So, after years of speculation about his whereabouts, the Taliban have confirmed that their founder and leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, is dead. In fact, he’s been dead for a while; apparently he died in April of 2013 in a Pakistani hospital and he was buried just across the border inside Afghanistan. Before that, he hadn’t actually been seen since the Taliban were ejected from power in late 2001. Since then, he’s been in hiding acting as “spiritual leader” and exercising an unknown amount of influence over the organization. Meanwhile, real operational leadership seemed to be exercised by a succession of more visible figures including Dadullah Lang and, increasingly, the Haqqani Network. So, does his death actually make much difference?
In terms of sending a message, yes it does. It was Omar who led the Taliban in the late 1990s as they seized control of 90% of Afghanistan. It was Omar who ordered the oppression of women, the prohibitions on music, dancing and kite-flying, the destruction of the famous Bamiyan Buddhas. It was Omar who gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and, by refusing to hand him over after 9/11, brought down the vengeance of the United States on his barbaric regime. Omar was a former mujahideen who fought against the Soviets and then returned to his village, blinded in one eye by Russian shrapnel, to found a private religious school.
In 1994, Omar grew tired of the factional fighting between the seven leading commanders of the mujahideen and decided to launch his own campaign to impose stability, or at least his extremist idea of it. Starting with less than fifty armed students from local religious schools – young men brainwashed into fundamentalism from a young age – he began imposing strict Islamic law on the surrounding area and fighting anyone who tried to stop him. As news spread, more recruits trickled, and then flooded in, from the religious schools. The Pashto word for “student” is talib, so the movement soon became known as the Taliban. By the end of the year, Omar controlled the whole of his native Kandahar Province. In September 1995, Herat – stable, wealthy, ethnically Tajik and culturally closer to Iran than to the oppressive religiosity of Kandahar – fell. In September 1996, Omar’s growing army captured Kabul. By October 1997, the country had been renamed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and Omar controlled almost all of it; only a small pocket in the north remained free, where veteran warlord Mohammed Shah Masood’s well-trained soldiers managed to hold back the Taliban.
Omar had achieved incredible things; he’d started with a platoon of amateurs and taken over a country, building his army as he went. He’d proclaimed the first strictly Islamic state in a thousand years. In many ways, he was a remarkable man – but that included being remarkably backwards, intolerant, murderous and fanatical. It was that fanaticism that led him to protect the world’s most wanted terrorist and he paid the price for it. Instead of spending years more in power, tightening the Taliban’s grip on Afghanistan, he spent the last twelve years of his life hunted and in hiding.
Meanwhile, the islamist threat – once personified by al Qaeda and the Taliban – has mutated into a new and even more hideous form. Even the fundamentalist cavemen of the Taliban think the Islamic State are extremist barbarians and it’s entirely possible that in the near future we’ll see Taliban commanders being strategically ignored by NATO as they fight ISIS’ attempts to spread into Afghanistan. The lesson we have to draw from this is that the enemy of our enemy very likely isn’t our friend, but is still potentially useful. The lesson Islamist extremists need to draw is different, but simpler: If you attack the West it might go well at first, but you’re not going to die peacefully in bed.
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