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Mullah Omar biography – a media “fail” from the Taliban

April 9, 2015

Summary: For no particularly convincing reason, a short, bland and uninformative “biography” of the Taliban leader has now emerged from Taliban official sources. This looks like a failed attempt to regain dwindling relevance and boost profile. The ability to blow up a tank appears to be his highest qualification for running a country. This is a media “fail” by the Taliban.

mullah-omar

Mullah Omar. Possibly

From official Taliban sources comes a “biography” of Mullah Mohammad Umar (aka Omar). Yes, I have had to use inverted commas almost immediately to describe this 5,366 word document, posted up on the official Taliban website. The apparent trigger for this is “for the prevention of false propaganda” and to celebrate the 19th anniversary of the appointment of Mullah Omar as the “Amir ul Momineem” (Leader of the Faithful) in Kandahar on 4 April 1996. The basic information we are offered here can be summarised:

  • Mullah Omar was born in 1960 in Kandahar province, part of the Hotak tribe. His family “comprises scholars and teachers of religious studies”. Omar follows the Hanafi school of religious thought.
  • In 1965 the family moved to neighbouring Oruzgan province.
  • In 1968 he started religious education. In 1978, at eighteen years of age, he abandoned his religious education during the communist coup and the subsequent Soviet occupation in order to conduct jihad.
  • From 1983 to 1991 he fought the Soviets in Oruzgan and Kandahar provinces with the Harakat-e Inquilab-e Islami faction as a local commander of a “front”. In the process he became proficient at using the RPG-7 anti-tank rocket launcher and was wounded three or four times, losing his right eye.
  • In 1992, after the withdrawal of the Soviets he returned to his religious studies, setting up a madrassa in Kandahar province.
  • With the rise of local warlord groups he became concerned – along with other like-minded former jihadists – at the increasing levels of looting, corruption and exploitation of the local population.
  • In 1994 Mullah Omar became the leader of the Islamic Movement, liberating Kandahar and then larger areas of Afghanistan.
  • On 4 April 1996, Mullah Omar was confirmed as leader and the title of Amir ul Momineem conferred upon him.
  • Mullah Omar has a simple and plain life, without personal wealth or property. Omar “even now does not own an ordinary residence neither has he any cash deposits in any foreign bank accounts”. He supports the claims of Palestinian Muslims “and obligation of every Muslim to liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque”.
  • He apparently has a “special sense of humour” and “in most of his meetings, he usually speaks about Jihad”. In his free time he studies the Koran and his favourite weapon is the RPG-7.
  • He is “still the leader in the present hierarchy of the Islami Emirate of Afghanistan”

Analysis and Outlook Taliban flagIf you want to read a good solid biography about a senior Taliban leader, then you should still stick with Mullah Zaeef’s ghost-written work: “My life with the Taliban”. The Omar biography here is significant, but not, I suspect, for the reasons the Taliban might have hoped. What fascinates me is the number of levels on which this fails and I shall try and suggest a few here.

Fail 1: Uninformative The surprising thing is how short, uninformative and lacking the piece is. I cannot think of anything significant that is newly offered here although perhaps there have been a few interpretations of his early origins floating around so we now at least have it officially from the Taliban where and when he was born, underwent religious education and fought. No mention of Al Qaeda or 9/11. The international community “including the United Nations” simply could not tolerate Sharia-based peace and stability in Afghanistan and therefore invaded.

Fail 2: Weird and unexplained timing It is intriguing to contemplate why the Taliban have taken years before they felt it necessary to release what you might consider a basic staple of organisation information. Equally fascinating is the “19th anniversary” justification. I could understand a 5th anniversary, or a 10th and a 15th. A 19th anniversary suggests they feel they need to rush something out. I suspect very strongly that other factors are causing problems for the Taliban. First and foremost that they might be worrying they are drifting off the radar and losing relevance and media profile. The steady flow of references to Islamic State in Afghanistan – from the Afghan government, the media, the UN and analysts point strongly to the idea that the Taliban might be nudged aside.

Fail 3: Mullah Omar comes over very poorly indeed There is no attempt to present Mullah Omar as relevant, capable or even actually doing anything at present. We learn nothing of his skills and competences, leadership or future vision for Afghanistan. He has one international area he seems slightly aware of – the Palestinian issue. Do the people of Afghanistan really want someone who feels it necessary to list his favourite weapon in his biography as a leader of their country? Perhaps better to stick with Ashraf Ghani, who has at least worked for the World Bank. Even the limited anecdotes of his time fighting against the Soviets fail to impress on a military level, emphasising little more than an ability to knock out a few armoured vehicles. Leadership ability? Planning? Strategy? Tactics?

Fail 4: This is weak propaganda The Taliban do not seem to recognise that they have produced something that is limp, uninteresting and highly unlikely to advance any aspect of their cause. The world has greeted this announcement with resounding indifference and perhaps a hint of mild confusion. If you want to see a modern, creative and potent use of traditional and social medias for aggressive propaganda purposes, you should go to Al Qaeda, Islamic State and Russia for examples but probably not the Taliban. The Taliban made significant advances in the field of propaganda since 2001. This was only because their baseline was exceptionally limited, caused by their suspicion, lack of understanding, antipathy and active hostility to media, TV, radio and all forms of communication (barring hand-delivered notes) in the 1990s. But looking back on such progress there was, I sense they probably “plateaued” somewhere around 2008 and haven’t really gone anywhere since with a media strategy. How excited we all got when the Taliban started tweeting. But take a look at their website now for evidence of a continual stream of bland and repetitive nothingness. List upon list of minor combat actions and bodycount. No coherent reach out to anyone, no expansion or development of plans for the country. No political agenda or flexibility of any form (and, believe me, I really have searched over the years for signs of ideas, engagement and a political stance). No recognition that anything has changed in Afghanistan with the withdrawal of ISAF from the battlefield other than to repeat the claim that they have made several times over the years – that victory (however they actually define this) is imminent.

Fail 5: Afghanistan is moving on However slowly and painfully, the Afghan people are moving on – reconstruction, technology, culture, politics, interaction with the world community. The Taliban are showing no evidence here that they recognise this. They are getting left behind. If they do sense anything is wrong, they either have no strategy or, as I suspect more likely, they simply do not care and expect that the virtues of Mullah Omar to speak for themselves and the principles and practice of their previous (mis)rule during the 1990s will suffice.

Fail 6: No proof of life… Is he alive? More information about the role of his second in command is offered than Omar’s command activities.  No new photo?

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 9, 2015 6:15 pm

    Wow Tim, I have SO much to say! Please be patient, and I will get around to a comment, one of these days 🙂

  2. April 9, 2015 10:07 pm

    Hi Suzanne – your comments welcome anytime 🙂

  3. April 10, 2015 2:44 pm

    Interesting Ahmed Rashid thoughts at the FT, here: http://blogs.ft.com/the-exchange/2015/04/10/the-story-behind-the-reappearance-of-mullah-omar/

  4. April 10, 2015 3:30 pm

    as least you show the real photo of omar. unlike the FT article.

  5. April 10, 2015 6:02 pm

    Ed, hi and thanks – I should be honest and say that I am not sure which is correct, but I feel that this is the most plausible… 🙂

  6. April 10, 2015 6:45 pm

    this image was confirmed as Omar by hamid gul in ISB in dec 2001

  7. April 13, 2015 5:44 pm

    I am glad this received such a poor reception in Afghanistan, This comment I shared with Friends of Afghanistan on f/b April 5 the 1st time I say it: I will revisit here to finish reading Thank you >>

    What a shame that such a hateful symbol from an incredibly hateful entity imported into Afghanistan has to be honoured in Afghanistan …
    **I’m sorry for what I wrote; but purhaps it will unify the Afghan people in their extreme diversity against the hate his ideal promoted

Trackbacks

  1. Mullah Omar biography – a media “fail” from the Taliban | afghanhindsight | Amin Mughal Links
  2. Mullah Mansour biography | afghanhindsight
  3. Taliban leader Mansour reported dead in intra-Taliban shootout | afghanhindsight

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