05.26.11

Mullah Omar, Where Are You?

Rumors of the Taliban leader’s death were transparently false, but they shook up his Afghan insurgent followers. That was probably the point. Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau on why Omar needs to break his long silence—and why America needs him alive.

From the start, the rumors planted by Kabul’s intelligence agency sounded dubious, at best. All the same, the story proved to be a potent propaganda tool. As soon as an Afghan television station, citing unnamed Directorate of National Security sources, reported that Mullah Mohammad Omar had been shot and killed, the news spread like wildfire, even among the ranks of the Afghan Taliban. The shooting had supposedly occurred as Pakistani intelligence officers were trying to spirit the Afghan insurgent leader from a hideout in the Pakistani border town of Quetta to a new location in the lawless wilds of North Waziristan. But after U.S., NATO, and Western diplomatic sources expressed skepticism, the Afghan intelligence agency quickly retreated from its initial version, saying instead that Omar had “disappeared” from his refuge in Quetta.

That so-called clarification made no difference. Like all effective black propaganda, the story had taken on a life of its own. The insurgency’s one-eyed, reclusive supreme leader had not been seen in public since he fled into the mountains on a motorcycle as his Taliban regime was collapsing in November 2001. Now his fate was clearly in doubt. And by extension, so was the Taliban’s long struggle to restore him to power. Even hard-core insurgent commanders and fighters were confused and worried, according to Taliban sources. One Taliban intelligence officer, unwilling to be named for security reasons, says the reports sparked off a flurry of phone calls among commanders, each asking the other if he had heard anything definitive about the safety the “commander of the faithful,” as they call him.

There was good reason for their turmoil, no matter how flimsy the tale was that touched it off: for the past decade, very few commanders—and even fewer fighters—have had any proof that Omar is alive. While some commanders say they have heard audiocassettes purporting to be recordings of Omar’s voice, they never seem able to produce those recordings or any other evidence to back up their claims. As a result, the reports of his death or disappearance only added to the doubts that many Taliban have privately harbored for years about their leaders’ health and whereabouts. According to one Taliban logistics officer, who is close to senior insurgent commanders, the group’s field officers are desperate to hear from Omar in order to assuage their concerns. “It’s a big puzzle why he doesn’t send us his voice,” says the Taliban officer. “Everyone is thirsty for his voice.”

No matter how far underground the Taliban leader may have gone, Mullah Omar would have to be painfully aware of his followers’ need to hear a statement from him in his own voice. Indeed, that may have been what Afghan intelligence intended: to provoke a move that might somehow reveal his whereabouts to them and the Americans. “Maybe the purpose was to force him to emerge from hiding or to give an audio statement,” says Pakistani journalist and Taliban expert Rahimullah Yusufzai, who met and interviewed Mullah Omar several times while he was in power. “They hope to get some evidence as to where he is.”

“It’s a big puzzle why [Mullah Omar] doesn’t send us his voice,” says one Taliban logistics officer. “Everyone is thirsty for his voice.”

Yusufzai says he thinks that Omar is alive and is living somewhere in Pakistan, most probably in a city, just as Osama bin Laden was. He also thinks that it’s clear that Omar needs to make an audio statement—at least to his senior commanders, if not to his fighters and the Afghan populace. “Many of his commanders in the field are becoming a bit worried about his fate,” Yusufzai says. “For the sake of his own movement and people, he needs to give a statement in his own voice to reassure them that he is alive and is in charge.”

Taliban commanders and fighters regard Omar as the key to the insurgency. His death, they say, would be a disaster. They say he is their “spiritual symbol,” and the one who has justified and ordered their jihad. Without him, the religious rationale for the fight would largely vanish, and the insurgency could shatter into a chaotic mess of warring factions. “Mullah Omar is the link that keeps the Taliban united,” says the Taliban logistics officer. “If he is killed, the movement would split into groups fighting along tribal, regional, and ethnic lines.”

But his central role in the Taliban’s war effort makes him similarly essential to any possible peace deal. “If [America] is sincere in reaching a political solution, it needs to reach it with someone strong and powerful, like Mullah Omar,” says Yusufzai. “Otherwise it won’t work. If Mullah Omar is out of the way, the Taliban could not field another strong personality, and the movement would likely split apart.” The fear is that Afghanistan could plunge back into the anarchy that preceded the Taliban’s rise, with the country’s warlords running amok.

Pakistani author and Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid says that’s why the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate can agree on one thing: neither of them wants Mullah Omar dead. Yusufzai agrees. He believes it makes sense for the CIA to leave the Taliban leader alone and concentrate instead on hunting down senior Qaeda leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri and Saif Al-Adel. “I’m sure they’d rather get Zawahiri and Al-Adel, and not Mullah Omar,” says Yusufzai. That would leave at least some chance that America and its coalition allies could withdraw from a relatively stable Afghanistan.

Despite the Taliban’s persistent denials that any peace talks are taking place, there are some straws in the wind. The German magazine Der Spiegel reported this week that U.S. officials have been holding secret talks through German mediators somewhere in the Gulf with Mullah Omar’s former private secretary, Tayyab Agha, who now heads the Quetta Shura’s political council. The Daily Beast’s Taliban sources could not confirm the story, but they say “something” seems to be going on. The sources add that if Agha is indeed holding preliminary talks, they still don’t know for sure that he’s speaking for Mullah Omar and the Taliban’s insurgent allies, the Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. “He may be out there on his own,” says the well-connected Taliban logistics officer. Even so, the peace feelers would be a positive sign. Now if only we could hear from Mullah Omar.

Ron Moreau is NEWSWEEK ’s Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent and has been covering the region for the magazine the past 10 years. Since he first joined NEWSWEEK during the Vietnam War, he has reported extensively from Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

Sami Yousafzai is NEWSWEEK 's correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he has covered militancy, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban for the magazine since 9/11. He was born in Afghanistan but moved to Pakistan with his family after the Russian invasion in 1979. He began his career as a sports journalist but switched to war reporting in 1997.