Meeting Key Players: Mullah Omar and the Taliban
Mullah Mohammad Omar and the Taliban
During this same period, Mullah Omar and the Taliban were busy taking over the country. They had met with much success in the south, heavily populated by Pashtun tribes most of which were very supportive, as the Taliban was/is primarily Pashtun, but further north, they met resistance and were mired down fighting with the Northern Alliance (made up of its Tajik leader, Ahmad Shah Masood, Rashid Dostum and his Junbish e-Milli, Ata Mohammad Noor's Jamiat e-Islami as well as Mohammad Mohaqiq, leader of the Hazara, Hezb e-Wahdat) from the north and east, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar leader of the Hezb-e Islami party from the northwest part of the country, each of whom had a drastically different idea of who and what would lead the country and who would be the first to set foot in Kabul as conqueror.
It is important here to understand the relationship dynamics between Mullah Omar, bin Laden and the United States, and how these dynamics played out to manipulate the landscape in Afghanistan both before and after 9/11. In doing this, we'll step back a little to the point when bin Laden returned to Afghanistan. At this time, Mullah Omar's Taliban was in its infancy but gaining strength quickly. Omar was strengthening through his ground contacts and the efforts of his Taliban fighters by pursuing a type of "hearts and minds" (this would very soon morph into a "my way or death" strategy) program, but he was also establishing relationships with world leaders.
Keep in mind that now that Russia had exited the country, the world could breathe a sigh of relief. Most leaders around the world, especially the Middle East, just wanted stability in Afghanistan, and they really didn't care who brought it or, for that matter, who was in charge. Omar seemed a likely choice since he'd already begun the process and seemed at the time to have the strength to do it.1 The world, however, was still a little leery of his demeanor and was just hoping he wouldn't do exactly what he eventually did: go around the country cutting people's limbs off and stoning women for adultery. In the end, everyone just kept their head in the sand hoping he'd change his leadership style.
For his part, Omar just wanted the world to leave him alone so he could accomplish the mission of gaining complete control of the country and establishing an Islamic fundamentalist style sharia-run nation (keep in mind, this mission, an Allah-inspired one, has never changed and will resume if and when the Taliban is ever given a strong power-sharing role in the country, as a result of treaty). The last thing he wanted was intervention by the United States, and he feared just such an intervention from his agreeing to shelter Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda (as we will see, bin Laden worked hard to assure Omar he would be "a good visitor," a promise that of course he had no intentions of keeping).
Along comes bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers asking for a homeland to begin "their" work, which he assured Omar would not bring down the wrath of America on his country. Bin Laden and his people, due to pressure from the United States, had already been evicted from two countries including his own homeland. Why did Omar invite him to come in and stay? The answer is simple and straightforward; Omar was proud and stubborn and extremely confident, and he was not going to allow the United States to "bully" him.
The United States, on the other hand, was to an extent, obstinate and authoritative and felt that since they had spent so much money defending Afghanistan against the Russians, they had a right to demand certain favors from Omar. When the United States demanded that Omar not give sanctuary to bin Laden, the act was tantamount to a parent telling a stubborn kid not to sneak any more cookies from the cookie jar.
Many have speculated that if America had made its wishes known in a different tone, Omar likely would not have harbored bin Laden and crew. Interviews with some of the early Taliban members who were close to Omar reveal a sort of distant relationship between Omar and bin Laden in the beginning. Omar was practical and not unintelligent. When bin Laden asked for safe haven, Omar knew it would likely bring drama down upon him (exactly what it eventually did), and he didn't want to deal with that, especially since bin Laden's objectives were international in nature and Omar's were not and still aren't.1
For his part, bin Laden was highly intelligent and knew it would take a little sweetening to get Omar to support him, even before the United States had issued its proclamation. To accomplish this, he ordered his construction company to build a complete home for Omar and his family in the base of a mountain just outside the Omar complex a few miles southeast of Kandahar (this structure was never completed having been destroyed when America entered the country). One of the authors of this text in 2003, while living in this former home of Mullah Omar, walked among the (never fully completed) lavish tunnels and rooms of the cave which is complete with a bronze plate over the entrance, proclaiming that it was built by the bin Laden Construction Company. Several of the former Taliban members also alluded to marriages between Omar and one of bin Laden's daughters and bin Laden and one of Omar's daughters, as a time honored way to seal the relationship (Figure 7.1).
Mullah Omar was stubborn, however, and he was not going to allow anyone to tell him how to run the organization he had formed. Such, in his mind it is assumed, would be tantamount to Allah himself taking advice from others (Figure 7.2).
The fact is Mullah Omar had proclaimed himself Amir al-Mu'minin; in short, the leader of all Islam, some say, the next best thing to Mohammad himself.1 He did this in the beginning of his formation of the Taliban, in his home base and ancestral home of Kandahar, and at a time when the people all expected great things to come from the reign of the Taliban. He also did it in a highly theatrical manner that few others would have been able to pull off.
He retrieved a cloak, said to have belonged to the Prophet Mohammad himself, that had been kept locked away in The Shrine of the Cloak. Donning this cloak with what some said was a slight theatrical flourish, he proclaimed himself, "basically in charge."
From that day forward, Omar seemed to adopt the air of a deity, and the United States wasn't the only entity he shunned and refused to acquiesce too, in any way. Pakistan had encouraged him and supported his rule since his religious zeal and philosophy was similar to theirs,
Figure 7.1 Author, Garner, in black shirt, standing inside one of the tunnels in the bin Laden Construction Company structure designed to be an escape shelter for Omar in the event of American bombing.
(Source: Author's personal photo).
but even they had trouble sending their emissaries to meet personally with the man.1
Omar even demonstrated this air of independence and stubbornness against other national Taliban leaders. When Omar announced to the world his intentions to dynamite the famous monumental statues of Gautama Buddha carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan valley in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan, some of his command level people argued against it for fear it would do exactly what it did, that is, turn much of the world against the Taliban.2
The famous anti-Soviet fighter Jalaluddin Haqqani, at that time the head of the Haqqani Taliban network, it is said, attempted to reason with Omar on the destruction of the statues, but it was too late. By that time, too many people around the world had, assuming the role of the aforementioned parent, demanded that he leave the artifacts alone.
Figure 7.2 Author at entrance of Mullah Omar's Bunker. Sign over the entrance commemorates the structure as built by bin Laden Construction Company. (Source: Author's personal photo).
When America invaded Afghanistan following 9/11, one of the first things we did in an attempt to kill the leadership of the Taliban was to bomb the Mullah Omar compound in Kandahar. Omar and his family at that time however had escaped to Pakistan, approximately 70 miles to the east (Figure 7.3).
American forces later rebuilt part of the compound and turned it into a Special Forces/intelligence operations center. One of this text's authors lived and operated out of the complex in 2003 and later in 2005. A road leading from Kandahar to the complex splits at the entrance and circles the compound which is complete with several buildings and its own Mosque.
Curiously, at the front of the entrance where the road splits sits an inoperable fountain constructed of plaster and wire, designed to look very much like an old dying tree with a pool at its base. At one time the water ran from the limbs of the tree into the pool. Some of the older
Figure 7.3 (a) Inside Mullah Omar's ruined compound in Kandahar, (b) Author Garner standing on some rubble of the compound in Kandahar. The compound was later converted to a base for Special Operations.
(Source: Author's personal photos).
Figure 7.4 Inoperable fountain at the built to his specifications, some say to once seen.
(Source: Author's personal photo).
entrance of Mullah Omar's compound replicate a scene from a movie he had
members of the neighborhood said that Omar had at one time viewed a western-style horror movie in which such a tree was the focus and had the tree fountain constructed not long afterward (Figure 7.4).