clock menu more-arrow no yes

Taliban leader Mullah Omar is dead. Here's why that matters.

Mullah Omar, chief of the Taliban, is shown in this undated headshot photo.
Mullah Omar, chief of the Taliban, is shown in this undated headshot photo.
Getty Images/Getty Images
  1. Mullah Mohammed Omar, the longtime leader of the Taliban, is dead. This has been falsely reported a number of times before, but this time both Afghan intelligence and the Afghan Taliban have confirmed his death.
  2. Omar actually died two years ago, in a Pakistani hospital. The Taliban appears to have covered it up for two years.
  3. The cover-up speaks to a real problem for the Taliban. Though it wasn't clear how much Omar was actually involved in day-to-day operations, he was a powerful unifying and mythological figure in the group. His death could exacerbate already problematic internal fissures.
  4. That's not necessarily good news for Afghanistan. A divided Taliban could lead to infighting and an even more chaotic civil war in the wake of the American withdrawal. That could worsen the violence, or even empower the nascent ISIS franchise in the country.

Who Mullah Omar is — and why his death matters

taliban fighters

Former Taliban fighters. (Arif Karimi/AFP/Getty Images)

To understand the real significance of Mullah Omar's death, you need to understand the peculiar role he played in the Taliban.

Omar, a veteran of the jihad against the Soviet invasion, was appointed as the leader of the Taliban in 1994. At the time, Afghanistan was in chaos, with multiple vicious factions competing to fill the power vacuum left by a civil war. One of Omar's first reported acts was rounding up and hanging a local warlord who had abducted and raped several women. This myth may or may not be true, but it symbolizes the Taliban's self-identity as a guardian of order, justice, and law, as well as Omar's role as the exemplar of everything the Taliban stood for — even though, in fact, the group was just as ruthless and cruel as those it replaced.

That year, the Taliban began taking control of Afghanistan. Omar ruled much of the country, as the Taliban's emir, until the US invasion in 2001. He evaded US capture, and then disappeared.

"Since he fled Kandahar on the back of a motorcycle," New York University's Barnett Rubin writes in the New Yorker, "[he has] never appeared in public." Omar nominally spoke through twice-yearly declarations; it's unclear if he actually wrote them, but, according to Barnett, "they constituted the most authoritative statements of Taliban policy."

That's the key point about Omar: Whether or not he was really in charge of the Taliban, the rest of the Taliban thought they needed him as a figurehead in order to maintain unity.

"A clique within the leadership consolidated its power by claiming to be able to communicate with Mullah Omar. The clique could ignore discussions in the leadership shura or even guidance from Pakistan authorities, insisting that 'Mullah Sahib' would decide," Michael Semple, a professor at the University of Belfast, writes. "This was the Mullah Omar myth."

Now the Taliban needs to appoint a successor, in a meeting called a shura council (some reports say it already has). But no one has Omar's prominence and gravitas. "Even if the Taliban shura council were able to agree on a successor, he would have a hard time asserting his authority," the Soufan Group, a private intelligence firm that focuses on terrorism, writes. "Mullah Omar had a certain mythic quality that appealed to the naïve foot soldiers."

That means the group's future — including the fate of the peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government — is now up in the air.

"The death of Mullah Omar may allow Pakistan to put leaders it controls more fully in charge of the Taliban. It may also cause the Taliban to splinter," Rubin writes. "Some may stop fighting and enter the system, while others may join even more extremist groups, such as the Islamic State."

Further reading:

  • Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, has a really good roundup of expert commentary on Mullah Omar's death and what comes next.
  • The New Yorker's Steve Coll did an in-depth profile of Omar and his role in the Taliban back in 2012.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.