On the eve of President Barack Hussein Obama’s announcement of troop levels in Afghanistan next week, his enemy Mullah Mohammed Omar has thrown down the gauntlet. In a major message to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al Adha this week, the commander of the Afghan Taliban addressed “the rulers of the White House” about their plans to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan and to pursue “illogical strategies” that he promises will only lead to “bitterness and pain.” The self-styled “Amir of Believers,” meaning the commander of all the faithful in Islam, tells Obama that he and the Afghan people are experts in defeating empires, having destroyed the English and Russian empires before the invasion of the “imperialistic American crusaders.” In short, Omar welcomes the coming fight with a larger NATO army, and he lays down in this message his no-compromise strategy for victory.
To give him his due, Mullah Omar has staged one of the most remarkable military comebacks in history in the last decade. Utterly defeated in late 2001, he retreated into the mountains of southern Afghanistan and the borderlands with Pakistan to regroup. Thanks to George W. Bush’s failure to finish the job then, the Taliban recovered and now controls much of the south and east of the country and is attacking deeper into the north and west every day. With the benefit of a sanctuary in Pakistan, Omar now believes the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will be restored to power in the next couple of years.
He is a remarkably secretive man who has met with less than a handful of non-Muslims in his life and prides himself on his piety and simple life. Badly wounded fighting the Soviets, he practices remarkable operational security. His location is a closely guarded secret; reports recently put him in Karachi to escape CIA drones. Normally taciturn, his Eid message is his longest ever, a reflection of the importance of the moment.
Omar begins by rejecting any offer of negotiations from the Kabul government. He calls President Hamid Karzai a stooge of America and warns all his captains to avoid any discussion with the collaborators in Kabul unless it is to speed their defections. Omar has consistently rejected negotiations with Karzai, and he notes Karzai’s recent reelection was marred by massive corruption and vote fraud. Then Omar urges all the educated and literate of Afghanistan to rally behind the Taliban mujahideen. He warns Afghanistan’s neighbors that collaboration with NATO today will come home to haunt them later, once the Taliban have triumphed—a clear warning that the Taliban intend to export their revolution if they succeed.
At the end of the message, he appeals to the entire Islamic community to join in the jihad against America. He lauds the mujahideen fighters in Iraq, Palestine and other countries fighting America, thus associating himself with the global Islamic jihad movement. Omar has done this in previous Eid messages but more forcefully than ever this year. This message combines both a powerful Afghan nationalist statement with a universal Islamic jihad theme in a way designed to portray the Taliban as both an anti-colonial nationalist movement and a part of the larger jihad against the Crusader Americans. This may be a response to criticisms of an earlier message this fall that seemed more nationalist than jihadist. Omar is saying he is both. He is appealing to the broadest base he can.
Mullah Omar now has the allegiance of more of the terrorist syndicate that threatens both Afghanistan and Pakistan than any other leader. Not only does he command the loyalty of the major strands of the Afghan Taliban (his own Quetta Shura, Gulbudin Hekmatyar’s wing and the Haqqani network), he also has the allegiance of much of the Pakistani Taliban and of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. He is skillfully working Pakistan so it continues to give him sanctuary while the Pakistani Taliban attacks the institutions of the Pakistani army and state. Finally, though Omar, as usual, does not mention al Qaeda, there is no indication of a rift between him and bin Laden, to the contrary, bin Laden continues to profess his loyalty to the man who has hosted him for over a decade.
A man educated only in the strictest of fundamentalist Islamic schooling, Mullah Omar has developed a more complex understanding of his enemies in the last year. He alludes to his learning curve in the statement as a sign the Taliban are getting closer to victory. In this message he tries to persuade Europeans to break with America and clearly understands that war weariness is higher in Europe than in the U.S. But he also tries to reach out to anti-imperialists in the West at large and urges them to stop fighting for “a small number of capitalists and suckers of blood.”
In another message last week, the Taliban also lauded the Fort Hood massacre as a sign the jihad is reaching into America itself and appealed to all Muslims in America, especially in the military, to follow the gunman’s example and attack American soldiers whereever they are in the world. Such acts of violence and martyrdom are fully sanctioned by Islam, the Taliban says, and should be repeated. So if Obama and his team are now ready to “finish the job,” so too is the Taliban leadership.
On June 1, Vanda Felbab-Brown joined the Asia Society India Centre for the discussion, “Mired in conflict: Afghanistan’s future post-U.S. exit and its impact on South Asia.”