Delving deep into Mullah Omar’s life in hiding
The sensational disclosure that the Taliban’s founder had lived and died in a village in Afghanistan’s Zabul province, located close to an American military base, belies the widespread perception that Mullah Omar had operated from a safe haven in Pakistan.
Authored by Dutch journalist Bette Dam, Searching for an Enemy also exposes the US’ intelligence failure to track down one of the world’s most wanted fugitives who had a $10m bounty on his head.
The findings of the book, which was published last month, confirm the Taliban’s account that their elusive leader never left the country after the conservative regime was ousted by the American forces in 2001.
Interestingly, the house where Omar resided for more than a decade had been part of several search operations by both the American and Afghan forces. However, not once could either of the two parties find him. According to excerpts from the book, the reclusive leader had severed all ties and would not even meet his family members or other Taliban officials, delegating all responsibilities to his deputies.
Omar died in 2013 after a prolonged illness and was buried in a quiet corner of the village. The news of his death was kept a secret for two years before it was finally revealed by the Afghan intelligence forces in 2015 on the eve of a critical round of informal talks between the representatives of the Taliban and the Kabul government in Pakistan.
Dam’s book is indeed the most credible insight into the life of a hermit who cast a huge shadow over the Taliban’s insurgency without playing any active role in the war. Dam, for her part, has been reporting from Afghanistan since 2006 and her book is based on an interview with the man who protected Omar by risking his life and his family’s too.
Dam’s book is indeed the most credible insight into the life of a hermit who cast a huge shadow over the Taliban’s insurgency without playing any active role in the war.
Jabbar Omari had worked for Omar as his driver and bodyguard during the Taliban’s regime. It was Omari who had brought Omar to his home in the Zabul province after the Taliban’s ouster in 2001, and built a secret room where the Taliban leader could live safely.
Even Omari’s family was unaware of the real identity of their reclusive guest. Despite his deteriorating health condition, Omar refused to go to Pakistan for treatment. When he finally died, few people attended his funeral, with Omar’s family and other Taliban leaders learning about his demise much later. They promised to keep the news a secret, knowing very well that if the information was to become public, it could have a very adverse impact on the insurgency.
Omari was interviewed by Dam while he was still in the custody of Afghan authorities. His account was confirmed by other senior Taliban commanders who the author interviewed in the areas under the insurgents’ control. They also confirmed that Omar was not in contact with anyone. Interestingly, despite him steering away from the day-to-day operations of the group, it was Omar’s name that kept the Taliban united and the insurgency alive.
Both the American and Afghan officials had claimed that after fleeing from Kandahar in December 2001, Omar had crossed into Pakistan and was guiding the group from Quetta, the capital of the Balochistan province.
Meanwhile, Pakistan was accused of harboring what was then described as the “Quetta Shoura”, with Afghan and American officials convinced that Omar was based in Quetta. The allegation brought huge pressure upon Pakistan with some Afghan officials suggesting that the US should use drones to strike Omar’s alleged hideout in Quetta.
When I interviewed former Afghan president Hamid Karzai in 2004, he gave me an address in Quetta where he claimed Omar was residing under the protection of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies — a revelation which incited strong reactions from Pakistani authorities. Later on, I found out that that address belonged to the owner of a grocery shop.
What reinforces the latest disclosure is that even during the Afghan resistance war against the former USSR, and unlike other Mujahedeen commanders, Omar would not travel to Pakistan. The only time he reportedly visited Quetta was when he needed surgery for his eye after being injured in a battle.
The book refutes all speculations about Omar’s whereabouts till his death and counters claims by Afghan officials that he was treated in a hospital in Karachi where he eventually died. However, though not unsurprisingly, the disclosure made by Dam has been rejected by Afghan officials as “nothing but a manipulative piece of propaganda.” Nevertheless, it is hard to deny the credibility of the disclosure based on the latest revelations.
— Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ.