Dead or alive: How important is (was) Mullah Omar?

Afghan government is examining claims that Taliban’s leader Mullah Omar is dead. No matter if true or not, what was his role recently in Taliban? Even if he is dead, will it have any influence on anything in Taliban and Afghanistan? Read few comments.

Simbal Khan, CEO, Indus Global Initiative

Speculation about Mullah Omar’s death has again resurfaced after the peace talks in Murree, Pakistan which took place earlier this month between Afghan Taliban and Afghan government. Mullah Omar reportedly has not been seen since the last two years. Any confirmation of his death at this crucial moment will have impact on the Taliban movement. Murree talks have been opposed by some Taliban groups who are against peace with the Afghan Government. There are also reports of some Taliban rallying around Mullah Omar’s young Son. There is a danger that in case of confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death, the Taliban movement may splinter. This will energize ISIS which has been battling Taliban in Eastern Province of Afghanistan. The chances of a peaceful settlement of the Taliban issue will become more remote.

Mosharraf Zaidi, Political Campaigner, Columnist, Analyst

I believe Mullah Omar had become a symbol, more than an operational leader or manager of the Taliban. So the impact of his death will be on the symbolic coherence and unity of the Taliban, rather than on the their operations.

This is what makes news of his death particularly interesting at this time. Will the actual Taliban leadership be able to manage to conduct talks, either through the Qatar office or otherwise? I believe this news will make the talks a more difficult and fractured process.

David IsbyPolitical and defense analyst, Author of books and articles on military and security

No one really knows what Mullah Omar’s role is or, indeed, if he is alive. But the fact that Taliban policy statements were issued in his name recently suggests that he is still a force to be reckoned with, even if he has died. It would be hard to envision where a living Mullah Omar would fit into an Afghan peace agreement. He has literally put on the mantle of the Prophet and demanded the loyalty of every Muslim, an act done long before ISIS emerged. He cannot now agree to be a provincial governor. Yet without him as leader, neither his contemporaries in the Taliban leadership nor the young men doing the fighting may find it difficult to identify a leadership-driven solution that could lead to peace.

Ryan Evans, Editor-in-Chief War on the Rocks, Ph.D. Student, King’s College London War Studies Department

Mullah Omar is a unifying figure in the Taliban movement and if he is acknowledged as dead, we may see fracturing within the movement beyond what we have already seen. Having to maintain the fiction (and I think it probably has long been a fiction) that he is alive has been a mechanism to keep Taliban senior figures from fighting each other too much. That may disappear if Mullah Omar is acknowledged and seen as dead. Intra-movement fracturing, however, does not necessarily mean the Afghan state will have more success in fighting them. More extreme contendors, such as the Islamic State, could take advantage of the situation. But we must also keep in mind that there has always been a good deal of regional and even local autonomy in how different parts of the Taliban manage their affairs and wage their war.

Frederic GrareSenior Associate, Director of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s South Asia Program

If he is dead, the question arise of the legitimate leader of the Taliban. This does not mean that Mollah Omar as a person was necessarily indispensable. Others may have actually run the movement but he, and he alone had the religious legitimacy (even if self-proclaimed).  The question matters a great deal at a time when the Taliban leadership is being increasingly challenged by more radical elements, supposedly under the ISIS banner. This could have a significant impact for whatever reconciliation process may be set in place over the next few months. The loss of the semblance of religious legitimacy for the Taliban leadership will undoubtedly weaken them and with them the section of the insurgency more likely to enter into serious negotiations at some stage.

I believe that ultimately, the decisive argument will be the outcome of the ongoing infighting in currently taking place in various parts of the country. If the Taliban, emerges victorious, then its leadership will most likely be able to assert control over the dissenting factions who call themselves ISIS. If not, the latter will most likely become more important and the death of Mollah Omar, if true, will be a aggravating factor.

In any case, this is not good news for whoever believes in a “political” solution. It is not necessarily decisive but certainly an additional risk.

Thomas Ruttig, Co-director, Afghanistan Analysts Network

Mullah Omar was still very important for the Taleban. As the leader, he kept the movement together; as Amir-ul-Momenin he gave it religious legitimacy. As long as he is/was there (and I can’t of course say whether the “news” is correct or not), it would be difficult to split the movement. If this “news” is true, it would make a split possible, and this could render the recent peace talks meaningless (or make them more difficult) – because you could have one group agreeing to peace and another one continuing to fight. So, who would be interested in this?

Harsh V. Pant, Professor, Department of Defence Studies, King’s College London

The Taliban had been claiming that Mullah Omar was live despite reports of his death over the last several years. Being the figurehead, it is important to give a sense of Omar’s presence. If the reports are true then the whole ‘peace process’ becomes problematic because there is no other leader who can provide cohesion to the group called the Taliban. Also, there have been desertions from the Taliban to the Islamic State in recent years as reports about Omar’s death had gained ground. If confirmed, many fighters will see a better future in IS than in a Taliban which they would argue no longer has a leader. However, it must be underlined that despite Omar’s death, the Taliban have managed to put up a strong fight against the Afghan govt and the West.


One Response

  1. Do the Taliban need another leader? Who / what are they, at present: a movement, a ‘school’ of thought?

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