12 October 2005

The Seduction of Mullah Omar

The Taliban had a lot to offer Pakistan. They could provide strong Pashtun allies in Afghanistan, something Pakistan desperately needed because its only other significant Pashtun ally was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the mujahedeen prime minister who hadn't yet set foot in Kabul, choosing to stay outside the city and pound it with rockets in an attempt to dislodge his rival and the current defense minister, Ahmed Shah Masood....

The Taliban could also provide training and inspiration for the jihadis that Pakistan was using with such ferocity in Indian-ruled Kashmir, a small former princedom that both India and Pakistan claimed as their own....

It wasn't difficult to co-opt the Taliban. Pakistan insinuated its control slowly and insidiously. It used Pakistani mullahs like those attending the meeting in Kandahar to mold and manipulate Mullah Omar. Additionally, the ISI recruited Afghans trained at Pakistani madrassas to infiltrate Mullah Omar's inner circle. One of Pakistan's handpicked men was Tayyab Aga, barely thirty-five years old and a perfect English speaker. He would eventually become Mullah Omar's spokesman, rarely leaving his side. He won Mullah Omar's confidence through sheer persistence.

Every day, he and his friends would sit outside Mullah Omar's office in Kandahar and send in messages, pleading to see the one-eyed leader. Mullah Omar didn't always answer their messages. Sometimes they waited weeks before being called in to see him. But they were patient men.

Each time, they would fill his head with flattery, praising him for his commitment to Islam, to the purity of the Sharia law that he had imposed. The seduction went on for months.

A measure of their progress was that eventually some of the founding members of the Taliban, men like [intelligence chief Mullah Mohammad] Khaksar, had trouble seeing Omar. Khaksar said: "It changed slowly. I used to walk into his office unannounced, drink tea and talk. But then it changed. I couldn't easily see him. He was always too busy and when we did get in they were always there, these mullahs from Pakistan or these new Afghan mullahs talking nonsense."

The real triumph for Pakistan and for its Afghan surrogates came in the first months of 1996 on the day that Mullah Omar removed the Cloak of Islam's Prophet from its sacred resting place, unseen since 1935, and in front of more than 1,500 mullahs who had traveled to Kandahar, declared himself Amir-ul Momineen, or King of the Faithful.

This act of hubris turned even the Muslim countries against the Taliban, reducing their circle of international friends and making them more dependent on Pakistan. It also inspired the Islamic zealots, those jihadis Pakistan had been nurturing so carefully.
SOURCE: I is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror: 18 Years Inside Afghanistan, by Kathy Gannon (PublicAffairs, 2005), pp. 41-42

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