The Legend of Mullah Omar

The Past, Present, and Future of the Taliban

Courtesy Reuters

Lying on his deathbed in 2013, Mullah Omar likely imagined bigger headlines publicizing his life and death. The indisputable commander of the Taliban, Omar had battled the Soviets, ruled Afghanistan, and fronted a persistent insurgency that has bled U.S. taxpayers of a trillion dollars and embroiled the United States in the longest war in its history.

Now the commander of those enemy forces is dead—or has been for a while. The announcement of his passing hit the press more than two years late, due to the utility of pretending he was alive for both the Taliban and Islamabad. Despite the “Weekend at Bernie’s” ruse finally ending, however, U.S. policymakers are not celebrating—and for good reason. The announcement of Omar’s death appears to be fracturing the Taliban.

This may sound like a positive development, but the United States will find that dividing is one thing, but conquering is quite another. Subjugating factions requires offering a cogent solution for security and governance. Unfortunately for Washington, the U.S.-allied regime in Kabul is not likely to be that cogent political actor. This leaves the door open for alternative insurgents. And if history is any indication, there is bad news ahead; turmoil is fertile soil for extremists.


Touting the title Commander of the Faithful and ruling Afghanistan from 1996–2001, Omar commanded more authority and legitimacy in the Taliban than any other leader. Notoriously reclusive and unhurried in his deliberations, his style played to his image as a pious man who reluctantly rose to the occasion to combat post-Soviet instability. He was not, the Taliban and Islamabad tried to show, yet another warlord campaigning with Pakistani backing. Beyond that, most of what we know about him relies on the same two tired photos and fuzzy biography. According to U.S. documents, Omar was extraordinary and yet wholly unimpressive at the same time. He was reportedly uncharismatic and astonishingly ignorant in matters of global affairs, but the United

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