Since 2001, Mullah Omar had been little more than a ghost, almost as elusive to his own rank and file as he was to the Taliban’s enemies. He was a cipher, figurehead and inspiration, but left the day-to-day military and political decisions to a circle of senior commanders.
“I have asked around a lot and there was no military strategy coming from Mullah Omar, not in 2001, not in 2005, not in 2010,” said Bette Dam, a journalist and author who has been researching a biography of Omar for several years.
That remove from power appears to have made it possible for the group to keep Omar officially “alive” long after his death, putting out an annual message for the Eid holidays in his name, for example. It also makes it hard to judge exactly how his absence will affect the group’s strategy, or the prospects for embryonic peace talks with the Afghan government.
At a time when the movement was at odds about whether to pursue those negotiations and more extreme commanders were already being lured away to join Islamic State, Omar’s name was used by top commanders to unite feuding factions. Now, that might change – and a struggle over succession could ensue.
“If it is true [that he is dead], it would be a major issue for the peace talks, and it would be a major issue for the , because he can’t really be replaced,” said Felix Kuehn, an author who has researched the group for more than 10 years.
He suggested that Wednesday’s news could have been leaked by factions opposed to peace talks, after the latest message issued in his name this month appeared to endorse the negotiations.
“He is more than a man, he is an institution,” said Kuehn. “Even the younger generation of Talibs who have never seen him, and who are not very aligned with the policies put out by the Taliban leadership – those who are more radical and less inclined to peace talks – always speak highly of Mullah Omar, and want to hear what he thinks.”
But the lack of clear direction has become a major source of tension in recent years. The Taliban movement itself was reported to be riven by divisions about whether or not he was alive, and frustration about the leadership void he created or bequeathed.
“In the current situation there is so much at stake, the possibility of peace, and many of the Taliban want a leader who can make daily decisions for them,” said Dam. “I noticed how Taliban leaders were looking out for a top leader, especially when difficult issues come up. Would Mullah Omar suddenly interrupt and correct them? Not many dared run the risk of being corrected, wherever he was.”
There is also a possibility that Omar could still be alive. His obituary has been written several times before, including twice in 2011, when Afghan intelligence sources first said he had been shot dead, and then a month later Taliban websites put out a death notice, before saying they had been hacked.
“The timing of the release of this information needs to be taken very seriously,” said Dam. “There are several groups within the Taliban and outside who want to make sure they have a share in any peace or any power sharing, lots of groups are afraid to be left out.”