Taleban leader Mullah Omar dead – Afghan statement casts doubt over tentative peace talks

In this undated image released by the FBI, Mullah Omar is seen in a wanted poster. An Afghan official says his government is examining claims that reclusive Taleban leader Mullah Omar is dead. The Taleban could not be immediately reached for comment on the government’s claims about Omar, who has been declared dead many times before. —AP

In this undated image released by the FBI, Mullah Omar is seen in a wanted poster. An Afghan official says his government is examining claims that reclusive Taleban leader Mullah Omar is dead. The Taleban could not be immediately reached for comment on the government’s claims about Omar, who has been declared dead many times before. —AP

KABUL: Afghanistan said yesterday that Mullah Omar, elusive leader of the Taleban movement behind an escalating insurgency against the government in Kabul, died more than two years ago. The announcement came a day or so before a second round of peace talks had been tentatively scheduled, and news of the fate of the one-eyed Omar could deepen Taleban divisions over whether to pursue negotiations and who should replace him.

Omar had not been seen in public since fleeing when the Taliban was toppled from power by a US-led coalition in 2001, and there has been speculation for years among militant circles that he was either incapacitated or had died. “The government … based on credible information, confirms that Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taleban, died in April 2013 in Pakistan,” the presidential palace said in a brief statement, without specifying what the information was. “The government of Afghanistan believes that grounds for the Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before, and thus calls on all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity and join the peace process.” The Taleban’s regular spokesman could not be reached for comment through normal channels.

The comments came as preparations were under way for the next round of talks between the Afghan government and the Taleban, provisionally planned for today or tomorrow in a location yet to be confirmed. President Ashraf Ghani is keen to broker a settlement with the insurgents, who have been gaining territory in pockets of the country and intensifying attacks on military and political targets. Thousands of civilians and security personnel are killed each year in the violence, which has worsened since NATO withdrew most of its forces from the country at the end of 2014.

Succession moves
Omar’s death is likely to intensify the internal tussle to replace him. The Taleban is already split between senior figures who support talks with Kabul to end the 13-year war and others who want to continue to fight for power. A senior Afghan Taleban commander based in neighbouring Pakistan said Omar had died of natural causes, although he did not specify when. “We are at a crossroads, and it will take some time to resolve this (leadership) issue,” the militant said. He added that a faction within the Taleban wanted one of Omar’s sons to take over, while another favoured the promotion of political leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who has been among those who support peace talks.

Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Omar’s death would explain his silence when NATO troops withdrew and when Ghani’s government took power. “These death confirmations and rejections are all part of a big pitch for power within an increasingly fractured and rudderless (Taliban) organisation,” he said, speaking before the palace issued its statement.

Nicholas Haysom, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, noted that confirmation of Omar’s death had emanated from Pakistan. “It … provides an opportunity for Afghans to turn the page on the past and focus on the conditions and arrangements by which Afghans can live together in peace,” he said. —Reuters

This article was published on 30/07/2015