Taliban Forces Desperate to Hear from Their Absent Leader, Mullah Omar
A group of Taliban leaders are challenging those who say they speak for Muhammad Omar, the organization’s absent chief. Ron Moreau reports on the leadership crisis.
Abdul Qayyum Zakir, the Taliban’s abrasive, often brutal, senior military commander, received a summons from the Quetta shura, the insurgency’s ruling council, last December. The shura’s verbal message was brief, blunt, and shocking: Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban’s supreme leader, had decided to remove Zakir from his powerful position and to promote Zakir’s rival and co-equal, Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, to become the insurgency's undisputed number-one military man. The former Guantánamo inmate protested vehemently, saying there was no proof that Omar had sent the message, according to several well-placed Taliban sources. Zakir, and other top Taliban leaders who had received similar messages ousting them in the name of Omar, know that there have been no verifiable communications on paper, by phone, or in audio or video recordings from the so-called Leader of the Faithful, since he disappeared into the Kandahar mountains on the back of a motorcycle in November 2001 as his regime collapsed. Not surprisingly, Zakir flatly refused to comply with the order that demoted him to commander of Kandahar Province. As Zakir wields enormous clout with many insurgent commanders in the field, there was little the council could do to move against him and make its decision stick.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, the young operational commander of the Haqqani network, which is arguably the best organized and most lethal of the Taliban factions, also received a similar summons from the shura at the beginning of this past April. To his surprise, he was told that Mullah Omar had ordered Haqqani’s militia to cease all military and suicide bombing operations throughout the country, including Kabul. Like Zakir, Haqqani rejected the vague order for the same reason: how did he know that Omar issued the directive himself and not someone who simply wanted to curtail his and his militia’s activities? After his strong protests, the shura relented and gave him permission to continue operations in the capital and in the four southeastern provinces where the network is strongest, according to several sources in the Taliban and the Haqqani network. At the same time Haqqani, who is in his mid-30s, learned that Mansoor had appointed a close associate, a Pakistani Punjabi named Bilal Bhai, as the chief of all suicide bombing operations in Afghanistan.
Zakir and Haqqani are not the only ones whom the shura has tried to sideline or sack in the name of Mullah Omar. Given their enormous military clout, Zakir and Haqqani could largely ignore Omar’s purported directives. But many other once key, but less influential, commanders and senior Taliban cabinet ministers have been removed by Omar’s orders—orders of dubious authenticity. Now Zakir and Haqqani, long-time adversaries, are joining common cause with at least a dozen former senior commanders and provincial governors, and six to ten former ministers, to challenge the shura and those council members who claim without any proof to speak for Mullah Omar. “They have hijacked Mullah Omar’s name and are using it like a rubber stamp for their own interests,” says a disgusted former senior Taliban cabinet minister who declines to be quoted by name for security reasons.
The point man for the dissidents’ operation is Abdul Rauf Khadim, a one-time Kabul garrison commander and former Guantánamo prisoner, who was sidelined by the shura in 2010 in Mullah Omar’s name. “Let’s solve the mystery of Mullah Omar’s long silence in order to save him and the Taliban,” he is telling his likeminded commanders and former ministers. Khadim is in charge of writing a letter to the ruling council that will be signed by this group of 20 or more dissidents, asking the shura to prove that Mullah Omar is alive and active and is actually issuing the orders that some members of the shura claim are coming from him. Khadim says the letter will also say that if no proof is forthcoming within a yet-to-be specified time limit then the insurgency should nominate a new supreme leader who would be acceptable to most Taliban.
“We are not asking Mullah Omar to show up and chair a shura meeting, but he should meet with a select few Taliban leaders or at the least send a verifiable voice or video statement proving his existence and naming who is really speaking for him,” says the former senior Taliban cabinet minister. “We certainly have the technology to do that.” The dissident group emphasizes that it is not moving to oust Mullah Omar. Rather it wants to stop the destructive practice of some Taliban leaders claiming to speak for Omar. “The group doesn’t object to Mullah Omar being our supreme leader,” says Zabihullah, a senior insurgent political operative. “The group is targeting those leaders who are using Mullah Omar’s name fraudulently to accumulate more wealth and power.”
These Taliban who are trying to discover what really happened to Omar are setting their sights on the worst offenders who are using Omar’s name for their personal gain: namely Gul Agha Akhund and commander Mansoor, both extremely powerful men. When the Taliban were in power, Akhund was one of the most influential of Mullah Omar’s top aides. As his personal secretary, Akhund was often seated next to Omar in the supreme leader’s Kandahar palace, whispering in his ear and offering counsel. Arrested and then freed by Pakistan several years ago, he now oversees the insurgency’s financial affairs. What gives him even more power is that he also claims to be Omar’s channel to the Taliban leadership. He brags that he has a handwritten letter from Omar, also of dubious authenticity, naming him as the supreme leader’s deputy. Several years ago he produced an audio recording of Omar’s voice talking to him. But the conversation turned out to be a ruse. To Akhund’s embarrassment, it was discovered that the recording was a 1999 walkie-talkie conversation Omar had had with his intelligence chief.
Akhund proudly declares that he is in direct contact with Omar, without giving any proof, and claims even more outrageously that the supreme leader often speaks to him in dreams, issuing orders that he passes on to his handpicked associates in the shura. This dissident group of Taliban believes that Akhund is the main source of Omar’s spurious directives that remove or strip commanders and ministers of powers. “Gul Agha and his allies use Mullah Omar’s name as a poniard to stick in the back of every Taliban they want to remove,” says a former Taliban ambassador. The baby-faced and portly Mansoor, a former director of civil aviation who is closely allied with Akhund, also seems to be accumulating more power and wealth as a result.
To be sure, all of this internal uncertainty, backbiting, and backstabbing roiling the leadership can only weaken the insurgency in the field at a time when the Taliban are hoping to push Afghan security forces out of strategic areas that the insurgents used to control as US and coalition troops withdraw. “We used to be unified but now with leaders promoting their own loyalists and factions we are becoming weaker,” admits a former member of the Quetta shura.
Khadim, who seems to be the prime mover behind the drive requesting that Mullah Omar should demonstrate signs of life, is sticking his neck out dangerously far by doing so. He knows that he and several of his supporters who live in Karachi, Quetta, and Peshawar with their families will not be safe in the cities. As a result, Khadim traveled this past month to Miranshah in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal agency, the Haqqani network’s main base, to seek Haqqani’s protection for himself and his supporters. “If they are going the challenge powerful members of the shura they know they will be vulnerable if they stay in Karachi or Quetta,” says a Taliban intelligence officer.
Taliban fighters in the field don’t have a clue about the destabilizing power struggle taking place at the heart of the insurgency. Most believe Omar is a holy man who is above reproach, and they don’t doubt his sincerity or existence. But some of Omar’s former aides are scathing in their criticism of the supreme leader and believe that if he is still alive he is probably a prisoner of Pakistan, which is manipulating him for its own ends by promoting Mansoor and other commanders it favors. “To me, if he does still exist, Pakistan is making all the calls on his behalf,” says a former senior official in the Taliban’s justice department, Maulvi Wali Jan. “I think he has lost all credibility. From an Islamic point of view someone who has caused the deaths of so many Muslims cannot call himself the leader of the faithful.”
A former high-ranking justice ministry official agrees. “I believe he has been kidnapped by Pakistan or by some Taliban who are using him. The justice ministry official is also one of Omar’s harshest critics. “He didn’t protect his country. Thousands of Taliban and Muslims have been needlessly killed so Mullah Omar could protect this one man, Osama bin Laden,” he says. “He was an illiterate religious dictator who had no Islamic wisdom or knowledge and who would not listen to others.”
“If on a sunny day Mullah Omar said it was dark outside everyone would have to agree and not argue,” he adds.
“One credible voice message from Mullah Omar saying he is free and in charge would go a long way toward clearing up most of these lingering doubts and questions,” says the former senior minister who wants to believe that Omar exists. But even an audio recording is unlikely to remove the deep suspicions about Omar that have built up over the years. “To save the Taliban, the shura has to produce Mullah Omar, if he is alive, in a convincing way, or else we should choose a new leader,” says the former deputy chief justice. “Just as important we need new leadership that is more in line with the times and Afghan society. But I’m not very optimistic that will ever happen.”