Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader, was declared dead by the Afghan government on Wednesday, ending years of fierce speculation over the reclusive figurehead’s whereabouts, but raising fresh questions over efforts to negotiate an end to decades of war.
A brief statement from the office of the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, said Omar, who had not been seen in public since 2001 and had been reported dead several times before, died two years ago in Pakistan. The announcement – the first of its kind made by the Afghan government – was not confirmed or denied by the Taliban. But the White House described the report as credible last night and, along with Ghani, urged the group to seize the opportunity to pursue peace talks with the Kabul authorities.
“They [the Taliban] can accept the government of Afghanistan’s invitation to join a peace process ... or they can choose to continue fighting Afghans and destabilising their own country,” said the White House spokesman, Eric Schultz.
Ghani, who has poured political capital into pursuing negotiations, hailed the news as a breakthrough. “The government of believes that grounds for the Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before,” his office said in a statement, adding that insurgents should “seize the opportunity and join the peace process”.
However, some analysts warned that Omar’s disappearance posed a serious risk to the peace process because a bitter or prolonged leadership struggle could fragment a group already riven by internal disputes.
In early July, after several informal meetings, an official government delegation from the government met three Taliban representatives outside Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. Following the summit, different factions, including the movement’s political office in Qatar, denied that the Taliban delegation represented the movement. The public disagreements were partly quelled the following week, however, when a , purportedly from Omar, endorsed the peace talks.
But the exploratory talks have also divided the Afghan government, where not everyone supports granting the insurgents a political role. Felix Kuehn, an author who has researched the Taliban for 10 years, suggested that the reports of Omar’s death could have been leaked by people within the government who seek to create fissures in the Taliban to undercut the talks. “If it is true, it would be a major issue for the peace talks, and it would be a major issue for the Taliban, because he can’t really be replaced,” Kuehn said.
He added that although hardly anyone claims to have seen Omar alive, he is the one thing that holds many factions of the movement together. “He is more than a man, he is an institution,” he said. “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.” Kuehn said.
In more than a decade as the official head of an insurgency against the US and its allies, Omar did not release a single video, audiotape or even a signed letter. When in power, he was so elusive that only a few photos and one brief video of him exist, and speculation about his fate had been building.
A Pakistani intelligence official told the Guardian on Wednesday he had been aware of the reports of Omar’s death since January 2014, based on information from “close aides” of the militant chief and family members.
The Afghan government did not say what killed Omar or where he died, but Hasib Sediqi, spokesman for the Afghan intelligence agency, NDS, said the agency had known for a while that Omar “died suspiciously” in a hospital in Karachi in April 2013. “We have been raising this question for the last one and a half years,” he said. “We have intelligence that Mullah Omar is no longer alive. Now we are happy that foreign forces are confirming this as well.” Rumours of the Taliban leader’s death have been rife for years, but he has never before been declared dead by the government. Pakistan’s Express Tribune said that after years on the battlefield, Omar had finally succumbed to tuberculosis, and had been buried across the border in Afghanistan.
Intelligence analysts had always suspected that Omar, like the former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, had found refuge in Pakistan. But in a decade or so of fighting the Taliban, during which more than 450 British soldiers were killed, neither Afghans nor international allies were able to pinpoint where Omar was hiding.
While some believe Omar’s demise could clear the way for commanders who back peace talks to push harder for a settlement, others warn that the loss of a figurehead also makes the Taliban more vulnerable to splintering at a time when Islamic State are already making inroads.
“The movement has been vulnerable to fractures and this tendency would accelerate,” said Borhan Osman, a Kabul-based analyst with expertise in the Taliban who said that he was still hesitant to believe the reports. “It could undermine the unity in major decisions like going to peace talks. If there are some elements in the higher echelons of the Taliban who are trying to form an opposition, rather than just talking about it, they could easily act on it.”
The Taliban leadership this year published a “biography” of Omar – the one-eyed cleric born in the province of Uruzgan in 1962 – in an attempt to stem discontent, emphasising that he was still the rightful leader of the faithful and of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the movement called the country while it was in power.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida, explicitly renewed a formal pledge of loyalty to Omar in September 2014 in a video announcing the formation of a new affiliate of his organisation in south Asia. If Omar was dead at the time, as the reports claim, it would indicate Zawahiri was unaware or unwilling to disclose it.
But the debate about Omar’s health and whereabouts had already stirred speculation about who should head the movement he led since its creation, presiding over the group’s dramatic rise to control of Afghanistan in the 1990s and then its rebirth as a tenacious insurgency. Because the Taliban have only had one leader, there is no proven mechanism to replace him and the struggle over the succession is likely to be a fierce one, with Omar’s eldest son, 26-year-old Mullah Mohammad Yaqoub, reportedly challenging the movement’s official number two, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.
There are also several outstanding questions about Omar’s death, with no detail on exactly how or where he died, or where he was buried – something that may not be revealed for years, his biographer, Bette Dam, said, quoting a senior Taliban official: “You can’t find the grave, the grave is secret,” he told her, after confirming the death.