulam Nabi Akhund, was an itinerant teacher who died when Omar was a child.
Omar came under the care of his paternal uncle. In the customs of his region in southern Afghanistan, the women and children of a deceased male relative were kept in the family, and Omar's uncle married his widowed mother. Omar spent the rest of his childhood in mosques learning the Koran. He and his fellow students were known as "taliban" – the Pashto plural for students.
It was the name they chose to keep when, using the southern city of Kandahar as a base, they fought their way to power, overthrowing the weak government there in 1996. To mark the occasion, Omar called for a relic from the days of early Islam that had made its way to Afghanistan: the Prophet Muhammad's cloak.
In one of the few occasions on which he made himself visible to large crowds, Omar waved the cloak in the air and swung it over his shoulder. The symbolism was striking. He saw himself as donning the prophet's mantle, and went on to declare himself "commander of the faithful" – a fanciful title that the leader of Isis, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, now proclaims for himself. The title "gave him badly needed legitimacy and a new mystique," wrote Ahmed Rashid in his book Taliban.
Long before the so-called Islamic State, the Taliban became notorious for the kind of brutal punishments that have become Isis's trademark. While they were markedly less ruthless, the Taliban packed Afghans into football stadiums and forced them to watch as punishments were handed out for alleged crimes against morality. There were amputations, stonings, executions.
Omar first came to global prominence with the destruction of the ancient Bamiyan Buddha statues of Afghanistan. It was an act of vandalism that has become depressingly familiar as Isis continues to destroy the vestiges of old civilisations across the Levant. "Allah will ask me, 'Omar, you have brought a superpower called the Soviet Union to its knees. You could not break two statues. And what would Mullah Omar reply?" Omar said, according to Time magazine.
But there was another reason why Omar had begun to attract hostile attention. Some months before the Taliban took power, Osama bin Laden took sanctuary in Afghanistan. After the 11 September attacks, Mullah Omar refused to hand him over. Prominent emissaries from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, two of the only three countries to have officially recognised the Taliban regime, were turned away empty-handed.
The Taliban leader insisted that tradition forbade him from handing over his guest. Omar maintained that he was a devout adherent of pashtunwali, a code of hospitality dear to the Pashtuns. It would be a violation of that tradition to surrender the al-Qaeda leader, he said. If bin Laden had committed a crime, he told his visitors, then he could be tried in Afghanistan before an Islamic court established by the Taliban.
It isn't clear whether Omar fully grasped the significance of the tragedies that had unfolded in New York and Washington, or the repercussions that were to follow in Afghanistan in a war that continues to this day. The researchers who have assiduously charted his life, spending years in Afghanistan's south and interviewing his companions, say that he was a plain man of little learning with no sophisticated ideas about the world.
"He would listen to everybody with focus and respect for as long as they needed to talk, and he would never seek to cut them off," wrote Abdul Salam Zaeef, who fought with Omar, in his memoir, My Life With the Taliban. "After he had listened he would answer with ordered, coherent thoughts."
Long before he came to prominence, Omar he had fought on the same side as the Americans. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 altered his life: the Russians came to try to prop up their communist allies in the ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan. It was an event mired in the Cold War, and the Soviet intervention mightily displeased both Washington and its ally, Pakistan, next door in Islamabad.
The Pakistanis would muster a group of armed jihadists. They would rouse tribesmen with claims that they were fighting nobly for Allah's cause. It was a point echoed by the administration of Jimmy Carter: in 1979, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security adviser, came to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to tell them as much.
"That land over there," Brzezinski said, gesturing across the Hindu Kush, "is yours… Your fight will prevail and you will have your homes, your mosques back again. Because your cause is right and God is on your side." It was a sentiment that Mullah Omar decided to live by, even as he fought against the same Americans who once funded the mujahideen.
During the war against the Soviets, Mullah Omar fought alongside other young men of lesser tribes from the south of Afghanistan. In one incident, shrapnel from the Soviets struck his face and took out his right eye. Later, he would sing a couplet mourning its loss.
His injury became one of the few ways people were able to identify Omar. There are only two photographs of him, extant, and no known video messages in which he appears. It is little wonder, then, that he found it easy to escape Afghanistan when the US invasion toppled his regime in late 2001. By some accounts, he was seen speeding eastwards on a motorcycle, destined for the Pakistani city of Quetta.
The means of transport was oddly appropriate. Hamid Karzai, who would succeed Omar as the ruler of Afghanistan, had arrived from the opposite direction, also borne by a motorbike. Karzai arrived in Afghanistan to claim his role in Afghan political life after years in Quetta. Local wags like to wonder if the two men passed each other on their respective two-wheeled journeys.
Many suspect that Omar stayed in a safe house in Karachi, under the supervision of the Pakistani intelligence services. Given his location, he played no role in military engagements and may have not been trusted to issue orders to the Taliban fighting in Afghanistan. He was seen chiefly as a spiritual guide.
The Pakistanis, meanwhile, had long been hedging their bets. They helped US and Nato forces topple the Taliban regime, but then maintained their influence with the Taliban in case the western war effort failed and they found themselves wanting to instal a "friendly" government in Kabul.
The Taliban will not return to sole power in Afghanistan, but some see their role in a national coalition as a route to breaking the stalemate there through peace talks with the government of the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani. The Pakistanis had been offering to lure the Taliban to the negotiating table.
After uncertainty about whether or not Omar had died, two high-ranking Taliban officials have confirmed his death and said the Taliban Shura, or Supreme Council, has chosen Mullah Akhtar Mansoor as his successor.
Some days ago, Mullah Omar issued a call supporting peace talks. That message, we now know, came from beyond the grave. And the revelation that he died in 2013 or thereabouts may have been an attempt to disrupt any talks. Without Omar at their helm, the Taliban will not remain united, and the movement may become even more splintered than it is at present.
Mohammed Omar Mujahid, religious leader, soldier and politician: born c. 1960; Head of the Supreme Council of Afghanistan 1996-2001; died Karachi, Pakistan c. April 2013.
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