Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader who fought a protracted war against both Soviet Union and NATO in Afghanistan, has died due to illness. With his death the militant group has lost its most charismatic and unifying figure.
Not much is known about one-eyed Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who fought long wars against the Soviets, the US and the local Afghan forces during his lifetime. Omar, who became the head of the Taliban government when the militants took control of Kabul in 1996, remained a mysterious figure until his death.
There are different accounts about where and when Omar was born. A biography published by the Taliban says the jihadist leader was born into a religious family in the Khakriz district of the southern Kandahar province in 1960. He lost his father at the age of five and moved to Uruzgan – another southern province – to live under the guardianship of his two uncles. He received traditional religious education at local madrassahs in Urzugran but left to join the fight against the Soviet occupation of his country in 1979.
When the Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, Omar, like many other Mujahideen (Islamic warriors) supported by the US and Pakistan, kept on fighting against the Soviet-backed government of Mohammad Najibullah who was overthrown in 1992. He lost his right eye due to a sharpnel injury.
The birth of the Taliban
Afghanistan plunged into a civil war in the early 1990s, and the Mujahedeen, who had once fought side-by-side, started to kill each other in a fierce battle for power.
Initially, Omar didn’t get involved in the tug of war and reportedly spent his time preaching Islam to villagers in Kandahar. Frustrated by the lawlessness and power struggle of the local warlords, Omar only got involved in the country’s politics in 1994.
That same year, Omar, accompanied by some 50 madrassah students, marched from Kandahar to other parts of the war-torn country where they removed illegal checkpoints set up to collect taxes for the warlords and started winning over the local population. This is said to be the beginning of the Taliban movement that later spread across the country. His militia comprised the destitute Afghans who were born and raised in the refugee camps set up by the Pakistani military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq during the 1980s along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Backed by Pakistan, Omar’s forces overpowered rival militant groups and captured the Afghan capital in 1996 and killed former Afghan President Najibullah who had taken refuge in a United Nations’ building. The Taliban fighters later named their new government the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and Mullah Omar became the Amir al-Momineen or leader of the faithful.
Afghanistan under the Taliban rule
By 1998, Omar’s forces controlled over 90 percent of Afghanistan and imposed strict Shariah laws based on the population. Omar’s regime was accused of grave human rights abuses and massacres in the country.
Women’s rights were severely curtailed and the minorities were treated badly by the Taliban. It was during Omar’s time in power that Afghanistan became a safe haven for al Qaeda leaders. Osama bin Laden, the leader of the terrorist group, was reportedly living in Kandahar where he developed close ties with Omar.
The Taliban leader’s association with al Qaeda and bin Laden was crucial for his regime’s survival as the terrorist group provided financial assistance in exchange for protection for al Qaeda members. After bin Laden claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, US officials demanded that Mullah Omar hand over bin Laden to them. But Omar turned them down – a decision that eventually led to the US invasion of Afghanistan and the beginning of Omar’s next long war against the Western-allied forces.
Post 2001 life
Omar reportedly fled to Pakistan’s tribal areas in 2001 when US-led forces took control of Kabul. From there he reorganized his fighters and launched a guerrilla warfare against NATO and Afghan security forces. The US state department had put a $10 million (nine million euro) bounty on his head.
He formed an alliance with other militant groups such as the Haqqani Network and the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan and formed the Quetta Shura (council), which now orchestrates most militant activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Omar was believed to be close to Pakistan’s security agency, the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence, which experts say used his group to fight a proxy war against increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan post 9/11. Islamabad has always denied these claims.
The Taliban changed their fighting tactics after 2001, mostly carrying out suicide attacks and roadside bombings that killed and injured many Afghan and US security forces as well as thousands of civilians.
The Afghan government called on Mullah Omar to join the government and take part in the 2014 elections but the extremist leader said he would continue his fight until all foreign troops left Afghanistan.
His group had been engaged in peace talks with the Afghan government since last year.