war on the rocks

Does Mullah Omar Still Matter?

April 13, 2015

On March 30, a group of Afghanistan-based fighters claiming to represent the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) announced their allegiance to the Islamic State.

The IMU is a vicious militant organization closely aligned with al-Qaeda, and it has often partnered operationally with the Taliban. The IMU’s ties to the Taliban go back to the pre-9/11 era, when the two groups enjoyed a particularly close relationship.

That these militants declared their loyalty to the Islamic State is not terribly surprising; a number of disaffected Taliban-allied jihadists have done so in recent months.

What was striking was the unusually explicit justification for their decision. They noted that Mullah Omar, the supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban and long a source of inspiration and authority for al-Qaeda-aligned militants, has not been seen for 13 years. Therefore, they no longer regard him as their leader.

In effect, Omar’s chronic absenteeism is prompting those who had sworn allegiance to him to start abandoning him.

Unseen and Unheard

If there is one thing that has characterized Mullah Omar in recent years, it is his radio silence.

He hasn’t merely been reclusive; he’s been downright invisible. One can understand his desire to be incognito in order to evade detection or capture. Still, his nearly total silence over the last year is particularly hard to understand, given all the major happenings in Afghanistan. The country has experienced an election, a new unity government, the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops, and improved relations with Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Islamic State, a key Taliban competitor, has formally announced its expansion into Afghanistan and appointed former top Taliban officials as its representatives in the country. They include Abdul Rauf Khadim, a former Afghan Taliban leader who once led an internal push for Omar to become less reclusive (Khadim was killed in February by a drone strike in Afghanistan).

And yet Mullah Omar has barely uttered a peep.

Last June, he issued a rare public statement celebrating the exchange of U.S. prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay. But that has been it. Predictably, his silence has prompted rumors that he is dead or incapacitated. Many Afghan and Western officials, however, believe he is very much alive. Long believed to be in Quetta, Pakistan, some Afghan authorities now think he is in the Pakistani city of Karachi.

To be sure, Omar has never sought the spotlight. Even during his pre-Taliban days as a young cleric, he refused to be filmed or photographed. His camera-shy ways helped him develop a mystique that enabled him to become a nearly mythologized figure—and to gain immense popularity within jihadist circles. Militants across South Asia and outside the region have long regarded him as the Amir-ul-Momineen, or “Commander of the Faithful.”

A Marginalized Mullah?

As highlighted by the IMU fighters’ recent announcement, however, Omar’s reclusiveness is increasingly working against him, particularly with many militants galvanized by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Baghdadi is somewhat reclusive himself; he has earned the nickname “the invisible sheikh.” The difference is that Baghdadi presides over an organization that has seized large amounts of territory in very little time and skillfully broadcasts its atrocities on social media. Omar’s Taliban, by contrast, is much less flashy and much more fractured.

Baghdadi, a self-declared caliph, is in competition with Omar, a self-declared emir, and with the Taliban’s ally, al-Qaeda, for the allegiances of global militants. In recent weeks, Baghdadi has gone on the offensive and dismissed Omar as a “fool” and an “illiterate warlord.” Not surprisingly, Omar has not countered with any trash talk of his own.

Additionally, Omar’s position within the Taliban movement, which he has run for nearly 20 years, may be growing tenuous. A top Taliban leader and the chief link to Omar, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, appears to be consolidating his power and eliminating potential competitors. Afghan intelligence officials have cited a case of Taliban fighters killing a leader close to one of Mansour’s rivals. Omar and Mansour are long-time allies and, according to Taliban commanders, Omar has given Mansour the authority to make decisions on his behalf. This could render Mansour even more powerful and conceivably put him in place to one day replace Omar. Omar’s authority is further imperiled by infighting within the Taliban, which according to some Afghan intelligence officials has grown so intense that the organization has split into three groups.

All of this raises a question that might have seemed absurd 15 years ago, when the one-eyed cleric’s theocracy reigned in Kabul: Could Omar’s invisibility, which once contributed to a veneer of invincibility, now doom him to irrelevancy?

Not Yet Down for the Count

For now, the answer is no. Even as some South Asian militants have thrown their support behind Baghdadi, most are still loyal to Omar. According to the SITE group (which tracks and translates the communications of Islamist militants), al-Qaeda supporters and their allies—including the Afghan Taliban—“expressed unanimous anger” following the Islamic State’s announcement of its formal expansion into Afghanistan. These militants, perceiving the Islamic State’s claim as a declaration of war against Omar, angrily took to Twitter. “How can we stand by and let this happen any longer?” demanded one, who claimed membership with the Syria-based, al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front. Others tweeted reaffirmations of allegiance to Omar.

Meanwhile, Omar’s traditional institutional bases of support—specifically, al-Qaeda and organizations aligned with it—remain intact. Last year, as the Islamic State boasted of ruling over a new “caliphate,” al-Qaeda formally renewed its allegiance to Omar. “Al Qaeda and its branches everywhere are soldiers among his soldiers,” according to a statement al-Qaeda published in a new institutional publication, Al-Nafir. To be sure, this declaration was intended more to undercut the Islamic State than to champion Mullah Omar. Nonetheless, it provided an important boost for Omar.

Furthermore, a significant faction of the Taliban continues to have Omar’s back. On April 5, the group released a new online “biography” of Omar. The document takes pains to emphasize that he is still very much in charge. Omar “is still the leader in the present hierarchy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” it declares, and “no major change and disruption has [sic] been observed in the routine works” of Omar “in following and organizing … Jihadi activities” as the Taliban’s leader.

Still a Relevant Radical

Admittedly, it is unclear whether these Taliban assurances about Omar’s authority represent the genuine truth, or are a public relations ploy meant to paper over internal disunion. More broadly, supposition and speculation aside, it is very difficult to know exactly how influential Omar remains within the Taliban and in the court of global jihadist opinion.

This much is clear, however: Mullah Omar still matters—especially in South Asia, where two important developments are playing out. Both are directly tied to stability, which is Washington’s chief interest in the region. And regardless of his fate, Mullah Omar will have an impact on each of them.

Development number one is the deepening influence of the Islamic State in South Asia. Omar’s continued silence could strengthen the group’s prospects in the region. More South Asia-based militants could renounce their loyalty to Omar and become full-fledged Islamic State members. Already, the Islamic State has appointed former top leaders of the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban as its representatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As I’ve written previously, other al-Qaeda-aligned militants—and not just Taliban fighters—could follow. Members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which like the Islamic State is rigidly sectarian, are among the most likely to take the leap. Some Pakistani security analysts believe it is already fighting for the Islamic State in the Middle East. However, these shifting allegiances could happen less frequently if Omar somehow reemerges or makes a comeback—or, for that matter, if he is removed from the scene altogether yet is replaced by a charismatic and powerful successor.

The second key trend is Kabul’s pursuit of reconciliation with the Taliban. As the group’s leader, Omar’s position on reconciliation carries much weight. If he opts to support reconciliation with Kabul, then he could raise the prospects for reconciliation considerably, while a refusal to pursue peace could doom them. Alternately, assume that Omar’s influence declines. This could make peace prospects more remote because he would presumably be unable to rein in hardline factions of the Taliban that reject peace. However, this could also enhance peace prospects: Taliban members frustrated about an unendingly absentee and increasingly irrelevant leader may lose the motivation to stay on the battlefield. Finally, another pro-peace outcome could emerge if Omar is removed from the scene altogether and is replaced by someone who wishes for peace talks, and is able to keep a lid on hardliners.

Washington’s Take

Late last year, U.S. officials suggested that American forces will no longer actively pursue Mullah Omar. They intimated that he no longer poses a direct threat to U.S. troops. Taken at face value, this reasoning suggests that Washington is simply not that concerned about him anymore (to be sure, a decision not to pursue him may also be rooted in a desire not to anger Pakistan, where Omar is likely based).

Then again, the U.S. decision not to go after Omar may be an indication that it still regards him as relevant and useful. Washington may conclude that any and all roads to peace talks in Afghanistan lead through him, and that apprehending or attacking him would be a strategic disaster.

Ultimately, however, the motivations behind Washington’s hand-off policy—just like so much about Mullah Omar himself—are shrouded in mystery.

 

Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org and on Twitter @michaelkugelman.

 

Photo credit: thierry ehrmann