The death of Osama bin Laden had serious geostrategic implications — beyond the important fact that it helped to ensure Barack Obama’s reelection. Although al-Qaeda central survived his demise, it was never the same without him. His successor, Ayman Zawahiri, was never Bin Laden’s equal in charisma and he has faded from view. That has pushed power to the periphery — not only to al-Qaeda affiliates such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen) and the al-Nusra Front (Syria) but also to a new and rival jihadist organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Will the death of Mullah Omar, assuming that he really has died, have similar implications? It could. To understand why requires a short review of Omar’s history and significance.
Little is known about Omar; there are perhaps one or two pictures of him extant, and that’s about it. We do know that he fought as a mujahideen soldier against the Soviets in the 1980s, losing an eye in the process. Afterward he became a village mullah outside Kandahar. After the fall of the Soviet-allied Najibullah regime in 1992, chaos reigned in Afghanistan as different muj factions fought for control. To quell the anarchy, Omar mobilized a few dozen followers among religious students (“taliban”) recruited out of Afghan madrassahs and the refugee camps in Pakistan. By the end of 1994 he had captured Kandahar, one of the three biggest cities in Afghanistan. In 1996 he donned a cloak supposedly belonging to the prophet Mohammad and proclaimed himself “Commander of the Faithful.” Later that year Kabul fell to Omar’s men. The savage rule of the Taliban had begun.
On its face, this is an extraordinary rags-to-riches story that far exceeds the slow slog of Stalin, Mao, Castro, and other eventual dictators who required many years, even decades, to seize power. And perhaps it is true that Omar was an organizational genius and one of the 20th Century’s greatest insurgent leaders. But more likely he was simply a convenient front man for a movement that was guided and supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.
After the fall of the Taliban in the fall of 2001, Omar fled along with Osama bin Laden and other Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders to Pakistan. The likelihood is that he has been living as a ward of the state ever since. That would seem to be consistent with reports that he died a couple of years ago in a hospital near Karachi. If there was little chance that the ISI was ignorant of Bin Laden’s whereabouts, there was even less chance with Mullah Omar. The Taliban’s Quetta Shura, its governing council, is firmly under the ISI’s thumb.
With Pakistani support, the Taliban staged a dismaying resurgence. By 2005, they were once again a major threat to the government in Kabul, and so they have remained. It is hard to know what if anything Mullah Omar contributed to this long and brutal guerrilla war because he has been virtually invisible throughout. Indeed rumors of his death have circulated for years. Whether this time they are accurate remains to be seen. In any case, there is little doubt that the Taliban have a deep bench of commanders, including Omar’s son Yaqub, who will be able to carry on their fight without him — as long as they continue to enjoy Pakistani support.
So why might Omar’s death matter? Not because it is likely to presage a change of Taliban policy. The government of Afghanistan has already expressed its hope that with Omar gone, the Taliban might take peace talks more seriously. And no doubt some Taliban leaders would like to conclude a peace treaty. But the obstacle standing in the way has not been Mullah Omar but rather the ISI, which doesn’t want to see its Afghan proxies give up the fight. Until Pakistan changes its policy, peace will be impossible.
No, the real significance of Omar’s death is likely to lie elsewhere, in a matter of Islamic law. In 2001 Osama bin Laden formally pledged allegiance (bayat) to Mullah Omar in his role as “commander of the faithful” and emir of the Islamic state of Afghanistan. That pledge, as the invaluable Long War Journal noted, was publically renewed by al-Qaeda in 2014.
But by that time a new rival “commander of the faithful” had arisen: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq, proclaimed himself not only “commander of the faithful” but also as caliph of a new Islamic State whose boundaries are essentially infinite. The last caliphate, the Ottoman Empire, had been formally abolished in 1924 along with the sultanate based in Istanbul. Now Baghdadi is claiming that all Muslims owe him allegiance — a more far-reaching claim than Mullah Omar ever made and one that al-Qaeda is likely to continue resisting. But the spell that the Islamic State has cast is strong at the moment, and with Mullah Omar gone, it is possible that some significant jihadists will shift their allegiance from the Taliban/al-Qaeda to the Islamic State.
This should be of concern not least because of indications that Islamic State is organizing in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indeed, just yesterday USA Today published an article about an ISIS document captured in Pakistan that lays out a campaign to trigger a war with India and thus provoke an Armageddon. The goal may be far-fetched, but ISIS’s ambitions are real, and it is possible that ISIS will benefit from Mullah Omar’s demise (assuming he is indeed gone). If that were to happen, it would be worrisome. Bad as the Taliban are, ISIS is even worse.