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Mullah Omar: The enigma

Mullah Muhammad Omar, the reclusive leader of the Taliban, is the man responsible for singlehandedly sweeping over and conquering Afghanistan in less than 2 years.

world Updated: May 24, 2011 11:37 IST

Mullah Muhammad Omar, the reclusive leader of the Taliban, is the man responsible for single handedly sweeping over and conquering Afghanistan in less than 2 years.

Credited with raising the Taliban -- literal translation being students -- little is known about the man who was the Afghan head of state from 1996 to 2001, till the US war on terror and subsequent military action in Afghanistan forced him into hiding.

So much so, that there is no offical confirmation of even his birth date. He is supposed to have been born in 1959 in Nodeh, near the city of Kandahar, to a poor ethnic Pashtun family from the Hotak tribe. Almost no information exists about his early years, though he is known to have been an Islamic studies student at the Darul Uloom Haqqania madrassa.

He came to prominence during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, wherein he joined the Harakat-i Inqilab-i Islami faction of the anti-Soviet Mujahideen, under the command of Nek Mohammad. He is belived to have risen to the rank of commander and fought again between 1989 to 1992 against the Najibullah regime.

The rise of the Taliban beginning in 1994, with Mullah Omar at its helm, is a story shrouded in myth. While there are many versions that exist, the first strike giving a presentiment of what was to come is the case of a local warlord who kidnapped children for sex. As the legend goes, frustated with years of post war lawlessness, he decided to take action. Gathering a troop of old mujahideen buddies and students at the madrassa where he was supposedly a teacher, he attacked the warlord’s compound, freed the children, and executed the warlord, hanging him in public for all to see.

This public execution would later become a Taliban signature.

Spurred by the support he recieved for this incident, his movement gained momentum as recruits poured in from Islamic schools disgruntled by the the devastation of 30 years of being a cold war battleground, infighting amonsgt powerful warlords and a corrupt, inept government.

Backed by the Pakistani ISI -- who saw the popular support enjoyed by the Taliban -- by November 1994, the Taliban had taken over the whole of Kandahar, moving on to Herat, which fell in September 1995.

A year later, in 1996 he captured Kabul without a fight, as many Afghans welcomed the Taliban, believing it would mark an end to the civil wars.

What followed was the implementation of strict Islamist state unprecedented in modern history, causing many countries to balk at the prospect of recognising the legitimacy of the movement.

Making his stance clear, Omar once famoulsy stated, "All Taliban are moderate. There are two things: extremism ["ifraat", or doing something to excess] and conservatism ["tafreet", or doing something insufficiently]. So in that sense, we are all moderates – taking the middle path.

During his tenure as head of state, Omar seldom left Kandahar, met no journalists or outsiders, instead relying on foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil as the face of the Taliban.

Mullah Omar's support for bin Laden -- logistics, recruits, funding and hideouts -- drew the post 9/11 US led Nato to Afghanistan, forcing him to flee and hide. Till date there has not been an official sighting, though there have been at least four reports of his death, which were all retracted.

How does he operate?

Though the Taliban is splintered and made of many factions, all the Taliban acknowledge Mullah Omar as their supreme leader who wields control through the supreme leadership council, or the shura, a 22-member body which he leads.

Among those on the shura are leaders of powerful regional groups, close associates of Omar as well some relatively unknown figures. Some others in the past have put the strength of the shura at 10, indicating just how little is known about the top decision-making body.

Omar is the figurehead of the Quetta shura, which is considered the most powerful, directing the deadly insurgency in southern and western Afghanistan, ex-Taliban have said. The shura provides "much of the intellectual and ideological underpinning" of the insurgency in Afghanistan, according to retired US commander Lieutenant General David W. Barno.

Part of President Karzai's government?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has in the past offered Omar guaranteed safety in return for ending the Taliban's increasing violence. Today, he is seen as crucial to Karzai's peace plan, which includes negotiating and reconciling with some Taliban leaders.

Washington and NATO have reluctantly backed the talks.

Last year saw the worst violence since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, with record casualties on all sides. NATO is eyeing a full handover of security responsibilities to the Afghans by the end of 2014.

One of Kabul's requirements in the peace talks is the Taliban renounce all contact with al Qaeda. The Taliban have said they will not negotiate with Karzai while foreign forces -- currently numbering up to 150,000 -- are in Afghanistan.

Omar himself has repeatedly rejected the talks, saying they were an attempt to "throw dust in the eyes" of the Afghans.