Mullah Omar: Death of a Pakistani proxy

Washington: On Wednesday, the office of Afghanistan’s president Arg (presidential palace), 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 Shultz, said that the report of the Taliban leader’s death appeared to be credible. Both the Arg and the White House are confirming what has been widely believed to be the case for the last two-and-a-half years, i.e. Mullah Omar is not only dead, but that he 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 their 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 twelve years in Quetta and Karachi, but 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 home-grown 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.

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 statement now confirming Mullah Omar’s presence and death in Karachi, in effect formally indicts of Pakistan 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 former Afghan president Hamid Karzai that Pakistan is part, nay cause, of the Afghan problem not its solution. It also puts a question mark on 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 also have 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 choke-hold over foreign and national security policies. The height of the Pakistani state’s chutzpah is that they not only harbour these terrorists for decades and unleash them on their neighbours and the world, but also want to be given credit and a thank you note even when America or Allah takes them out.

The fundamental question on Mullah Omar’s death in Karachi is that who in Pakistan knew about his presence there, when did they know it and what, if anything at all, did they do about it? 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 chose Mullah Omar’s successor on Pakistani soil within 24 hours of confirming their one-eyed leader’s death. Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, who has taken over as the new Taliban emir, was educated at the notorious Haqqaniah seminary, which is 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 would likely resume in near future. The 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 doubts on Pakistan’s endgame. After all, this change of heart vis-a-vis the jihadists, has been peddled by 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 Afghan government put pressure on Pakistan for it. Unlike the Mujahideen of the 1980-90s, the Taliban is an organisationally 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 21 years of its 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 (IS) brand is not a viable alternative to the Taliban in Afghanistan as yet, but defections to its newly established franchise there are likely. The IS, however, just like Taliban and Mujahideen before it, cannot survive in Afghanistan without outside patrons and sanctuary. A faction of the Taliban that runs their Qatar office has spurned Pakistan’s influence of late and may not go along with their new emir unconditionally.

With Pakistan and its Taliban proxies check-mated, the Afghan government has a historic opportunity in its hands that President Dr. Ashraf Ghani simply cannot afford to squander. Dr. Ghani has to make a robust case to retain the domestic, regional and international political initiative. It is also crucial that regional and international, particularly the U.S., support to the Afghanistan Government and the Afghan National Security Forces 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 a front burner issue now that its lead proxy jihadist is dead.

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Free Press Journal