Newspaper article International New York Times

Taliban Leader's Life Ends with Little Clarity ; U.S. Believes That Fugitive Didn't Control Insurgency in His Last, Obscure Years

Newspaper article International New York Times

Taliban Leader's Life Ends with Little Clarity ; U.S. Believes That Fugitive Didn't Control Insurgency in His Last, Obscure Years

Article excerpt

Mullah Mohammad Omar spent the final years of his life in remarkable obscurity, and his death was only confirmed by chatter among Taliban officials.

In the winter of 2014, an Afghan with links to top Taliban leaders approached Afghanistan's intelligence service with a startling tip: Mullah Muhammad Omar, the secretive leader of the Taliban, had died in a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan.

The tip left the intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, with a mystery that would take 18 months to begin unraveling. But even with the Taliban confirming on Thursday that the man they called Amir ul-Momineen, or Commander of the Faithful, was dead, American and Afghan officials said they were just starting to piece together the story of Mullah Omar's final years and of his demise.

In interviews, Afghan, American and European officials offered insight into why it took so long to determine that Mullah Omar was dead: He may have been one of the world's most wanted men -- he carried a $10 million American bounty on his head -- but by 2014 few people outside Afghanistan seemed to want him enough to put much effort into finding out whether he was dead or alive.

American officials said they had long ago come to believe that Mullah Omar's role in the insurgency was primarily spiritual and that he had little to no operational control over the Taliban.

"It's not that we weren't trying to find him; we just never had the lines to do it," said James B. Cunningham, a former American ambassador to Afghanistan. "Even most of the Taliban didn't know where he was." Mr. Cunningham said that while "it's probably fair to say" that the United States "caught a break on" Osama bin Laden, that never happened with Mullah Omar.

The United States and its European allies became convinced of Mullah Omar's death this week only because word had finally gotten out among senior Taliban leaders, who were telling anyone who would listen, a Western official said. No body has been produced, and the Taliban have either kept the location of his grave a secret or do not know where he is buried. Pakistan has said nothing official about his death.

When the Afghans got their initial tip in 2014, American and European officials dismissed it as the latest in a long string of rumors about Mullah Omar's demise, American and Afghan officials said. Unlike in the case of Bin Laden, who was killed in an American raid in Pakistan in 2011, there was no C.I.A. team dedicated to hunting down the Taliban leader.

"I had the feeling also that they were not very much interested in the top leadership; they were more interested in field commanders, because it's the field commanders we were facing in the battlefield," said Umar Daudzai, who was Afghanistan's interior minister from 2013 until late 2014.

Hunted from the war's outset, Mullah Omar had not been seen in public since late 2001, when he fled underground without leaving behind so much as an official photograph. He released no videos or audio messages in the years that followed.

Yet even by Mullah Omar's standards, his elusiveness in his final years was remarkable. Only a handful of high-ranking Taliban had any access to their leader, and by the middle of 2013 that number had been winnowed to one: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, effectively the No. 2 in the insurgency.

By then, Afghan and American officials said, their intelligence indicated that Mullah Omar was probably dead. …

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