The New Yorker
January 23, 2012
Pg. 44Will the United States be able to negotiate with a man it has hunted for a decade?
By Steve Coll
During his reign as the Amir of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, from 1994 to 2001, Mullah Mohammad Omar made a mark on the architecture of Kandahar, an irrigated desert city of about half a million people in the south of the country. He commissioned a tall mosque for Eid celebrations; the building, which is shaped like an egg, is painted light blue, and is visible from miles around. Omar also built a tiled palace with fountains and a swimming pool. The Amir’s most ambitious project, however, was a mosque and shopping center downtown called the Jamia Omar. He chose the former location of Kandahar’s main cinema, which had been demolished by Taliban cadres who denounced movies as blasphemy. Construction was under way when the United States invaded Afghanistan and forced Omar into hiding. Ever since, the site has been an eyesore–a jumble of unpainted arches and half-built pillars with steel poles sticking out.
Last year, American military commanders allocated funds to help President Hamid Karzai’s government complete the Jamia Omar. The decision reflected recent American counterinsurgency strategy in the war. In 2009, President Obama ordered thirty thousand additional troops to Afghanistan in an effort to break the Taliban’s reviving rebellion. Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, has been a focus of the campaign, and American commanders have sought to visibly convey the authority of the current government. Last October, a senior NATO official, while briefing reporters, explained that “refurbishing Mullah Omar’s mosque” was a sign of American progress, because it demonstrated “the level of control we have.”
One morning in December, I drove past the construction site and saw a dozen turbaned men on scaffolds,swinging hammers. In Kandahar’s municipal compound, about half a mile away, after crossing through barriers manned by guards and bomb-detection specialists, I found Mohammad Nasim Ziayi, the city’s deputy mayor, who oversees the redevelopment.
Ziayi wore a pressed gown with pens protruding from a vest pocket. Mounted on a wall behind his desk was a large black-and-white photograph of a clean-shaven man with a mournful gaze. This was GhulamHaider Hamidi, Ziayi explained; he had been the mayor of Kandahar until one morning last July, when a Taliban assassin with a bomb hidden in his turban sneaked into the building and detonated himself. Hamidi died on the way to the hospital.
Ziayi told me that Mullah Omar’s original blueprint for the Jamia Omar has been revised by the Karzai administration. The new plan includes a mosque for women, and although the center will still be called the Jamia Ornar, it will commemorate Omar bin al-Khattab, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, who is revered in the Sunni Islamic tradition as the second caliph to reign after the Prophet’s death. As a civic initiative, the mosque “is a good thing,” Ziayi said. “The good work that was done by the Taliban–we should accept that.”
As he walked me to my car, jumpy young bodyguards holding assault rifles accompanied us. I asked if Ziayi could imagine sharing power with the Taliban in Kandahar. Since 2010, the Obama Administration has engaged in exploratory peace and reconciliation talks with senior Taliban leaders, in the hope of reducing Afghanistan’s violence while promoting political stability as American troops depart. It is conceivable that Mullah Omar could be coaxed out of hiding to participate in the negotiations.
“If the Taliban were willing to work shoulder to shoulder with other Afghans for the public, that would be welcomed,” Ziayi said. “But from what I know they don’t want that. They want everything for themselves.”
In December, 2001, as Taliban control over Afghanistan collapsed, Mullah Mohammad Omar left Kandahar and reportedly crossed into Pakistan, seventy miles away. There has been no confirmed sighting of him since, and his success in eluding American and Afghan pursuers has deepened the mystery that has long surrounded him. Of the jihadi leaders who entered into international consciousness after 200l–including Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed–Omar’s life remains the least well documented. He has not issued videotaped speeches over the Internet, as Al Qaeda’s leaders have done. Essential elements of his biography, such as the year and the place of his birth, remain uncertain, and there are only two photographs of him in circulation. In recent years, the Taliban have issued biannual, state-of-the-revolution essays under Omar’s name, but it is not clear if he actually writes them.
The Taliban’s Amir maintains a spectral presence amid Afghanistan’s violence and politics. His health, his whereabouts, and his intentions are subjects of continual rumor and argument in Kabul, the Afghan capital. Last July, someone hacked into the Taliban’s Web site and announced Omar’s death “after an illness of the heart.” A Taliban spokesman quickly issued assurances that Omar was “alive and nothing has happened to him.” Even so, at least a few senior Afghan officials harbor doubts about his well-being. Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban minister and now a senior member of the Karzai government’s High Peace Council, which has conducted talks with Taliban interlocutors, told me, “We don’t know if he’s still alive or what his position is.”
Other former Taliban, as well as independent researchers, believe that Omar is living in Pakistan. Alex Strick van Linschoten, a Dutch scholar who has been based in Kandahar since 2007 and has conducted extensive interviews with Taliban leaders and sympathizers, told me that he believes Mullah Ornar is “in a safe house in Karachi,” the Pakistani port city, and that Omar’s movements and activities are closely monitored by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. The Taliban-connected individuals with whom Strick van Linschoten has spoken recently described Omar “as essentially a prisoner,” he said. “All access to him is controlled by the I.S.I. or some sub-version of that.”
Anand Gopal, a journalist who has worked in Kandahar in recent years, and who has completed, with Bette Dam, an investigation into Mullah Omar’s biography, said that he, too, has concluded from interviews that the Taliban leader is in Karachi and effectively under house arrest. Similar reports have circulated within the American government since at least 2007. At a counterterrorism meeting between India and the United States that year, the senior Indian official in attendance reported, “We now know that Mullah Omar is under Pakistani protection,” according to a State Department cable released last year by WikiLeaks.
More than half a dozen American officials I spoke with concurred that Omar is almost certainly in Pakistan and likely under some form of monitoring by the I.S.I., although they differed in their assessments of the extent of Pakistan’s control and influence. Their views range from a belief that Omar is essentially under house arrest to a judgment that he enjoys considerable freedom of movement and action within Pakistan. Omar has been able to travel occasionally between Karachi and Quetta, a Pakistani city in Baluchistan, near the Afghan border, according to the intelligence reporting available to American officials. The extent of I.S.I. influence over Omar has been a subject of recent discussion within the American intelligence community, the officials I spoke with indicated.
There is no question that the I.S.I. played a major role in funding and arming the Taliban during the movement’s rise to power in Afghanistan, in the nineteen-nineties, and maintained close contacts with Mullah Omar throughout that period. Pakistan’s military leaders saw the Taliban then as ameans of establishing a regime in Kabul that would be supportive of’Pakistan’s interests and hostile to its rival, India. After September 11th, Pakistan helped the United States overthrow Omar’s regime, but Pakistan allowed former Taliban leaders to take refuge on its soil. More recently, Pakistan’s security services have seemed to reinforce their ties to the Afghan Taliban leadership in anticipation of the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. This could create a vacuum in the country, or a civil war in which the Taliban would be a party and Pakistan would be seeking influence. The U.S.- Pakistan relationship has so degenerated that it does not seem surprising that the Pakistani Army may be sheltering the commander of a guerrilla force that claimed the lives of more than four hundred American soldiers in Afghanistan in 2011, even as Pakistan accepted hundreds of millions of dollars of American aid.
The Taliban are a diverse movement. There are an estimated twenty-five thousand armed insurgents in Afghanistan, with differing degrees of loyalty to the Taliban. Mullah Omar is not the only influential leader. Last year, a United Nations unit that monitors sanctions on the Taliban, and is led by Richard Barrett, a former British intelligence officer, concluded that “while Mullah Ornar remains the titular head of the movement and has more authority than any other Taliban leader, his orders no longer determine the military campaign.” Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former C.I.A. ally turned anti-American warlord, runs a powerful militia known as the Haqqani network, based in North Waziristan; he is one of several important regional Taliban leaders whose forces operate independently of Omar’s authority. Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, the Afghan Taliban’s over-all military commander, also enjoys substantial influence. After years of quietude and exile, Mullah Omar has less control over younger Taliban fighters. Front-line commanders are “not sure if he’s a free man,” Antonio Giustozzi, an Italian scholar who has written extensively about the Taliban’s evolution, said. “If he plays a role, it’s more like a moral figure overseeing the movement.”
Still, over the last decade Mullah Omar has issued voluminous instructions to his followers, and no other Taliban leader articulates the war’s cause as he does. That is why the Obama Administration regards him as a critical figure in its efforts to organize peace talks between the Taliban and the Karzai regime. “There was no doubt in our mind that, both symbolically and pragmatically, he held all the keys to unlocking the Taliban problem,” said Vali Nasr, who was, until last April, a senior adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department. “There is no legitimacy to a Taliban decision without him…. He is the Ho Chi Minh of the war.”
The late Presidential envoy Richard Holbrooke, for whom Nasr worked, started the Obama Administration’s effort to forge a political settlement with the Taliban. The work has continued under Holbrooke’s successor, Marc Grossman. This winter, the Karzai government and a Taliban spokesman publicly endorsed plans to open a new Taliban political office in Qatar, to aid negotiations. The hope is that, in addition to easing Afghanistan’s violence, talks might draw the Taliban away from Al Qaeda, diminishing the chance that it could ever reestablish itself in Afghanistan. Talks with Taliban middlemen who claim ro represent Mullah Omar have yet to produce a significant achievement, such as a ceasefire on the Afghan battlefield. The talks have, however, led Obama’s advisers to focus again on a man who disappeared from American foreign policy for much of the past decade. “I’ve come to the conclusion that Mullah Omar is still the big boss,” a senior Administration official told me. “All threads still lead back to him.”
The most credible sources on Omar’s biography date his birth to between 1959 and 1962, perhaps in a village outside Kandahar. It is better established that he spent his boyhood in nearby Uruzgan province, in the very poor district of Dehrawut. His Father, Maulvi Ghulam Nabi Akhund, was an itinerant teacher who instructed village boys in the Koran and received alms from their families. He died when Omar was very young, according to a detailed biography published by a jihadi magazine and to recent interviews with family members conducted by Gopal and Dam.
Omar’s widowed mother married Akhund’s brother, a common practice in rural Afghanistan. This uncle raised Omar; he, too, worked as a roving religious instructor in Uruzgan. He was “a domineering figure, by most accounts,” according to Gopal. The family owned no land or property, the jihadi biography reports. Omar grew into a tall, lean, dark-eyed young man with bushy black eyebrows and a thick beard.
He attended religious schools and then, by some accounts, moved to Kandahar as a teen-ager, during the nineteen-seventies. It was a period of relative tranquillity. The city’s youth were divided into “two strains,” Gopal said. Delinquents from aristocratic tribes, known as payluch, smoked hashish and acted with “privileged idleness.” The other strand of kids, the talibs, or religious students, “were from second-rung tribes who couldn’t afford to lollygag around and smoke hashish all day. They would congregate at mosques.” Omar belonged to their world.
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the payluch and the talibs mobilized separately as anti-Communist insurgents. Omar and his group fought credibly and persistently, but they did not rise to senior leadership in the rebellion. They were part of a network of fighters and religious judges who operated Islamic courts in rural areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan. The judges mediated disputes among rebel commanders, in an effort to keep everyone focussed on the Soviet enemy.
The Taliban tried to mark themselves off from other fighting groups. In a new book, “An Enemy We Created,” Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn draw on interviews with Omar’s former colleagues, writing, “Religious classes were offered for those not actively participating on the front lines …. They came across to other groups as more serious, more intense, or almost bookish.”
Kinship, friendship, and shared battlefield experiences tightened the bonds among Omar’s group. He was reportedly wounded in battle three times, the last while he served as a commander at Sangesar, a village to the west of’Kandahar. “The Russians pushed forward and soon we could see them from our trenches,” recalled Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who later served as the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan, in a memoir. The area was “littered with bodies …. The battle turned into a hand-to-hand fight, with grenades flying over our heads.” The Russians lobbed in shells. Shrapnel struck Omar in the face and took out his right eye.
The Soviet forces pulled back. That night, the comrades held “a marvelous party,” and Omar, his face bandaged, sang a ghazal, or traditional poem, as Zaeef recalled it:
My illness is untreatable, oh, my flower-like friend
My life is difficult without you, my flower-like friend.
Omar received medical treatment in Pakistan. He also may once have attended a Pakistani training camp for anti-Soviet rebels, but there are no other records of him travelling outside Afghanistan during this time.
After the Soviet withdrawal, Omar retired to Sangesar to serve as the imam of a crumbling one-story mosque. He preached, taught, and raised a fumily. He had no political profile and displayed no ambition to acquire one. Kandahar was sliding into chaos, however. By 1994, former commanders of the anti-Soviet jihad had carved the city and neighboring districts into criminal fiefs. They ruled through brigands who operated highway checkpoints where they shook down civilians, and sometimes kidnapped them.
Taliban veterans formed a search committee to choose a man who could lead a challenge to the offenders. Zaeef argued for someone who had no political baggage. The committee arrived one evening at Omar’s home. One of’Omar’s wives had just given birth to a son; family and neighbors had gathered to recite Koranic verses. Zaeef and his colleagues joined in, stayed for dinner, and then asked for a moment with Omar after the other guests had departed.
“We told him that he had been proposed as a leader who could implement our plan,” Zaeef recalled. “He took a few moments to think after we had spoken and said nothing more for some time. This was one of Mullah Mohammad Omar’s common habits …. Finally he said that he agreed with our plan and that something needed to be done.”
Around this time, a warlord abducted and raped several young women near Sangesar. As the story goes, Omar and some fellow-veterans seized the accused man, executed him, and hung his corpse from a tank barrel. In a radio broadcast attributed to Omar and translated by a sympathetic Arab author, he remembered gathering some of his religious students in a circle and telling them:
The religion of Allah is being stepped on. The people are openly displaying evil. … They steal the people’s money, they attack their honor on the main street; they kill people and put them against the rocks on the side of the road, and the cars pass by and see the dead body… and no one dares to bury him in the earth…. It is not possible to continue studying in these situations, and those problems will not be solved by slogans that are not backed up. We, the students, want to stand up against this corruption.
The Taliban extended their vigilante campaign, and, by the end of 1994, Omar ruled Kandahar. The movement ultimately took power across Afghanistan with the aid of guns and money from Pakistan’s spy service, but from the start the promise of swift justice was Omar’s calling card. His relevance in Afghanistan today still arises in significant measure from the perception that the Taliban can deliver justice where other Afghan leaders have failed.
The Taliban “was the creation of a group” of war veterans, “not of oneman,” said Maulvi Qalamuddin, a former minister for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice in what was called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. “But they admired Omar and chose him. Nobody was thinking at the time that this would grow so large.”
One of the few public spectacles recorded in Mullah Omar’s political life took place in the spring of 1996, several months before his movement took power in Kabul. Omar had organized a conference of about fifteen hundred Afghan religious scholars in Kandahar, to affirm the sanctity of his leadership. The Arnir arrived one day at a small mosque, downtown, surrounded by rosebushes. Inside, sealed within three boxes–one made of gold, one of wood, and one of steel–was Kandahar’s most famous religious relic, a cloak reputedly worn by the Prophet Muhammad. Political leaders displayed the cloak at rare moments of grave danger, to encourage prayers that might ward off drought or disease. Omar asked to borrow the garment. He carried it to a campaign-style rally that his advisers had organized on Kandahar’s outskirts.
“We helped Mullah Omar to take the cloak out, but he did not use it the way we wanted,” recalled Mullah Masood Akhundzada, the cleric who is today charged with the cloak’s safekeeping. At the rally, from a rooftop, Omar waved the relic in the air before a large crowd of men. At one point, he wrapped the cloak across his shoulders. The convention of scholars sealed his coronation by declaring that henceforth he would be known as the Amir ul-Momineen, the Leader of the Faithful, a title assumed periodically by powerful leaders in Islamic history. More than fifteen years later, Omar still signs his published statements as the “Servant of Islam and Leader of the Faithful.”
“Mullah Omar himself is a simple person,” Akhundzada said, when we met one afternoon at a large madrassa he runs not far from the mosque. He served green tea and cans of Red Bull. Akhundzada is a portly man with a quick laugh and the energy of a natural entrepreneur; his family has made a living for centuries from endowments raised to protect the Prophet’s cloak. “He is not a deep religious figure. He is controlled by others. They’ve made him into a big figure, but he’s not really a hard-liner. He’s being used.” It irked him that Omar had used the Prophet’s cloak, a pure symbol of faith, to attract a big crowd to his rally, in order to consolidate political power. “If he had not had the cloak, he would not have had a crowd,” he said.
Omar staged horrific spectacles of public punishment in Afghanistan after the Taliban took national power. The stoning of adulterers, the amputation of thieves’ hands, and the executions before excited crowds in stadiums shocked the country’s traditional political elites. Many of those families and military leaders came from Afghanistan’s Persian- and Turkic-influenced north or were educated internationally. The Taliban are mainly Pashtuns, an ethnic group that makes up about half of Afghanistan’s population, who live primarily in the south and east. The justice that Omar enforced played best in Pashtun agricultural villages such as those dotting the river valleys around Kandahar. In many of these places, illiteracy has been entrenched for decades; the education of boys has often taken place in small religious schools; and girls have long been consigned to segregation and subjugation. Omar “had a rural mind,” a former senior officeholder in the Taliban government told me. The Amir and his key advisers did not attend any of the great international schools of Islamic jurisprudence, such as Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, where global Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood incubated. They were “cut off, religiously and politically,” the former officeholder said. They were “traditionalist people, not revolutionary people.”
Osama bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan from Sudan in May of 1996. He met Omar for the first time that autumn. Bin Laden moved his family to Kandahar, pledged loyalty to the Amir, accepted Taliban hospitality, and began to organize training camps. Over the next several years, the Taliban’s brutal punishments and Al Qaeda’s international terrorist attacks transformed Mullah Omar into a role he hadn’t prepared for: a global pariah.
The Amir was “a very calm man,” recalled Habibullah Fouzi, a former Taliban ambassador to Saudi Arabia, but he “insisted on solving every problem in light of Sharia,” or Islamic law. “He was very determined,” Fouzi said, but “he did not know the outside world.”
Omar was never a self-denying zealot; he listened to music occasionally, even as his regime enforced bans on public music concerts and the sale of tapes and CDs. As allowed by Islamic tradition, he had four wives and fathered many children, some of whom are presumed to still live with him. He held meetings in sparsely furnished rooms at the Governor’s House in Kandahar or at his home, where he might sit on the edge of a cot while his visitors sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor. He refused to meet with almost all non-Muslim emissaries, but he made exceptions; a Spanish-born envoy of the United Nations met Omar once, as did a Chinese ambassador. During his rule, the Taliban destroyed ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan because Omar regarded the stone imagery as idolatry.
Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani Army chief who seized power in 1999 and tried to coax the Taliban toward moderation, found Omar to be a frustrating ally. “How do you negotiate with such a man?” Musharraf wrote later in a memoir. “He was (and still is) caught in a time warp, detached from reality.”
Omar’s former colleagues describe him as a good listener who rarely interrupted others during meetings, but when Prince Turki al-Faisal, then Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, flew to Kandahar to plead with Omar to turn in bin Laden, the Taliban leader “stalked out in fury,” according to Musharraf” s version of the story; variations of the meeting have been recounted by others. The Amir came back “a few minutes later, his hair dripping with water, his shirt and sleeves drenched.” Omar declared, “I went into the other room and poured cold water on my head to cool off. If you had not been my guest 1would have done something dire to you.” Negotiating with the Amir, Musharraf recalled, was “like banging one’s head against a wall.”
Decimated by two decades of war, isolated by international economic sanctions and indifference, the Afghan state over which the Taliban ruled during the late nineteen-nineties was primeval. Omar rarely left Kandahar, and communicated by letter and courier. While making and explaining his decisions, he sometimes mentioned his dreams. Militias under Omar’s command burned villages and murdered civilians during campaigns in Bamiyan province, the heartland of Afghanistan’s Shia population, and on the Shomali Plains, north of Kabul. Drought led to famine in some parts of the country. Taliban police conscripted boys for war against northern anti-Taliban militias and banned girls from schools. Omar accepted international food and medical aid and allowed United Nations humanitarian-relief operations, but he imposed strictures that limited their effectiveness.
Omar lived for a time in a large home on a busy road in Kandahar. In August of 1999, an unknown group drove a truck bomb to his gate and set off a massive explosion. Omar escaped, but one of his sons died. It was after this attack that bin Laden and other Arab supporters funded Omar’s new residential palace, with its less than ascetic decorative touches.
In Washington, intelligence officers puzzled over Omar’s relationship with bin Laden. “Eventually, we came to believe that Al Qaeda, if anything, had co-opted the Taliban leadership and had taken advantage of their stunning ignorance of world affairs,” Henry Crumpton, who was an operations officer at the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center at the time, told me. Bin Laden swore formal allegiance to the Amir; the Saudi’s money and his deferential cultivation of Mullah Omar allowed Al Qaeda to use Taliban territory as a base for international violence, but Omar did not necessarily understand how the United States and Europe might react. “We found him to be not very charismatic, not very smart, although he was first among equals,” Crumpton said.
Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn, from their interviews with former Taliban leaders, found it difficult to arrive “at any firm conclusion” about whether Omar was informed in advance about the September 11th attacks. The authors couldn’t rule out the possibility, but they judged it “doubtful.”
They interviewed a senior Taliban leader who said, referring to bin Laden, “The Taliban advised him that he should not misuse Afghan soil and that he should control himself; it would make Mullah Mohammad Omar upset …. But he’d go ahead and do it anyway and then come and promise not to do it again. But then it would happen another time. Keeping bin Laden was, for the Taliban, like tending to a fire.”
After 9/11, the United States announced its intention to destroy the Taliban government if Omar did not turn bin Laden over to America. “I told him America would definitely attack,” Zaeef recalled. But, in the Amir’s assessment, “there was less than a ten percent chance that America would resort to anything beyond threats.”
When it became clear that he was wrong, Omar told his colleagues, according to a former Taliban leader, “You just care about your posts and your money, your ministries, but I don’t care about mine. My position is bigger than yours, but I don’t care about it. … I am ready to lose my leadership, but not to hand over Osama to the Americans or send him to another country.”
American commanders tried to kill Omar several times late in 2001. In one case, the C.I.A.’s operations center reported that it had tracked what “could be” Omar’s “personal vehicle” in a convoy outside Kandahar, according to Tommy Franks, the American general who then led Central Command. Franks wrote in a memoir that at his headquarters, near Tampa, while feeling a “rush of adrenaline,” he took charge of a drone carrying Hellfire missiles and two Navy F/A-18 Hornet jets armed with five-hundred-pound bombs. He tracked the Taliban convoy, hoping that the vehicles would stop moving. If they did, he calculated the chances of a successful strike would rise from about thirty per cent to ninety per cent. The convoy halted once, but the attack planes weren’t ready. Later, the vehicles stopped again, and the men inside, including at least one who appeared to be a leader, entered a large building. Franks prepared to bomb it, but a C.I.A. officer declared, “Don’t shoot. We think this building is a mosque,” which would make it a target to avoid under rules of engagement issued by President George W. Bush.
“I clenched my fists and swore silently,” Franks recalled. By the time he ordered the attack, having concluded that the building he had in his sights was a permissible target, the men he was after–whoever they were–had already departed, and he had lost the trail.
On another occasion, Zaeef believes, American intelligence tracked his satellite phone as he travelled to a meeting with Omar; bombs just missed him. In the final days of Taliban control over Kandahar, a strike against Omar’s residential palace killed another of his sons, but just missed the Amir, according to the recent research by Gopal and Dam. By the end of 2001, when anti-Taliban militias supported by the C.I.A. had taken full control of Kabul and Kandahar, Omar had escaped.
Mullah Omar’s whereabouts remained an official “tasking” for intelligence collection after the fall of the Taliban, but he was no longer a pressing priority. American intelligence agencies and Special Forces teams in Afghanistan focussed mainly on capturing and killing Al Qaeda’s international volunteers. “Yes, we were very interested in him, and, yes, we would have liked to have found him, but I don’t think we were getting a lot of traction” after 2002, recalled John McLaughlin, who was then the C.I.A.’s deputy director. “The attraction of going after Al Qaeda was just so great. The Taliban at that point did not appear to be a lethal threat.”
“Sadly, in terms of our policy, I don’t think we thought much about them at all.” Crumpton, who led the C.I.A.’s campaign in Afghanistan in late 2001, recalled, “We killed a lot of them, many thousands of them, including some of the key leaders. They were whipped. What was left did melt away locally. The senior guys went into Pakistan.”
Omar kept a very low profile. By some accounts, he appeared at a mosque in Quetta, Pakistan, in 2003, stirring local excitement. By then, the Bush Administration was bogged down in Iraq, and its “perspective on Mullah Omar at that time was ‘He’s done. He got beat. He got run out of town,’” recalled Tom Lynch, a retired Army colonel who served as a military adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in 2004. “Even though he’s not dead and buried, the Pakistanis said they’re taking care of it.”
Gradually, it became clear that they weren’t. Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, placed agents inside Taliban-exile circles in Pakistan; their reports, as well as intelligence collected directly by the United States, showed that, by 2004, Omar had reorganized the Taliban’s military and political command from inside Pakistan. Omar prepared annual strategy documents to map his plans for a revived insurgency and to communicate those plans to followers. By 2006, aggressive Taliban units had infiltrated Kandahar and Helmand. There was increasing evidence that Omar was back in active command, with I.S.I. support.
Afghanistan’s intelligence service reported to the United States that, around 2005 or 2006, Omar had received “up to thirty million dollars from Pakistan” to fund the Taliban’s refurbishment and recruitment of fighters, according to a former official who read the reporting. “Mullah Omar was given money so that people could see him in charge again,” the former official recalled. “Omar is not Khomeini. Mullah Omar is not Che Guevara …. For Mullah Omar to be valid, to be relevant,” he needed to be able to fund the Taliban’s payroll. According to research by Giustozzi, the Taliban may also have reactivated private donor networks of sympathetic businessmen and religious charities in the Persian Gulf.
In 2007, Vice-President Dick Cheney visited Pakistan and pressured Musharraf’s government to crack down on the Taliban. During the trip, security forces arrested Mullah Obaidullah, a close adviser to Omar who had served as the Islamic Emirate’s defense minister. Obaidullah “had a location document” with an address listing his house number and city district in Quetta, another former official said. “He’d obviously been issued that by the I.S.I. or the Army” as a form of identification.
Around this time, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked David Kilcullen, an Australian specialist in counterinsurgency, to assess the Taliban’s resurgence. Kilcullen initially assumed that the Afghan intelligence reports that the I.S.I. was “running the war” were just “a convenient excuse,” he said, to deflect attention from the mounting problems within Karzai’s government, such as widespread corruption and weak administration.
Kilcullen came to conclude that Pakistan was “actually on the other side” of the war in Afghanistan, but he found this was “an extremely unpopular point of view” inside the Bush Administration, which remained committed to counterterrorism and strategic military partnership with Pakistan’s security services. When Kilcullen offered his opinion at one interagency meeting, “people laughed at me,” he recalled.
Pervez Musharraf denied adamantly that Pakistan had anything to do with the Taliban’s revitalization. The I.S.I. is a “disciplined service staffed by seasoned military officers who follow my orders,” Musharraf told Nancy Pelosi, then the Speaker of the House, early in 2007, according to a cable published by WikiLeaks. The accusation that the I.S.I.was sheltering Mullah Omar was inaccurate, Musharraf added. “I do not believe Omar has ever been to Pakistan,” he said.
When President Obama ordered more troops to be deployed in Afghanistan, his advisers analyzed Mullah Omar’s role in the war. On a Saturday in February of 2010, I met Richard Holbrooke for lunch at Washington’s Four Seasons Hotel. I asked him about the Taliban’s leadership.
“I think Mullah Omar is incredibly important,” Holbrooke replied. “The more I look at this thing, the more I think he is a driving, inspirational force whose capture or elimination would have a material effect.”
I asked if he believed he could negotiate a viable peace agreement with Omar.
“I don’t think we can negotiate with Mullah Omar, personally,” he said. “That’s why I think eliminating Mullah Omar is so critical. Right now, if you could choose between Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, I personally would lean toward Mullah Omar.”
Holbrooke died ten months later. Last spring, the Obama Administration located and killed Osama bin Laden at a compound near Pakistan’s leading military academy, in the town of Abbottabad. The circumstances in which bin Laden was found suggest that he might have enjoyed support from elements of the Pakistani security services, although no proof of this has surfaced.
American officials tend to credit reports that Mullah Omar may be under I.S.I. protection or monitoring, in part because of the history of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. To Pakistan’s nationalistic generals, Mullah Omar’s religious extremism may be distasteful, but Taliban influence in Pashtun areas of Afghanistan has nonetheless served Pakistan’s cause against India. The generals fear that India will use economic aid and political support for Afghanistan to encircle Pakistan, establish consulates and business outposts, and use these to funnel aid to separatist groups such as those fighting to achieve independence for the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. The Taliban offer a counterforce in this proxy struggle. Since 2007, Pakistani Taliban have been in revolt against the Army and have sought to establish a revolutionary Islamic regime in the country, and the situation has become more complex. Influencing the Taliban, and directing their attention away from Pakistan and toward Afghanistan, has also become, for the generals, a matter of self-preservation.
“With Mullah Omar, the Pakistanis are in a better position to control the Taliban,” Vali Nasr, Holbrooke’s former adviser, said. “He’s such a pivot person. If you have him, if you hold him, you control the whole organization.”
During the past several years, in exploratory peace talks with the Karzai government and the Obama Administration, a number of Taliban figures have claimed to speak for Omar and to have his blessing. During 2011, the most active negotiator with the United States and European governments was Tayyib Agha, who worked as a translator and aide to Omar during the late Islamic Emirate period, and who is now seen as a credible if junior figure in the Taliban’s political councils in Pakistan.
Obama’s advisers hold differing opinions about the prospects for negotiations. Some believe that the Taliban remain committed to taking full power and will use the negotiations only to win prisoner releases and buy time. Others hope that negotiations might produce ceasefires or divide Taliban leaders. The most ambitious vision is of a settlement eventually embraced by Karzai’s government, Pakistan, and NATO in which a large section of the Taliban would convert into a peaceful political party, to stand in elections, take seats in parliament, and perhaps share in regional administration of Taliban strongholds in the south and east.
As for Omar, although the most hopeful advocates of the peace process think he might eventually endorse a settlement, it is very doubtful that the Afghan public would accept Omar’s return to major office. A dignified retirement or exile might entice him, however. “He is one person–he is not a problem,” Arsala Rahmani, the former Taliban official who now works in the High Peace Council, said. “We could send him to Mecca, and he could participate each year in the hajj.” Nor does it seem likely that an outright Taliban military victory will restore Omar’s rule, certainly not until after 2014, when American troops are scheduled to reduce their presence to an advisory role in support of Afghan troops. Even then, Afghan forces may be able to keep the Taliban out of Kabul and other major cities.
One interlocutor for Omar who has attracted considerable attention from the Karzai government and the Obama Administration is Abdul Ghani Baradar. He knew Omar when they were boys in Uruzgan, and they fought together during the nineteen-eighties. Baradar was deputy chief of the armed forces when the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, and was regarded as one of the movement’s more competent leaders. Baradar has long been inside the circles of personal trust that have characterized the Taliban’s leadership. Baradar is from the royalty-tinged Popalzai tribe, the same tribe as Karzai. (Omar is a member of the less prominent Hotak tribe.) Baradar engaged in sporadic reconciliation talks with Karzai’s government until 2010. Early that year, Pakistan’s security services arrested Baradar outside Karachi. Since then, he has been held in a Pakistani prison, reportedly near the capital of Islamabad.
The Karzai government believes that the I.S.I. detained Baradar in order to stop him from negotiating independently for a possible political settlement, on behalf of Mullah Omar. Some officials in the Obama Administration share this belief, and, at the request of the Karzai regime, they have been trying to help extract Baradar from Pakistani detention. While pursuing this strategy, the Obama Administration has also tried to reassure Pakistan’s Army that its interests would be addressed during any negotiations.
In Pakistan, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Army chief and a former I.S.I. director, is the key decision-maker on matters involving Afghanistan. Last summer, in Islamabad, Kayani met with American officials and posed a number of questions about how they might carry out talks with Taliban leaders living in Pakistan, according to individuals familiar with the exchange. One of Kayani’s questions was: Who, exactly, among the Taliban’s leaders, did the United States believe would be eligible to make a deal with Kabul? Kayani’s other questions concerned the timing, sequencing, and roles for different governments in any full-blown peace process.
Last fall, Tom Donilon, Obama’s national-security adviser, and Marc Grossman flew to Abu Dhabi, to meet with Kayani. Grossman transmitted a white paper that attempted to address some of the general’s questions, according to officials familiar with the document. Grossman and Donilon made two requests: They asked that Pakistan issue a public statement urging the Taliban to join peace negotiations with the Afghan government, and they asked Kayani to release Mullah Baradar from prison, so that Baradar could return to Afghanistan.
Kayani has so far declined the appeals. The sinking relations between the United States and Pakistan reached another low in November, after American aircraft mistakenly killed Pakistani soldiers in an incident along the Pakistan-Afghan border.
The Obama Administration refers to its own policy as “fight and talk.” The American government currently offers a ten-million-dollar reward for information leading to the discovery of Mullah Omar’s location; Omar remains subject to targeting by missile attack or bombing under the laws of war, Administration officials said.
Yet, at the same time, the Administration is urging Pakistan to propose a system of safe passage and security guarantees under which other senior Taliban leaders presumed to be living in Pakistan might travel to the proposed new Taliban political office in Qatar. Under such a system of safe passage, the Afghan government would recommend specific individuals for special treatment; the United States would agree not to target them as enemy commanders. Another concern is how the Taliban leaders’ families would be given guarantees of protection from Pakistani retaliation if the leaders took negotiating positions that Pakistan did not like. The families of Taliban leaders living in Pakistan depend on its government for security, travel documents, access to schools, and licenses to run businesses. Taliban leaders do not want to negotiate with the United States and the Karzai government in circumstances where Pakistan might use these dependencies to coerce their decision-making.
Kayani, for his part, has told his American counterparts that he is confused about whether the Obama Administration wants Mullah Omar alive or dead. One former Administration official said that, among President Obama’s advisers, “there just wasn’t agreement about the answer.”
One morning in Kandahar, I drove to Sarposa Prison, which lies along the Herat highway. It is a vast facility with high, mud-brick walls topped by razor wire. Shabby motorcycle-repair shops and tea stalls face its entrance. When I arrived, Afghan security forces were hoisting a flag above a sandbagged bunker on the roof of one shop. The bunker, it turned out, guarded the entrance to an escape tunnel that the Taliban had dug last year under Sarposa’s walls. The conspirators chiselled for five months and freed about five hundred Taliban commanders and fighters.
Inside, I found the deputy warden, Colonel Nawroz Rahmani, in a whitewashed building situated in a dirt courtyard. Rahmani is a career Army officer; as we talked, he sounded dispirited by his assignment.
After the Taliban prisoners’ escape, he said, the prison had quickly filled up again. It now held more than twelve hundred criminals and Taliban suspects, more than twice the number it was intended to accommodate. To sleep, prisoners pack themselves side by side on concrete floors. The overcrowding reflected Kandahar’s reviving crime problem, Rahmani said, but also the failures of the local court system. “The judges and the prosecutors can’t handle the cases,” he said, and each week more prisoners arrive than are sent to trial or released on parole. “We have sent our requests to the director of prisons in Kandahar, listing the problems we are facing,” he said. They had received no reply.
Cases clog Kandahar’s dockets because often the only way to resolve them is to pay bribes; those who cannot afford the payments languish at Sarposa. The Karzai-appointed judiciary in Kandahar recruits “people who have master’s degrees in corruption,” a veteran practitioner in the system told me. “They don’t want professional prosecutors and justices. They want people who will send back income to Kabul.”
Since 2001, American military commanders and aid officials have often declared that their goal is the establishment of “the rule of law” in Afghanistan. The reality in Kandahar has been that “the justice system either was too weak to protect people from predatory behavior by the powerful, or was predatory itself,” wrote Shafiullah Afghan, a former adviser to the United Nations, in a recently published survey of the region’s courts and prosecutors.
The biannual essays issued under Mullah Omar’s name emphasize corruption and injustice–problems that echo the grievances that brought the Taliban to power. Last year, the Amir instructed Taliban commanders and mediators:
If you receive any report about a given person, first, make a meticulous investigation about him. Never harass people on the basis of fake and biased reports…. When you face a common man, think as if you were a commoner in his place, and as if you had no weapon…. No one affiliated with the Islamic Emirate is allowed to extort money from people by force…. Protection of life and property is one of the main goals of the jihad.
Taliban insurgents and suicide bombers are today responsible for three-quarters of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan’s war, and Taliban assassins often strike their victims with little due process, so Omar’s injunctions ring hollow to many of his Afghan opponents. Yet his calls retain some credibility in Kandahar and surrounding districts. The Taliban still operate mobile courts in many rural areas in the south and east. “Even now, people who take their cases to them are afraid of them,” the veteran of the justice system told me. Yet the Taliban’s proceedings to resolve civil matters, such as land disputes and inheritance claims, are “cheaper, faster and stronger” than anything provided by the Karzai government, Shafiullah Afghan wrote in his recent survey:
In the Taliban system, no bribes are accepted or needed. In the government system, hundreds of sentences are pronounced without ever being executed; in the Taliban system, decisions are always enforced without delay.
Mullah Akhundzada, the guardian of the Prophet’s cloak in Kandahar, told me, “There are very few” who join the Taliban because of religious ideas. Most of the people who join are under pressure. Where the Taliban take influence over areas, the people in those areas really have no choice but to join. Also, people don’t like the government. It’s not a trusted, worthy government. There is corruption. There is no governance here.”
The surge of American troops into Kandahar over the last year has improved local security. The Taliban are still able to mount spectacular attacks, but their day-to-day influence in the city is limited. Many Kandaharis are doubtful, however, that these gains will be sustained once American soldiers pull back. The gains in local security have been periodically undermined. Last week, the Pentagon acknowledged that U.S. marines in southern Afghanistan were shown in a video urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters–another in a series of heavily publicized allegations of abuse by NATO forces.
“People are afraid,” Akhundzada told me. The Taliban “can kill you as you are walking down the street, and no one will punish them. All these explosions–with children killed–and no one is ever arrested, tried, or executed. For the last ten years, the United States, Canada, and other powers have not been able to defeat the Taliban,” he said. “People now believe the Taliban are unbeatable.”
If the Taliban outlast NATO’s presence in Afghanistan, their ambition to rule again could engender a wider civil conflict in the country, which would pit ethnic militias from the north against the Taliban in a revival of the devastating war of the nineteen-nineties. Such a conflict would likely spill into Pakistan, further destabilizing that country. To prevent such an outcome, Obama has been drawn into a seemingly near hopeless project–talking indirectly to a man with a ten-million-dollar bounty on his head, whose intransigence during negotiations a decade ago led to the initial American intervention. The obstacles are daunting: Pakistan seems determined to bide its time, and may undermine the reconciliation process; Karzai’s government has shown no ability to fashion negotiating breakthroughs, despite several years of trying; and the Taliban have yet to offer a single compelling compromise.
The Administration has limited resources and domestic political support to expend on Afghanistan. One danger is that it will substitute the long-shot diplomacy of reconciliation talks with Omar and his closest aides for the step-by- step, messier effort to build more inclusive, less corrupt power sharing among the many Afghans who oppose the Taliban–work that is already hard enough.
Yet the Taliban are an indigenous movement, and the grievances they exploit are widely held among Pashtuns. Even where negotiations to end insurgencies don’t yield a decisive agreement, they nonetheless can reduce violence, spur important defections, or favorably change the contours of a war by altering guerrilla alignments. The case of international talks to reduce the Darfur conflict is an example of such a partial success. Even the most ardent guerrilla leaders sometimes reach a time in middle age when hurtling into battle in a pickup truck while dodging enemy bombers loses its appeal. Although it is difficult to imagine Mullah Omar ever travelling to a five-star hotel in Qatar to negotiate with American diplomats, the lures of legitimacy and political influence may eventually tempt others in the Taliban’s aging leadership. In the Afghan war, in any event, the United States ran out of attractive options a long time ago.
Night after night, raids by American Special Forces target midlevel Taliban commanders for death or arrest. The raids have fragmented the leadership. The loss of veteran commanders and the imprisonment of established leaders such as Mullah Baradar have contributed to disunity in the Taliban’s upper ranks, according to Gopal and other researchers with extensive Taliban contacts. The culling of Taliban field commanders may also reduce the odds that a credible, unified Taliban leadership could ever enter into a political settlement with the Kabul government. With Omar and other historical Taliban leaders in hiding, “today’s Taliban is immature young people,” as Qalamuddin, the former Islamic Emirate minister, put it.
One afternoon, I drove out to a Kandahar compound that has been used to house Taliban field commanders who have defected to the Karzai regime. In a one-story house with dirt floors, where flies swirled in air perfumed by hashish smoke, I found Haji Toorjan, a young Taliban leader from Arghandab, a district on Kandahar’s northwestern outskirts.
Toorjan told me that he had joined the Taliban when he had no beard. He said he was now twenty-six. He defected last year with about two dozen other soldiers. Afghanistan’s intelligence service publicized his decision as an indicator that momentum in the south was swinging Karzai’s way.
Toorjan said that he now regrets his choice. The Karzai administration has not fulfilled promises to provide him and his men with security, jobs, and income. In the meantime, the Taliban have targeted some of his relatives in Arghandab for revenge killings. American forces have detained other relatives, he complained.
Tacked to the mud walls of Toorjan’s hut were a dozen color posters depicting prosperous city streets, pristine Swiss chalets, and large suburban American homes with mowed lawns. From where we sat, the photographs looked like science fiction. “My friends put these up, to raise our morale,” T oorjan told me. “I don’t have any hope in my life. I don’t know how many days 1will be alive…. I don’t know why I came. Maybe my brain was not working.”
As we talked, Toorjan chain-smoked. I asked if he still felt personal loyalty to Mullah Omar. He said that he did. “He is honest and he has unblemished faith. When he makes promises to us, he keeps his word. Mullah Mohammad Omar is doing better with government people who surrender to the Taliban than the government here is doing with people who surrender to it.”
I wondered if he thought Omar might forgive him if he now returned to fight again on the Taliban’s side. Toorjan replied that he did not think the Amir’s magnanimity would extend that far. “If I go there,” he said, “my head will be taken from me.”