On Wednesday, the office of Afghanistan's president officially stated in a press release, "The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, based on credible information, confirms that Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban died in April 2013 in Pakistan." The White House stopped short of independently confirming the news, but its spokesperson, Eric Schultz, said that the reports of the Taliban leader's death appeared "credible." Both the Arg, the Afghan presidential palace, and the White House are confirming what has been widely believed to be the case by some for the last two plus years: Mullah Omar is not only dead but he reportedly died in Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, where he is said to have had sanctuary for several years. The Taliban, too, have confirmed the death of its leader.
Pakistan, which had been flatly denying that Mullah Omar was ever on its soil, is mum and has given no official response as yet. But the Pakistani state seems to have been caught yet again with its hand in the jihadist cookie jar. Similarities between Mullah Omar's presence in Pakistan's commercial hub Karachi, which is also home to the Pakistan Naval Academy, several air force bases and a large military garrison, with the 9/11 terror mastermind Osama bin Laden's discovery and elimination by the U.S. Navy SEALs a stone's throw from Pakistan's premier military academy at Abbottabad are uncanny. However, in bin Laden's case, Pakistani officials consistently claimed that he was long dead, while in Mullah Omar's situation they not only denied his presence for a good 12 years or so in Quetta and Karachi, but they also concealed his death for two years in an apparent attempt to keep the myth alive. Pakistan has tried to sell to the world the notion that the Taliban was a homegrown Afghan phenomenon and a genuine resistance movement, but all this while it hosted the jihadist group's top leadership, provided it sanctuary and logistic support and unleashed it on Afghanistan.
The Afghan president, Dr. Ashraf Ghani, had charged two months ago that Pakistan was engaged in an undeclared war with Afghanistan for 14 years. The Arg's statement now confirming Mullah Omar's presence and death in Pakistan, in effect, formally indicts the country of unleashing a proxy war through the Taliban that has killed tens of thousands of Afghans and inflicted misery on many more. And Pakistan's proxy war was not just against the Afghans but also against the U.S. and ISAF troops present in Afghanistan under the United Nation's mandate. The Taliban leader's demise inside Pakistan vindicates everyone who has shouted at the top of their lungs, most importantly the former Afghan president Mr. Hamid Karzai, that Pakistan is part, nay the cause, of the Afghan problem, not its solution. It also puts a question mark on the decision makers around the world, especially some in the Washington, D.C., who have been all too willing to give Pakistan a pass. Mullah Omar hosted Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorists who planned and executed the 9/11 terror attack against the U.S. mainland. That both the most wanted jihadists were holed up in Pakistan without that country's pervasive military knowing simply does not pass the whiff test.
Indeed, the elements within Pakistani state structures responsible for hosting these ruthless killers have not only gotten away with it but have also tried to dupe the world into believing the discovery of wanted terrorists as a change of heart in the country's powerful military that has a chokehold over foreign and national security policies.
The height of the Pakistani state's chutzpah is that it does not only harbor these terrorists for decades and unleash them on the neighbors and the world, but also that it wants to be given credit and a thank you note even when America or Allah takes them out. The fundamental question about Mullah Omar's death in Karachi is who in Pakistan knew about his presence there, when did they know it and what, if anything at all, did they do about it.
Mullah Omar's death marks a tectonic shift in the Afghanistan conflict.
Pakistan is again selling the snake oil of peace talks that it has managed to broker between some elements of the Taliban and the Afghan government. The irony in all this self-righteousness on the part of Pakistani state structures is that the Taliban not only likely chose Mullah Omar's successor on Pakistani soil within 24 hours of confirming their one-eyed leader's death, but also that Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the new Taliban chief, was educated at the notorious Haqqaniah seminary located about an hour's drive from the federal capital and the military GHQ. More vicious is the new Taliban deputy emir Sirajuddin Haqqani whose terrorist network has carried out almost all major attacks in the Afghan cities and hit international targets including the U.S. and Indian embassies. At a time that the Taliban is in a flux, due diligence is in order about what Pakistan is trying to achieve through the talks, which have now been postponed but will likely resume in near future. Pakistani security establishment's track record with the jihadists and the appointment of two of its most allied terrorists as the new Taliban leaders make it difficult not to cast doubt on Pakistan's endgame. After all, this change of heart vis-à-vis the jihadists has been peddled by the Pakistani officials since the day after 9/11.
Mullah Omar's death marks a tectonic shift in the Afghanistan conflict. Pakistan and the Taliban have come to the negotiating table from a much weaker position than previously thought. Indeed, it is highly plausible that Pakistan conceded Mullah Omar's death only because it could not deliver him or his incontrovertible message for the talks when the Afghan government put pressure on Pakistan for it.
Unlike the Mujahideen of the 1980-90s, the Taliban is an organizationally weaker and perhaps more fractious entity. The massively engineered myth of Mullah Omar had held the Taliban together, and while the chances of a temporary surge in violence by a tug-of-war among various Taliban factions remains possible, a throwback to the Mujahideen-style warlordism is unlikely. The Taliban has failed to morph into a political entity in its 21 years of existence and most certainly would not be able to do so after Mullah Omar.
The Taliban's political back has been broken. The Islamic State brand is not a viable alternative to the Taliban in Afghanistan as yet, but defections to its newly established franchise there are likely. ISIS, however, just like the Taliban and Mujahideen before it, cannot survive in Afghanistan without outside patrons and sanctuary. A faction of the Taliban that runs the Qatar office has spurned Pakistan's influence of late and may not go along with the group's new emir unconditionally.
With Pakistan and its Taliban proxies checkmated, the Afghan government has a historic opportunity at its hands that President Ghani simply cannot afford to squander. Ghani has to make a robust case to retain the domestic, regional and international political initiatives. It is also crucial that regional and international powers, particularly the U.S., give support to the Afghan government and the Afghan National Security Forces and that that support continues uninterrupted at this critical juncture without the straightjacket of withdrawal timetables and troops numbers over at least the next three to five years. Holding Pakistan's feet to fire diplomatically to rein in the Taliban rump must be the utmost priority now that its lead proxy jihadist is dead.
Dr. Mohammad Taqi is a columnist for the Daily Times Pakistan. He can be reached via email: email@example.com and Twitter @mazdaki.
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