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Mullah Omar Myth

The truth about the Taliban leader’s death will have far-reaching consequences for Afghan politics.By MICHAEL SEMPLE
Mullah Omar did not lead the Taliban’s insurgency against the Kabul government and its international backers. Indeed for many years, he has neither been involved in the movement’s decision-making nor been in communication with his lieutenants.

Until this week, however, the myth of Mullah Omar exercised a powerful magic over men at all levels of the movement which he helped found in 1994. Omar was depicted as being simultaneously saintly, steadfast, wise and divinely guided. The revelation that he is long dead deprives the Taliban of their most powerful talisman.

During their campaign to conquer Afghanistan during the 1990s, the Taliban adopted a doctrine of “obedience to the ameer,” which made following orders a religious duty. This device helped the movement maintain unity, and mobilize fighters for its long campaigns. As the Americans closed in on Kandahar in December 2001, Mullah Omar hitched a ride to the hills of his native Zabul province and was never seen in public again. After a brief interlude in 2002 and 2003, when it seemed that former Taliban might accept the new order in Kabul, the movement reorganized and launched a military campaign that continues to this day. Mullah Omar played a symbolic role, inspiring the Taliban for the struggle.

But until now the movement’s ostensible war aim has been to re-establish its Islamic Emirate as the government of Afghanistan, with Mullah Omar as the Ameer, something which Afghans now know is impossible.

Taliban propagandists did not just portray Omar as a spiritual figure. To the end, they claimed that he was actively involved, making appointments and issuing directives. They spun stories about couriers who carried these orders. A clique within the leadership consolidated its power by claiming to be able to communicate with Mullah Omar. The clique could ignore discussions in the leadership shura or even guidance from Pakistan authorities, insisting that “Mullah Sahib” would decide.

This was the Mullah Omar myth. To the attentive observer, the myth of an active Mullah Omar had long become implausible. The myth only survived in Taliban circles because it seemed to serve the interests of the vast majority of the movement. But as internal tensions grew in the leadership during 2015, the clique which had appropriated Mullah Omar alienated too many fellow Taliban.

It became inevitable that the myth would be challenged. What happened this week was that a handful of Taliban leadership figures and close relatives of Mullah Omar have told their associates that he died over two years ago. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has seized the moment by picking this up and has spoken in public the truth which the Taliban leadership hid for so long — that their Ameer is no more.

The development will have far-reaching consequences for Afghan politics. In the first place, the shattering of the Mullah Omar myth will embolden a dissident faction within the Taliban leadership. The dissidents have been at loggerheads with the movement’s acting leader over how to respond to Pakistani demands that the Taliban talk to the Kabul government. Safe from allegations of rebellion against the Ameer, the dissidents are now free to push ahead with negotiations and maybe even to put up their own candidate for the leadership.

The revelation of Mullah Omar’s fate constitutes an unprecedented threat to the unity of the Taliban. Hitherto, few Taliban dared challenge the leadership which acted in Omar’s name. Now powerful figures can air their grievances without fear of crossing Mullah Omar. Although the Taliban value the idea of unity of the movement, they will be seriously challenged to build broad support for a successor.

The movement’s political commission, which has operated from Qatar for the past four years, is left with its credibility undermined because of the peculiar way in which it invoked Mullah Omar’s name. That commission is left struggling to retain any meaningful role, as it is no longer clear who it represents. The political commission had stood aloof from the current talks in Pakistan. But now, unable to invoke the talisman of Mullah Omar, the Qatar team finds itself marginalized.

The death of Mullah Omar also impacts upon the politics of rival jihadi organizations. The faction which will cheer the loudest is the Islamic State.

ISIL followers in Afghanistan and Pakistan already accused the Taliban of waging an unlawful struggle because they lacked an Ameer. ISIL will now feel vindicated and try to recruit from the Taliban fighting forces. It remains to be seen just how much of a boost it receives as, even with Omar off the scene, there are significant barriers to its progress in Afghanistan. And in any case, ISIL’s gain is Al-Qaeda’s loss. In the tussle with ISIL over the past year, Ayman al-Zawahiri has continued to insist that he and Al-Qaeda are loyal to Mullah Omar. Zawahiri, too, will have to update his narrative. Moreover, none of the potential replacements for Omar has the kind of stature likely to persuade Al-Qaeda veterans to swear loyalty.

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The end of the Mullah Omar myth presages a change more profound than a mere change of leader. It provides an opportunity to mount a fundamental challenge to the Taliban narrative of the conflict. Religious motivation has played a vitally important role in persuading young men to join the Taliban ranks. As long as they served their rightly guided Ameer, Taliban could believe that they were engaged in a holy war and would thus be absolved of any guilt associated with killing their countrymen.

Now they learn that the leading clique of the movement has been engaged in an elaborate charade for years, pretending that orders came from Mullah Omar. As soon as you realise that Mullah Omar is dead you realize that Taliban official communications, including those targeted at the members of the movement, are riddled with lies.

Those who want to steward the movement away from conflict now have an opportunity to make Taliban confront the fact that they are engaged not in a religious war but in a power struggle. It is easier to build the case to end a power struggle than to compromise in a religious war. The demise of Mullah Omar removes a key obstacle to pragmatic politics within the Taliban.

There will be attempts, which for now focus on the talks process in Pakistan, to achieve a clean end to the Afghan conflict, with a negotiated ceasefire. Given the intensity of fighting during 2015, the fact that such a development can even be imagined is a sign of progress.

However, for many involved in the conflict, Mullah Omar’s Islamic Emirate has been a flag of convenience. They should be expected to defy any attempt by his successors to impose a ceasefire. Acknowledgement of Omar’s death is likely to hasten the shift to a multi-actor insurgency in Afghanistan. That would be a bitter reality for Afghans who hope for peace. But ultimately the Afghan government, with continuing international support, should be far more confident of ultimately prevailing over a fragmented insurgency than in a fight against a unified Taliban movement.

Quite apart from the implications for the course of the Afghan conflict, the manner in which Afghans and the world have come to know of Mullah Omar’s demise should raise serious questions about the role of the international media and indeed governments in helping to sustain the Mullah Omar myth.

For years, the Taliban’s propagandists were able to pass off statements in the name of Mullah Omar without having to produce a shred of evidence that Mullah Omar had anything to do with these rhetorical flourishes. It should also be remembered that the Taliban leadership used the Mullah Omar myth not to make peace but to prosecute the war. By giving credence to the fib that Mullah Omar was bunkered down somewhere and passing out orders, media and diplomats alike have helped the Taliban war effort.

Maybe we could hope for a bit more fact-checking in future coverage of clandestine movements.

The Mullah Omar myth
The truth about the Taliban leader’s death will have far-reaching consequences for Afghan politics.
By MICHAEL SEMPLE , visiting professor at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice, Queen’s University, Belfast.

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