The Taliban Still Depend on Mullah Omar’s Legacy

Nine years after his death, the founding leader of the Islamist movement continues to exert an unparalleled influence over its members

The Taliban Still Depend on Mullah Omar’s Legacy
Vendors work at a market near a billboard displaying the Taliban founder and late supreme leader Mullah Omar and late leader of the Haqqani militant network Jalaluddin Haqqani in Kabul on March 1, 2022 / Wakil Kosher / AFP via Getty Images

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If one event can encapsulate the strange times Afghans are now living in, I wonder if we have just witnessed it without recognizing the fact. On April 24, the Taliban’s acting defense minister, Mullah Mohammed Yaqoob, stood at a podium in a television studio in Kabul and gave a speech to mark the anniversary of his father’s death. His father, I should remind readers, was the Taliban’s spiritual founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar Mujahed. While we have grown accustomed to living with the surreal in Afghanistan during the last eight months, there was something extraordinary about this seemingly mundane spectacle that I would like to explore in more detail here.

Other events since the Taliban’s victory last summer have been striking for their audacity and belligerence, notably the painting of an enormous Taliban flag outside the U.S. Embassy and the closing down of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. But Yaqoob’s speech and the wider commemorative event it was part of hinted at a greater nuance to the Taliban than their public persona suggests. An inner conflict between old and new ideas is clearly playing out between factions inside the government and even within the psyches of individual members themselves.

There is a willingness within the Taliban to evolve, but it seems there is also confusion over how best to do this while still respecting the movement’s past.

Back in the 1990s, the Taliban regime deemed television un-Islamic, with some Talibs even going so far as to leave piles of smashed TV sets on display to show their disdain for the moving image. Attitudes inevitably changed when propaganda became an essential tool of the insurgency against the Americans, and it’s no surprise to see the government now using TV for its own ends. But during the war against the U.S., another ideological line was rarely — if ever — crossed: In Taliban circles anniversaries were rejected as a distraction from the regular practice of Islam. For the Taliban, true Islamic faith was demonstrated through day-to-day actions, not special occasions.

In 20 years of fighting the Americans and their Afghan allies, the closest the insurgents came to anniversary tributes of any sort was naming military offensives after famous battles from Islamic history, launching suicide attacks during auspicious times in the Islamic calendar like Ramadan, or declaring a ceasefire for Eid. Whether or not it was televised, then, the recent event to mark the ninth anniversary of Mullah Omar’s death was an occasion he would have reviled as an affront to his religious beliefs. Yet it was also perhaps the most obvious sign so far that the Taliban leadership is trying to keep his memory alive not just out of respect for what they regard as his achievements but as a way of maintaining unity among members who risk falling out over the challenges of being in government again.

Dressed in a shalwar kameez, waistcoat and loosely wound turban, Yaqoob stood in front of digitally projected images of his father and a few lines of Pashto and Dari script that gave the scene the air of a presentation at a corporate seminar. A competent if unspectacular speaker, the words of tribute he offered for his father provided a brief insight into the trauma felt by this new generation of Talibs — a trauma we must surely recognize if we are to understand the ideas and actions of men who now hold our future in their hands. Yaqoob said he had been with his father in Kandahar in 2001 when a U.S. air strike shattered the windows of a room where he was resting. He, Mullah Omar and other family members scrambled into a vehicle to escape only to narrowly survive another air strike as they drove to safety. At a village outside Kandahar city, he said, he and his father then parted company. Yaqoob went on to return to the city before moving to Uruzgan, another province in the south. He never saw his father alive again.

Mullah Omar is widely reported to have died in a hospital in Karachi in April 2013, with the cause of his death believed to be tuberculosis. But my sources insist he did not take refuge in Pakistan and in fact died from natural causes in Afghanistan. Whatever the truth, the Taliban leadership spent two years after 2013 pretending he was alive, even issuing statements in his name out of fear that his demise would undermine morale at a crucial stage of the insurgency. Now, faced with internal discord over issues including the continued closure of girls’ schools, a failure to allow humanitarian aid from the U.N. into remote areas and whispers of corruption within key government ministries, it seems that the memory of Mullah Omar is being revived. No one else in the Taliban’s history has a reputation that comes close to his among fellow members.

According to a Taliban profile of him released after his death, Mullah Omar was born into a family of modestly educated religious scholars sometime around 1960 in the Khakrez district of Kandahar. His background was unremarkable, yet by the time he was in his late 30s, he ruled Afghanistan with a title that suggested a unique standing within the Islamic world: amir al-mu’minin, meaning “prince of the believers” or “commander of the faithful.” Those who knew him, however, insist he remained true to his roots.

Over the years I have talked to many Talibs who were close to Mullah Omar in the 1990s and early 2000s and spoke to Afghans who bumped into him in passing during that period. All of them described him in much the same way: polite, devout and self-effacing. Of course, these are not the views of the huge numbers of Afghans who suffered under Taliban rule, but I think it is wrong to dismiss them as mere hagiography. The cult of Mullah Omar’s personality is rooted in a reading of his backstory that predates the U.S. invasion. He is revered as a madrassa student who went on to join the fight against Soviet occupation before helping to end the civil war between rival Islamist factions that followed the Soviet withdrawal, not because he was the leader of a state that harbored the architects of 9/11 and severely restricted women’s rights. There is no doubt this is a selectively nostalgic reading of history, but it has nevertheless been a potent unifying force for his followers. Without Mullah Omar’s reputation for integrity and self-sacrifice, the insurgency against the U.S. might never have succeeded.

One illustration of the continued devotion Talibs feel toward him is the fact that many still informally refer to him as “Omar the third” because of the similarities they perceive in his personality with two other men from Islamic history: Omar ibn al-Khattab, the Prophet Muhammad’s father-in-law, and Omar ibn Abd al-Aziz, the eighth Umayyad Caliph. I have heard all sorts of stories about Mullah Omar’s humility, some of them possibly apocryphal yet still symbolic of his appeal. It is well known that in the spring of 1996 he wrapped himself in a cloak reputed to have belonged to the Prophet Muhammad, cementing his status as amir al-mu’minin in front of a huge crowd of supporters.

Until a few years ago, grainy camera footage from that day provided one of the few verifiable images of him because he never appeared at a high-profile public event again. But I’ve heard that when the Taliban were in power in the late 1990s, he regularly spent Friday nights quietly visiting a shrine in Kandahar that holds the cloak without being accompanied by the usual phalanx of bodyguards that Afghans are accustomed to seeing around their political leaders. Similarly, a friend who now teaches at Kandahar University still recalls being in school when he saw Mullah Omar drive past in a red Toyota pickup truck waving back at passersby who greeted him. Talibs, meanwhile, cite his willingness to put himself at risk, and not just when fighting the Soviets or the Americans. One Talib I know told me that Mullah Omar lost his cool when Taliban government forces suffered setbacks in the area of Shomali, north of Kabul, during their fight against the Northern Alliance. Hearing news of the losses, Mullah Omar apparently shed tears of rage and vowed to lead his men into battle himself. He left Kandahar for Kabul soon afterward, only to be persuaded to turn around by one his commanders before completing the journey.

These are obviously minor anecdotes in the life story of a man whose rule had tragic consequences for Afghanistan and the world, yet they help explain at least some of the Taliban founder’s appeal. One need only look at the hubris of our last government under President Ashraf Ghani to understand why the comparatively unassuming and courageous behavior of Mullah Omar lingers in some memories.

Although he has a reputation internationally as being reclusive during the first Taliban regime, my understanding is that Mullah Omar only began to withdraw from public life after a truck bomb blew up outside his home in Kandahar in August 1999. Exactly who carried out the attack has never been established, but Osama bin Laden subsequently helped fund the building of a new, more secure compound for him elsewhere in the city — giving the al Qaeda leader a chance to ingratiate himself into Mullah Omar’s inner circle.

The Taliban have struggled to find a suitable replacement for Mullah Omar since his death in 2013. His first successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, was a different kind of personality: well-connected and bold, a business owner and deal-maker more than a scholar. Under him the Taliban established their political office in Doha, which was a key step toward encouraging the U.S. withdrawal. But Mullah Mansour’s tenure as leader was short lived, as he was killed in a drone strike in May 2016. The current Taliban leader, Sheikh Hibatullah Akhundzada, shares more of Mullah Omar’s traits. He has little interest in politics, negotiations or the outside world and is very much steeped in the Taliban’s clerical traditions. Not everyone inside the movement thinks his approach is the right one, as the recent anger among some Talibs over the continued closure of girls’ schools showed.

Last month’s televised anniversary commemorations seemed to be a way for the Taliban to show that they can live with their differences. Those in attendance included senior officials from the Haqqani network — a clique within the Taliban that has its roots in eastern, rather than southern, Afghanistan. Other speakers at the event included the deputy prime minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Mullah Abdul Salam Hanafi, the second deputy prime minister — two men with long histories in the Taliban. All of these elements will have to coexist in harmony for the Taliban government to stand a chance of surviving, let alone thriving. Yaqoob used his speech not just to praise his father and appease the rank and file, but also to make a wider political point. The Taliban government has accused Pakistan of killing civilians in recent airstrikes in eastern Afghanistan, and as acting defense minister he knew he had to address the issue in some form. Rather than publicly rebuke Pakistan by name, he said Afghanistan was “facing problems and challenges from both the world and our neighbors.” The Taliban had tolerated the air strikes “because of national interests” but might not do so if they happen again, he warned.

Governing any country is a delicate balancing act, but the difficulties that lie ahead for Afghanistan are particularly acute and would test the patience of even the most skilled political operators. Whether the Taliban can honor the sacrifices of their past and keep to their ideological principles while also forging an inclusive future that embraces dissent and respects the rights of all Afghans is still very much an open question. Theirs is a movement steeped in a long history of war, legitimate and illegitimate claims of victimhood, authoritarian instincts and myths of its own making. They have proved themselves on the battlefield but have yet to show the political maturity and willingness to compromise that this country needs from its rulers in peacetime. Somehow, then, the Taliban of 2022 must go forward while still looking back. Resurrecting their old leader Mullah Omar might be one unlikely way for them to do this.

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