If Mullah Omar Really Is Dead, What Does That Mean for the Taliban?

Is Mullah Omar Actually Dead This Time?

Is Mullah Omar Actually Dead This Time?

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July 29 2015 11:08 AM

If Mullah Omar Really Is Dead, What Does That Mean for the Taliban?

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Mullah Omar

U.S. State Department

It usually pays to be cautious about rumors of the demise of militant leaders, and that’s doubly true of reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who has previously been reported killed in 2011, 2008 and less prominently several other times. But though the Taliban has not commented yet, Afghan authorities seem to be taking this week’s death rumors more seriously.

The BBC reports that sources within the Afghan presidential administration and intelligence agency say Omar died two or three years ago. The Afghan government says it is working to verify the reports, and the Taliban is expected to issue a statement soon. (Update, 3:30 p.m.: Afghan officials have now confirmed that Omar was killed two years ago in Pakistan.)

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Omar hasn’t been heard from much in recent years but is still a symbolically important leader. In his 50s, he lost his right eye fighting the Soviets in the 1980s and led the Taliban to victory over rival factions in the civil war that followed, becoming Afghanistan’s head of state in 1996. The close alliance he formed with Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaida led to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the Taliban’s overthrow in 2001, but he managed to escape, going into hiding. The U.S. has put a $10 million price on his head. 

The news of Omar’s death would come at a tense time for the Taliban, which is facing an insurgent threat of its own from ISIS-affiliated groups in Afghanistan, and has begun peace talks this summer with the Afghan government. Despite the talks, the Taliban is also in the midst of what could be its deadliest ever annual fighting season, which has included a major offensive in southern Helmand province, the seizure of a police base in northern Badakhshan, and numerous attacks on Kabul, including the country’s parliament.

The Pakistan-based negotiations with the Afghan government have reportedly split the movement’s leaders, and a prominent Taliban website has denounced the negotiating team as midlevel sellouts. Omar’s presumed support for the talks may have been the biggest thing they had going for them. Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, Omar’s chief deputy who frequently speaks on his behalf, led the Taliban delegation to the talks,  and a statement supporting the process, purportedly by Omar, was posted online on July 15, though it was text only, making it difficult to verify. If the timing in the BBC's story is right, the Afghan government has been negotiating with a dead man. 

Confirmation of the death of Omar, who’s been the Taliban’s most prominent figure since the mid-1990s, could split the movement further. The Afghan government may be ready to sit down with the Taliban, but it’s increasingly unclear what the Taliban is. 

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and author of the forthcoming book, Invisible Countries.