Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Mullah Mohammad Omar: Fact and Fiction

Written by  Muhammad Zamir Assadi

The United States of America, with the support of allied countries, attacked Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, formally commencing the “war on terror.” By so doing, the international community agreed to eliminate the terror and extremism that were responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

There were many other objectives of the war, including killing or capturing Osama bin Laden (chief of al-Qaeda) and Mullah Mohammad Omar (chief of the Afghan Taliban). As the first decade of the Afghan war approaches, there is no rock-solid information on the whereabouts of these two most-wanted individuals. The United States has announced a $10 million bounty on Mullah Omar and $50 million on Osama bin Laden. Initially, the United States announced a $25 million reward for information leading to bin Laden's capture, under the Rewards for Justice Program; after failing to capture bin Laden, however, Washington increased the bounty.

Though the elimination of the terrorist network’s supreme commanders has apparently been unsuccessful, this war has gulped more than 10,000 Pakistanis and 7,000 Afghanis — 17,000 people of Afghanistan and Pakistan have been killed by Daisy Cutter bombs and other weapons used by the allied forces in the war on terror.

For the allied forces and international community, a turning point toward the end of war and long-awaited victory may be tied to the hunt for bin Laden and Omar. But where are they?

Reports about safe hideouts of Omar and bin Laden often appear in Western media, creating new debates over whether these two commanders are still alive and still in Pakistan.

Many Pakistani analysts believe that such reports are meant to pressure Pakistan to “do more” in the war on terror. It is thought that U.S. strategists are keeping Pakistan under continuous pressure — hoping to push it to revise its policies. The pressure on the Pakistani government is two-sided, as its people do not accept such policies, so it has to go against U.S. demands on occasion.

In fact, in regard to yielding to pressure from the people, there have been abundant claims that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has Mullah Omar in protective custody in Pakistan. The obvious reason for believing this is Pakistan's alleged pro-Taliban sentiments: the West, including the United States, considers the ISI responsible for nurturing the Taliban.

On January 18 the Washington Post claimed that the reclusive one-eyed chief of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was treated for a heart attack in Pakistan with the help of the ISI.

The spiritual leader of the Islamist insurgency, who went deep underground after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, suffered a heart attack on January 7 and was taken to a hospital near Karachi for several days, the Post said, citing a report by a private intelligence network run by former U.S. security officials. The network, operating as a private company known as the Eclipse Group, said its source was an unnamed physician in the hospital.

"While I was not personally in the operating theatre ... my evaluation based on what I have heard and seeing the patient in the hospital is that Mullah Omar had a cardiac catheter complication resulting in either bleeding or a small cerebral vascular incident [stroke], or both," the physician was quoted as saying. The doctor added that Omar appeared to have suffered some brain damage and had slurred speech following the operation.

The report said Pakistan's ISI had "rushed him to a hospital in Karachi, where he was given heparin [an anticoagulant] and operated on."

The report caused trembling in the Pakistani government, which is already facing a bundle of crises in this ongoing “war on terror,” such as economic recession, waves of suicide attacks, a halt in Indo-Pak relations, and no offers of civil nuclear energy deals despite an energy crisis.

The Pakistani Foreign Office immediately categorically denied the report. Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit said, “This is ... hackneyed speculation with no substance whatsoever.”

The spokesman said this is all being done to slander Pakistan and create doubts about Pakistan’s willingness to counter terrorism in the region. “All such machinations are bound to fail because Pakistan is fully committed to [an] Afghanistan-led peace process,” he declared, adding, “No amount of mendacity can create a wedge between Afghanistan and Pakistan and their partners in peace and stability.”

The Foreign Office’s denial was seconded by Pakistan’s Ambassador to Washington, Hussain Haqqani, who asserted that the Eclipse report “had no basis whatsoever.” He told the newspapers, “Sometimes intelligence tips received by professionals turn out to be wrong. The story about Mullah Omar falls under that category.” Pakistani officials do have reason to lie, however. Immense pressure is on the government to safeguard the image of Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts for the United States and other international powers. So the official line from Pakistan is that no supreme commander of the Taliban or al-Qaeda is hiding in the country.

Even a Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid reportedly called the report from a private intelligence-gathering company "unfounded."  "It is more propaganda, part of the rumor-war launched by the enemy," he stressed, adding that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has no medical issues with his heart.

Here too could be a web of deception. The Taliban spokesman would want Mullah Omar’s health issues kept secret in order to maintain the morale of his followers. On the other hand, American sources could be lying because they wish to do the opposite — i.e., bring the morale of Taliban fighters down. Security and defense analyst Zohaib Khan told The New American that such reports are not new, adding that there are even vague, unconfirmed reports that Mullah Omar has died.

Such claims are also refuted by American intelligence circles and media. Other Western media have claimed that the Taliban supreme commander is hiding in the Quetta district (part of Baluchistan province) where he is commanding the Taliban. And the U.S. government has been itching to use drones to strike at the Quetta region — supposedly based on reports that Omar is hiding there.

Amir Mir, a Pakistani columnist, compiled the data about the reports on Mullah Omar published by Western media.

On July 8, 2004, the international media first reported Mullah Omar’s presence in Quetta, stating that Afghan interrogators were told by Mullah Sakhi Dad Mujahid, a close aide of the Taliban ameer, that he had been leading the Taliban forces from his Baluchistan hideout. On February 25, 2006, Kabul handed over intelligence information to Islamabad, indicating that Mullah Omar and key Taliban associates are hiding in Pakistan.

In March 2006, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told the Associated Press that Afghanistan had shared with Islamabad credible intelligence about the whereabouts of Mullah Omar.

Almost six months later, on September 23, 2006, Karzai claimed that Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden were both in Pakistan, charging that Islamabad’s support for militants had made Afghanistan unstable. Addressing the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations, Karzai maintained that the Taliban leader was surely in Pakistan, adding, “Pakistani President General Musharraf knows it and I know it.... He is truly there.” On the whereabouts of bin Laden, Karzai said: “If I told you he was in Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf, my friend, would be mad at me. But if I said he was in Afghanistan that would not be true.”

On September 9, 2006, CNN ran an exclusive report about the whereabouts of Mullah Omar, stating that the one-eyed Taliban leader is living in Pakistan, though not in the same area where al-Qaeda leader Osama is thought to be. Quoting U.S. intelligence sources, the report said: “The elusive Taliban leader is believed to be hiding in Quetta or its environs, a city of one million that is the capital of Baluchistan province in southwestern Pakistan.”

But the report about the ISI aiding the mullah has backing from other sources. This past June 11, the news website Defense.pk stated that a former senior member of the Taliban says Pakistani security forces are harboring the fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar in the Pakistani city of Karachi. Mullah Abdul Salam Hanafi, the former Governor of the central Uruzgan Province under the Taliban regime, told an Afghan news website that Mullah Omar is now in Karachi.

Amir Mir reported that on January 17, 2007, the Afghan intelligence authority released a video in which a captured Taliban spokesman confessed that Omar was hiding in Quetta under the ISI protection. The Afghan intelligence agents had arrested Abul Haq Haqi, known to the media as Doctor Mohammad Hanif, in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

Another prominent analyst, Muhammad Zeeshan, told The New American that Pakistan will face such kinds of reports about the safe havens of Taliban commanders in Pakistan till the end of war and maybe even after the “war on terror” era unless Pakistan proves beyond a shadow of a doubt its willingness to dismantle the Taliban. He adds that the distrust in the air about Pakistan’s dual standards toward both the Taliban and United States is damaging and that the only possible way to remove such doubts is to take strong and internationally visible action against Taliban hideouts in Pakistan, which should change the pro-Taliban image of the Pakistani intelligence agencies.

Photo: A "disputed" photograph of Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Muhammad Zamir Assadi is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan.