Will Mullah Omar Get Assassinated?

This photo of top Taliban leader Mullah Omar is one of only a few known Omar photos. Its source is unknown and it is readily found on the Internet. This particular copy was taken from a German blog (http://ladurnerulrich.wordpress.com/2009/09/20/sowjetische-szenarien/). Note that Omar’s right eye is gone. He lost it fighting the Soviets in the 1980s. Click twice to enlarge.

Raising the specter of an assassination should not be done lightly, but the secret Eide-Taliban meeting in Dubai on January 8 implies either an upcoming Omar assassination attempt by his own deputies or an Omar purge of the Taliban’s leadership circle, known as the “Quetta Shura”. There may even be a couple of other possibilities.

Kai Eide, the outgoing UN special representative for Afghanistan, denies that he ever met with Taliban regional commanders. The Taliban denies the meeting too. However, Secretary Clinton not only claims that she was briefed about the Eide-Taliban meeting but that the US government did not know about the meeting until afterwards.

Perhaps Eide did not inform the US government about the meeting because of the troubled relationship that exists between the two but he probably should have anyway because once the US government was briefed on the meeting, the seasoned diplomat should have calculated the possibility of a leak. US officials leak so much to the press nowadays.

What is a “shura”? The shura in Afghanistan is a traditional meeting of elders. It is an Arab institution still used in the Middle East and actually predates the prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. It might come as some surprise that the concept of the shura has some similarities with the Western view of representative government (see link). In the shura system, Afghan elders, who represent the needs of their people, arrive at a consensus after speaking their minds. The existence of the shura plus the fact that non-Pashtun ethnic groups fear Pashtun domination may explain in large part why polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of Afghans approve of their current form of democratic government.

The Quetta Shura refers to the Afghan Taliban shura, which now resides in Quetta, Pakistan, the capital city of Baluchistan Province. Baluchistan borders Afghanistan. After Omar and other high-ranking Taliban leaders fled Afghanistan in December 2001, they crossed into Pakistan and eventually ended up in Quetta. Osama bin Ladin also is thought to be in Quetta. To be sure, Omar has the final word in the Taliban movement but he listens to his shura before making important decisions.

(Note that the Quetta Shura is a reference to the Afghan Taliban only and should not be confused with the Pakistani Taliban, which is currently led by Hakimullah Mehsud, and is headquartered in South Waziristan in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area. Recently, there have been conflicting reports that Mehsud may have been killed by a drone airstrike.)

Laying aside for the moment a possible Omar assassination by rebel elements in his inner circle and assuming that at some point international forces and the Afghan army will deal the Taliban and the other insurgency groups an overwhelming blow, the odds are good that large numbers of Taliban will make peace eventually with the Karzai government. However, what are the odds that Mullah Omar himself will make peace with the Karzai government? Not good. He is passé as the French say and it is difficult to imagine him playing any constructive role in a post-Taliban era.

First, there is the ideological issue. Omar is an ideological extremist. His motivation is not to gain money and fame but it is an ideologically-driven attempt to force all Afghans, including all non-Pashtuns, to accept Omar’s hybrid version of extremist Islam, which is a blending of Pashtun culture with strands of Wahhabism (from Saudi Arabia) and Deobandism (from India).

Second, it is hard to imagine Omar playing second string to Karzai. This is due to Omar’s high religious opinion of himself and his low opinion of Karzai. Omar claims to be the successor to the Prophet Muhammad. In April 1996, before the Taliban captured Kabul but after it had already taken most of southern Afghanistan, Omar climbed to the top of a Kandahar rooftop and put on the Cloak of the Prophet. This was a religious act signifying succession to Muhammad, not over just Afghans but over the worldwide Islamic community (the “ummah”). Ahmad Rashid, the acclaimed Pakistani journalist and Taliban expert, notes in his book “Taliban” that Omar’s act was not sanctioned by the ulema, or educated Muslim religious legal scholars. It was a local event done by Omar and accepted by his followers at the time and, therefore, has no legitimacy outside the Taliban circle.

Omar also has little respect for Karzai. He views Karzai as a Western puppet who was installed by the West to serve Western interests. To Omar, Karzai is equal to an infidel. Never mind the fact that Omar has his history wrong. Afghan leaders, including many former Mujahideen, placed Karzai over the interim government in December 2001 at the Bonn Conference. In January 2004, the new constitution was ratified and Afghans elected Karzai president that October.

Perhaps someone should remind Omar that the puppet argument might just as easily apply to him (see story). It was Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that materially and logistically aided the Taliban in its early days. The Taliban never would have taken Kabul and defeated the many warlords that it did had it not been for outside assistance. Moreover, Omar never allowed a free election to confirm him as the people’s choice as did Karzai. Omar ruled by the end of a rifle barrel.

So will Omar’s deputies attempt an assassination? If Omar did not sanction the Eide-Taliban meeting then we should expect to see a shake up in the Quetta Shura. If there is not an assassination attempt then perhaps Omar will purge the shura of its rebel elements. The rebel commanders might even flee to Karzai. However, if Omar sanctioned the Eide-Taliban meeting then in the near term the Karzai government and the Quetta Shura would likely hold a series of private meetings in an attempt to reconcile.

There is still another possibility. There is growing evidence that the battle for Afghanistan is turning against the insurgents. General McChrystal said as much this week (see story). It could be that if the Taliban is feeling the heat -as may be assumed by the very fact that Taliban regional commanders sought out Eide- then Omar may be weakened politically within the Quetta Shura. If this is the case and Omar did not sanction the Eide-Taliban meeting then we may not see an Omar purge of the Quetta Shura, nor an assassination attempt against him, nor a flight of the rebel regional commanders. Omar may simply beef up his personal security and avoid close contact with his deputies.