Taliban Chief Mullah Omar Said Dead in Afghan Peace Setback

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Mullah Omar, the reclusive cleric who founded Afghanistan’s Taliban guerrilla movement and sheltered al-Qaeda leaders as they plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., is dead, an Afghan government official said.

Omar died two or three years ago in Pakistan, the official said, asking not to be identified as the information isn’t public. He succumbed to tuberculosis and was buried in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s Express Tribune reported Wednesday, citing an unidentified Taliban member. The Afghan government and Taliban declined to confirm or reject the reports.

“We have reports of Mullah Omar’s demise,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s deputy spokesman Sayed Zafar Hashemi told reporters at a hastily called briefing in Kabul on Wednesday. “We are checking these reports. Once we get a full confirmation on that, we’ll let you know.”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said by phone the group was gathering information on reports of the death and would release a statement shortly.

The news risks delaying peace talks between the Taliban and Ghani’s administration that reportedly were due to resume in the next few days. Taliban factions disagree on whether to pursue the peace process, particularly as the group has lost local commanders to Islamic State.

No Leader, No Talks

“Alive or dead, the continued absence of Mullah Omar is further splintering the Taliban,” Graeme Smith, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Kabul, said in an e-mail. “That’s bad news for peace talks, because Kabul wants to negotiate with a single large opponent, and haggling out deals with smaller factions would be harder. It’s also opening the door for other militant groups, such as self-declared Islamic State factions, which are less willing to negotiate.”

The Taliban are planning to formally announce the death of Omar and declare his son Mohammad Yaqub as his successor and the organization’s leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad, a Taliban commander in the nation’s southern Helmand province, said by satellite phone Wednesday.

Mullah Omar’s deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, opposes the elevation of the son, though, because the son hasn’t supported the recent peace talks, Helmand’s Mullah Akhtar Mohammad said. Omar’s deputy does endorse the talks, he said.

Islamic State Threat

The first formal talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government since 2001 occurred in the Pakistani hill town of Murree in early July. They raised hopes for a political solution to a conflict that has killed almost 100,000 people since 2001 and cost more than $680 billion. The involvement of Pakistan, which has close ties with the Taliban leadership, signaled a new level of seriousness to peace efforts.

Mullah Omar had been a nearly invisible leader, at least in any public sense, since the U.S. and allied invasion that ended the Taliban rule of Afghanistan in 2001. In recent years, rumors of his death had repeatedly surfaced. The Taliban in April published a biography of the one-eyed jihadist, claiming he was alive and in charge of the militant group. That appeared to be an effort to stem defections to Islamic State.

“The militant part of Taliban that doesn’t want talks could be trying to assert itself by leaking this news and appoint a new leader to revive the movement,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies in New Delhi.