Joseph Goldstein’s first two sentences in a New York Times story on Mullah Omar’s death read: “The Taliban, it turns out, had been sending the world messages from a dead man. And the world kept answering him.”
Amir ul-Momineen Mullah Omar Mujahid of Emirate Islamia Afghanistan has not been seen since he made his escape on a Honda motor cycle from Helmand in 2002. Even before that he was only rarely seen outside his inner circles. His presence was made known, at first through his edicts that were often scribbled on silk paper cigarette wrappings, and then through the website of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in the form of Eid greetings and other messages on commemorative days. The last of these greetings came on this Eid and contained overtures of peace towards the Afghan government, which President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan duly acknowledged and welcomed. But then the news broke through that Mullah Omar was in this world no more and hadn’t been so for a long while–by some reports, maybe little over two years. Rumors of his death had been circulating since late 2001 when he vanished from the scene. According to Goldstein, the last he was heard, by some of his commanders, was in 2008-09.
In any case, whenever and in whatever way he died, he is dead now; and that is the point all agree on ― a veritable death by consensus. It was confirmed by Hafiz Saeed offering a ghaibana namaz-e janaza (funeral prayer in absentia of a deceased body) in Lahore; a few days after the news of his death. By dint of it, they were to prove that the death was of recent date. Otherwise, a specter of lapsed prayer lurked over their exercise ― two years too late or maybe more. Whether it would have made any difference to the departed soul is entirely an inconsequential matter.
Commenting over Mullah Omar’s late official statements ― dead man sending messages ― a western diplomat said: “If you had never gotten confirmation that Mullah Omar had died, this would have gone on until he was 110.” Certainly, Mullah Omar’s death has some consequences, one of which is that his statements have ceased to be in circulation. But, by the same token one can affirm his death since those statements have not been forthcoming. That raises an interesting question: what does it take for Mullah Omar to be really dead? A corollary of this question is a prior question, for he must have been living prior to his death in order for us to ask: what was this living, or in what way was he living that in relation to it he is now dead?
Mullah Mohammad Omar Akhund had lived a rather unremarkable life prior to becoming the commander of the Taliban. Of humble origins, his poverty stricken family moved around for better living from Kandahar to Urozgan and then back to Kandahar to finally settle in a one room mud house in village Singesar, district Maiwand. He lost his one eye fighting the Russians during Afghan jihad, a cause for which he abandoned his studies in a seminary. More legend than substance, much of his life history is shrouded in mystery. It is not known, for instance, when he was born. In his first meeting with Rahimullah Yusufzai in February 1995, in Kandahar, he told him that he was probably 35 years of age (at that time).
This obscure background went in his favor when the Taliban movement was launched and he was chosen as their commander. Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef argued, “We should … find a leader who is not a prominent figure, who doesn’t have any standing as a commander and thus does not have any political relations from the past ….”1 What they sought was a new beginning, a clean slate. In a ceremony in Kandahar, Mullah Omar brought forth and raised Prophet’s cloak and sought allegiance of some 1500 religious leaders present there. He brought forth this cloak “for the first time since the reign of Ahmad Shah Abdali more than 250 years ago.” He didn’t wear it; only raised it to stand in its barka. This new beginning was a beginning in prophetic grace. He was now Amir ul-Momineen. In one account, Mullah Omar was visited by the Prophet Muhammad in a dream who revealed to him that he is the person to lead the country out of chaos. What he lacked otherwise, “the deep political or tribal base”, he tried to fill through legend, myth and charisma. In order to sustain it, he had to keep himself away from the public eye, to construct a halo around his persona. For the same reason, he decided to stay back in Kandahar, preferring its provincial congeniality over more demanding urbanity of the capital Kabul. Shrouded in obscurity and silence, he was able to rule 90 per cent of Afghanistan with iron-hold ― until the USA came hunting for Osama bin Laden.
Long after the fall of the Taliban, the legend survives: “They say the Taliban cleaned up this place [Kandahar] from vice; from dog-fighting and bird-fighting and sodomy.”
More mystery and legend follows Mullah Omar’s post-Taliban era life; the circumstances of which are only a matter of speculation with no conclusive proof of his whereabouts. When Quetta Shura was in the news, he was supposed to be leading the insurgents hiding somewhere in or around Quetta. When that premise of the ruling Taliban body lost traction, his whereabouts were shifted to Karachi. As late as December last year, Afghan officials were claiming Mullah Omar to be hiding in custody of Pakistan security forces in Karachi. His family was also thought to be residing there. What gave strength to such murmurings was Osama’s capture in Abbottabad compound (not in some unknown point in the tribal terrain). In Musharraf’s time many of the leading figures in terrorism were captured from big cities like Faisalabad and Rawalpindi. Supposedly, it was easier to live a life of oblivion in larger city than a small locale in the mountainous tribal area ― a consistent hunting ground of drones.
A McClatchy report traces Mullah Omar to be staying in Karachi from 2002 to 2005 as a Potato vendor. “He ceased all overt Taliban activity. He stopped trying to raise money or recruit new adherents. He even refused help from a support network operated by Pakistani militant groups allied with the Taliban, for fear [sic] informants would lead the Pakistani military intelligence services to his doorstep in Karachi’s downtown Lea Market”, the report claimed sourced from anonymous Pakistani intelligence officers and a former Taliban government minister. Unlike Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar’s avowed repugnance for being photographed must have worked to his advantage in camouflaging his identity in a crowd of similar faces ― the vast majority of traders in Lea area were of Mullah Omar’s Pashtun ethnicity. There are only three authentic photographs available of Mullah Omar in the public domain; the rest are fakes.
By the same report, he left Karachi for Afghanistan in 2005 when things started looking brighter for the Taliban again. But, he kept revisiting the city from time to time. It was in 2011 that he was believed to be seriously ill and under treatment in Agha Khan Hospital; evidence of which was shown by Leon Panetta, then CIA Director to President Zaradari, as of reports published in the USA at that time. The McClatchy report, however, stays silent on when and where he died. But from other Taliban insiders, it appears as if Mullah Omar stayed in Quetta until 2007-08 before moving to Karachi, and once in Karachi, they lost contact with him. Some thought he was under ISI house arrest and refusing to cooperate. By this theory, he died most probably in Karachi as some in Afghanistan believe. According to Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security spokesman, the Taliban leader “died suspiciously in a hospital in Karachi around April 2013.”
A May 2011 NYT news report noted that Afghanistan’s Tolo news channel had reported some three weeks after Osama’s capture that Omar was killed while being moved from Quetta to North Waziristan by former ISI head Gen Hamid Gul. The report had the ISI trying to push Mullah Omar outside of Pakistan because they were under pressure after Osama was found inside Pakistan. But, it proved out to be nothing more than a concoction; Hamid Gul simply laughed it off.
The most remarkable story of Mullah Omar’s life in hiding appeared in the Newsweek. Filed by Sami Yousafzai, the story claimed that Mullah Omar never left Afghanistan even for a moment and died there in Helmand province in 2013. The cause of death was unknown. As per the informer ― whom Sami claimed to be “extraordinarily well placed to know about the Mullah’s whereabouts” ― instead of leaving the country, “[Mullah Omar] altered his appearance as best he could and tried to blend in among his countrymen.” Again, not allowing to be photographed did help. All this time, a loyal lieutenant in Mullah Abdul Jabar, a native of Zabul and a governor of central Baghlan province during the Taliban rule, remained by his side as ‘his messenger and attendant.’ This was testified by one of Jabar’s relatives. As quoted by Sami Yousafzai, “the family friend says Jabar was the Taliban leader’s only link to the Quetta Shura, the group’s ruling council.” During this period, Mullah Omar communicated with the leadership through this personal courier, regrouping and gathering “a few loyal allies and even led them in occasional forays against the occupiers…. He was wounded slightly a couple of times, but never seriously injured.” In the event of his death or capture, Mullah Omar instructed Jabar to get word to Mullah Sheikh Abdul Hakim; a religious scholar, longtime friend and adviser of Omar based in Quetta. Upon Mullah Omar’s death, Sheikh Hakeem in consultation with Mullah Salam, another senior scholar and Omar’s friend, passed on Omar’s turban to Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, appointing him his successor as the new leader of the Taliban. The news of Omar’s death was kept secret to keep unity in the Taliban ranks as Obama was winding down his troops and the Taliban cadres didn’t have the same devotion for Akhtar Mansoor as they showed for Mullah Omar, their spiritual head from amongst the founders.
Amid reticence, speculation and rumor emerged the news from a splinter faction of the Taliban, Fidai Mahaz, on their website that Mullah Omar had been “martyred” as a result of a violent quarrel that took place between him and his associates Akhtar Mansoor and Gul Agha ― for objecting to their opening the talks with the Americans in Qatar. Moreover, as they claimed, the incident took place in July 2013, during the holy month of Ramadan; and he was buried in Zabul province. The group led by Mullah Najib Ullah has been in open rebellion against Akhtar Mansoor for the same reason i.e., willingness to talks. The opposing factions of Mansoor were backing Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of Mullah Omar, to lead the Taliban.
In order to quash rumours of infighting among the Taliban factions and that Mullah Omar was being killed by the gunfire of Akhtar Mansoor and co., in an audio release in September 2015, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob spoke of his father’s death thus: “I wanted to assure you that he died a natural death…. He had been sick for some time but his condition deteriorated. We made enquiries from the doctors; it seems he was suffering from HCV (Hepatitis C)…. He stayed in Afghanistan even after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. He died there and was laid to rest there.”
These are few of the stories of Mullah Omar’s post-Taliban era life and eventual death. Every story is single sourced without cross evidence to further corroborate. In the absence of that further evidence, they all appear fictional accounts and the possibility of more such clandestine accounts is not to be ruled out. If Mullah Omar was in hiding and not dead prior to them, he may still be in hiding and not dead? Or if he was dead, he may have been dead all along, long before them? So, how to identify that he is dead? Identification is not the same as certification. No, you need not worry!
A doctor can identify physically if he is dead or not; but for that to happen, we need to have Mullah Omar available corporeally. If that had been the case, why fret about this whole exercise? Life or death in the absence of the corporal body is the question before us. The evidence over his grave or funeral sighting is equally problematic for the same reason as of the above accounts ― singular and clandestine speculation. We are not aware of it either.
When Rahimullah Yusufzai was asked in a TV interview how he came to learn of Mullah Omar’s death, he had an interesting reply. He said he became suspicious when the Taliban published Mullah Omar’s autobiography. Why this need arose of an autobiography at that juncture? “Some asked if the Taliban was trying to assert Omar’s status as the Taliban’s amir ul momineen to counter the challenge posed to him in Afghanistan by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who claims to be the caliph of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.” In that autobiography, Mullah Omar appeared too philosophical and erudite beyond his ability that Rahimullah knew from his personal experience; spanning over many meetings and interviews before the fall of the Taliban. In his parleys with Mullah Omar, the Commander of the Faithful appeared to be shy and reluctant speech maker. When he met him for the first time and requested for an interview, Mullah Omar asked him to write down his questions and hand them over to Mullah Abdul Wakil Mutawakil, who would then ask Mullah Omar, since Mullah Sahib was not prepared to deal with Rahimullah Yusufzai face to face. That was the measure of his shyness in the early days. This suspicion of Rahimullah only gained credence by the Taliban’s constant denials of his death; but, when asked for the fresh audio or video of Mullah Omar to dispel the growing clamor around his death, they were found out. Later, his sources in the Taliban only confirmed his death. According to Rahimullah, he most probably died in Pakistan, but was taken to Afghanistan for burial.
So, an over-speech (beyond his station) supplemented by a non-speech turns out to be the juncture of Mullah Omar’s death ― following Rahimullah’s account. That leaves us only to find out: when was it first that Mullah Omar started appearing philosophical and erudite? And secondly, when was his last audio or video released?
Recently, reports emerged that Mullah Akhtar Mansoor has died of injuries sustained during infighting within the Taliban groups. The mere rebuttal by the Taliban couldn’t dispel the speculation of his inevitable demise ― once bitten twice shy after Mullah Omar. It took the release of a new audio message by him to prove that he is alive. By virtue of that message, he may live for the time being.
And what’s implicated in all this: the notion of human “finitude” or “infinity”? I leave it for Heidegger and Badiou to decide.
[I wanted to have this article presented earlier, closer to the time of Mullah Omar’s death; but have only been able to do so now, occasioned by Mullah Mansoor’s rumored death. For some of the insights, I am grateful to Sepoy.]———
- Abdul Salam Zaeef, My Life with the Taliban (London: Hurst, 2010), p. 63 [↩]