The has conceded Mullah Mohammad Omar, the one-eyed Afghan cleric who transformed a mob of 50 madrasa students into a national insurgency, is dead amid reports it has appointed a supporter of peace talks as his successor.
The statement, which followed denials of Omar’s death and recent statements in his name, said he had died “some time ago”, without specifying when. The Afghan government believes he died in a hospital in Karachi, in April 2013.
Anonymous Afghan Taliban commanders, speaking to the Reuters news agency, said a leadership council in had appointed Omar’s deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, to head the movement. Mansoor has been a proponent of the recent, embryonic peace talks and is seen as a pragmatist.
The announcement followed a day of silence from the Taliban, after the Afghan government said it had credible intelligence that Omar died more than two years ago.
The cleric, who led the movement since its inception in 1994, shunned publicity and disappeared completely from public view after his government was toppled in 2001.
Confirming that Omar had died of illness, the Taliban statement claimed that he never fled , contrary to a widespread belief that he was living in hiding in Karachi. The statement went on to ask for forgiveness, on behalf of Omar’s family, from people whose rights might have been violated in Taliban controlled territory.
In Kabul’s Karte Naw district, an area predominantly populated by Pashtuns – who also make up the bulk of the Taliban – many shared a sense of uncertainty about future peace and about the government’s capabilities.
In a grimy backroom of one neighbourhood mosque, Jan Mohammad, a blind – a memoriser of the Qur’an – said he was unsure Omar had ever existed.
“Nobody knows because nobody has ever seen him,” he said. Mullah Omar vanished after fleeing Kandahar in 2001 and rarely appeared in public before then. “I think there was no Mullah Omar,” he said.
Others expressed support for the deceased insurgency leader. Nabi Mangal, a friendly, tall 65-year-old with a cream-coloured turban, said Mullah Omar’s death would do little to dissuade the Taliban. “If Mullah Saheb is dead, there will be 1,000 other Mullah Sahebs,” he said, using a reverential term for the cleric.
Enayatullah, 19, said most people his age who live in the city do not have strong opinions about the Taliban leader, whom they do not remember. Yet one of his friends had lamented Omar’s passing on Facebook: “If death comes to you, it should come to me instead.”
Some mosque-goers said the government had deliberately withheld information about Omar’s death for years. Indeed, Hasib Sadiqi, a spokesman for the national spy agency told the Guardian that the agency had told lawmakers for 18 months that Omar had died. Yet, in July, the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, welcomed a message, purportedly from Mullah Omar, endorsing peace talks.
Others suggested that the Afghan government simply didn’t know about Omar’s death, and that the poor quality of Afghan intelligence was even worse than wilful deception.
“Two years. For two years this big criminal was dead, and the government didn’t know about it,” said Wahid Rahmani, 25. “What kind of government is this? Screw this government.”
Omar’s designated replacement, Mansour, served as aviation minister in the Taliban government that was in power from 1996 to 2001 and fought alongside Omar against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. “He is from the core group that was there from the beginning,” said author who has chronicled the war and the Taliban.
With a record of favouring reconciliation, Mansour tried to retire from the insurgency early in the war and offered to support the new government under Hamid Karzai. But after he was rebuked, and learned that he was in fact on the US hit list, he fled the country, according to Gopal. He later rose to the top of the ranks in the Taliban.
Mansour, however, does not command the same reverence as Omar, whom tens of thousands saw as Commander of the Faithful, after he donned a cloak in 1996 that had belonged to the Prophet Muhammad.
Some fear the announcement of Omar’s death may disrupt talks between the insurgents and the government. With various factions disagreeing over whether to push for political inclusion through negotiations, or to use the current momentum to attempt all-out military victory, Omar served as a unifying figure.
His death could be detrimental to peace talks, Gopal said, “because Mullah Omar’s imprimatur was important in getting people to the table.”
He added: “This could actually hasten the fragmentation of the Taliban, though it’s too early to say.”
The announcement also comes at a time when Pakistan has put rare pressure on the Taliban to accept Ghani’s offer to restart peace talks.
It was Pakistan who hosted the first round of talks. It was also Pakistan who delivered the first setback when it conveyed a message on Thursday from the Taliban leadership that they were postponing the second round of peace talks, initially slated for Friday.