Updated: March 13, 2019 7:54:31 am
A new book claims that Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader wanted by the United States until his death was announced in 2015, had been hiding close to a US military base in Afghanistan . The claim (reported in various publications including The Indian Express Tuesday) counters the US stand during those years — that Omar was hiding in and died in Pakistan — and highlights an apparent failure of US intelligence. Afghan authorities dismissed the book’s claim Tuesday. “We strongly reject this delusional claim and we see it as an effort to create and build an identify for the Taliban and their foreign backers. We have sufficient evidence which shows he lived and died in Pakistan. Period!” tweeted Haroon Chakhansuri, spokesperson for the Afghan President.
A look at how the book describes Omar’s last days, and how this account compares with the US narrative of the time:
The US narrative
The author, independent Dutch journalist Bette Dam, worked from Kabul from 2009 to 2014. Her biography on Omar, Searching for an Enemy, was published in Dutch last month. In an article published in English by a think-tank named Zomia, Dam summarises the book.
Describing how the US portrayed Omar as a terrorist mastermind working from Pakistan, Dam refers to an internal US military log (disclosed by WikiLeaks) that claims Omar frequently distributed funds to movement figures and met regularly with Osama bin Laden. “The place for the meeting alternates between Quetta and villages (NFDG) on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” she quotes the log as claiming. And in 2015, when Afghanistan announced that Omar had died in a Karachi hospital, then CIA director David Petraeus said the US knew he had been in Pakistan.
“But none of this is true,” Dam writes in the summary.
So, where was he?
Omar disappeared from public view in 2001. After that, Dam writes, Omar never set foot in Pakistan, instead opting to hide in Afghanistan itself. For eight years, he lived just a few miles from a major US Forward Operating Base that housed thousands of soldiers, writes Dam, who sourced her information from the man who was Omar’s bodyguard from the moment he vanished in Kandahar until his death in 2013. Abdul Jabbar Omari, a “man with glasses and a long grey beard”, has been in “protective” custody since 2017; Dam interviewed him in December 2018. Based on this and information from other sources, Dam writes that Mullah Omar spent the remainder of his life in a pair of small villages in the remote, mountainous province of Zabul.
In December 2001, months after the US offensive inside Afghanistan, Omar handed over the Taliban leadership to Mullah Obaidullah. On December 7, Omar reportedly left Kandahar for Qalat, the provincial capital of Zabul, 125 miles from Kandahar city. Jabbar Omari reportedly told Dam that he could have helped settle Mullah Omar into a more comfortable life in Pakistan, but Omar didn’t trust Pakistan.
For four years, Omar is said to have hidden in the Qalat house of Abdul Samad Ustaz, Jabbar Omari’s long-time driver. “The mud house was walking distance from Zabul Governor (Hamidullah) Tokhi’s compound,” Dam writes. The house is described as mud-walled compound with a large central courtyard. “A row of rooms lined one wall, with a larger L-shaped room occupying the corner, where Mullah Omar stayed. There was no apparent door to the room-instead, the entrance was a secret door, what appeared to be a cupboard high on the wall.”
In 2004, the US set up Forward Operating Base Lagman, a few minutes’ walk from the hiding place. In 2005, Omar moved to a new hideout.
The new hiding place was in Siuray district, around 20 miles from Qalat, ancestral home of Mullah Omar’s father’s family, and birthplace of Jabbar Omari and Abdul Ustaz. According to information pieced together by Dam, Ustaz built a small shack for Omar behind a larger mud house on the outskirts of the village A family lived in the mud house, and only two brothers reportedly knew the identity of the man living in the shack. The shack was on a river and connected to large tunnels used for irrigation.
Soon after Omar’s arrival in Siuray, Dam writes, the Americans built Forward Operating Base Wolverine, about three miles from his new home. It housed around 1,000 US soldiers carrying out counterinsurgency operations under the banner of Operation Enduring Freedom. The British Special Air Service and US Navy Seals were also sometimes present, Dam writes.
The finding that Omar lived so close to military bases, according to Dam, was “corroborated by the Taliban and Afghan officials”. It “suggests a staggering US intelligence failure, and casts even further doubt on America’s claims about the Afghan war”.
Citing information gathered from Jabbar Omari, Dam writes that Mullah Omar fell ill in early 2013, starting to cough and vomit and telling Omari that he would not recover. Omari reportedly made shurwa soup, one of his favourite dishes, but he could no longer eat. Dam writes that Omari insisted on getting a doctor, and Ustaz offered to drive Omar to hospitals in Pakistan, but Mullah Omar refused. He died on April 23, 2013. On July 29, 2015, the Afghan government announced that Omar had died in 2013.
How active was he?
Omar captured global attention for the demolition of his country’s Bamiyan Buddha statues in 2001, and then for his refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Following his disappearance, the US placed a bounty of $10 million on his head, and various Taliban factions continued to fight in his name. Sources quoted in Dam’s book, however, suggest that he had long ceased to be involved in the Taliban’s operations.
Dam describes a meeting in 2001 when Omar transferred power to Mullah Obaidullah. Omar signed a letter stating that Obaidullah would lead the movement and stipulating that what he decides must be adhered to. This was effectively absolving himself from his men’s decisions, she writes.
Jabbar Omari told Dam that Mullah Omar abided by the transfer of power. She quotes Omari as saying: “I think Mullah Omar thought, ‘Now I can leave most of the work to them’.” Although Omar continued to communicate with the Taliban’s Quetta leadership, he hardly interfered with the operational management of the Taliban, Dam quotes Omari as saying. She adds, however, that this is difficult to verify because most of the Quetta leaders are no longer alive.
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