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Mullah Omar's Death Confirmed. Remembered For Giving His All To The Taliban


For two decades, the fate of Afghanistan has been tied to the leader of the Taliban. Mullah Omar virtually disappeared after the Taliban government was driven out in 2001. But still, he loomed large even in death. This week we learned that Mullah Omar had died in exile in Pakistan two years ago.

When the Taliban rose to power in the late 1990s, Afghanistan was in ruins as warlords battled for power, and into the chaos came the Taliban, bearing a promise of order and peace and led by a tall, reclusive man who'd lost an eye in the Soviet War. To shed some light on Mullah Omar, we reached author Ahmed Rashid, a leading expert on the Taliban. Welcome to the program.

AHMED RASHID: Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Take us back to the time when Mullah Omar first appeared on the scene. First of all, who exactly was he?

RASHID: Well, he himself had no pedigree as such. The Taliban who worked with him said he was extremely charismatic. Now, he never made public speeches or appeared much in public. So there's very little sense what kind of man he was.

MONTAGNE: When the Taliban was first forming, and when he was chosen at that time to lead it, what was his greatest appeal?

RASHID: Well, I met a lot of the senior Taliban, and I asked them precisely this question. The most common answer was he is humble. And that was very true. I mean, you know, we never had reports of Mullah Omar living luxuriously or making money in large quantities or anything like that.

MONTAGNE: Though he did not spend a lot of time in the public, there was one moment in 1996 where he did something quite dramatic. And it involved a religious relic - quite a famous one - a cloak reputedly worn by the Prophet Mohammad. Tell us about that.

RASHID: Well, he had called a meeting of the Taliban and all the religious leaders, including the Mullahs, from all the territories which the Taliban controlled. And he wanted their endorsement.

And he called his grand meeting - hundreds and hundreds of people - and after the endorsement, he went to the famous mosque in central Kandahar, where for centuries there has been this cloak kept in a glass case which was supposed to be the cloak of the Prophet Mohammad. And he very daringly opened the case and took out the cloak and climbed up onto the roof of a building and draped the cloak around him and then received the clapping and acclaim of the Taliban. And then he endorsed himself as leader of the faithful. He gave himself this religious title. So it was something that all those people there who swore an oath of loyalty to him as a religious leader could not easily get rid of.

MONTAGNE: Mullah Omar also presided over the destruction of giant Buddhas - up in the mountainous area of Bamiyan. We see that now with ISIS, but was that based on a very fundamentalist way of looking at the world?

RASHID: I think that was largely based on the influence of al-Qaida because actually before then, the Kabul Museum was protected under an edict issued by Mullah Omar saying that none of the artifacts should be destroyed in the Kabul Museum. Now, what happened then was that several of his Taliban commanders became enamored with al-Qaida - and he gave permission for these commanders to actually get rid of the Buddha. And it was mostly the al-Qaida - the Arab commanders - who took that initiative and had the Taliban along with them.

MONTAGNE: Remind us how Mullah Omar came to know Osama bin Laden, and exactly what was their relationship?

RASHID: Well, the Taliban had just captured Kabul in the summer of '96. And Osama bin Laden had been thrown out of Sudan. And he was forced to fly with his whole family to Afghanistan. And bin Laden landed and found himself in the middle of a civil war and then appealed to Mullah Omar if he could move with his family and his fighters down to Kandahar. And in return he would offer money and his fighters to fight for the Taliban. So there was a kind of trade-off.

MONTAGNE: And would you say Mullah Omar would have almost been there still, had it not been for September 11?

RASHID: By the time of 9/11, there was famine in the country. The Taliban had lost all control of any kind of economic development or aid from outside. There was a mass exodus of people fleeing the country. And I think within a year or so, perhaps, if 9/11 had not happened, there would have been a very broad-based general uprising against the Taliban.

MONTAGNE: Ahmed Rashid, thank you very much for joining us.

RASHID: Thank you so much.

MONTAGNE: Ahmed Rashid is author of the book "Taliban: Militant Islam Oil And Fundamentalism In Central Asia." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.