Mullah Mohammed Omar, founder of the Taliban Movement in Afghanistan is dead. He was one of the most feared ‘terrorists’ in the world. Yet, he was essentially, an Afghan patriot. But for the propaganda that he was a terrorist, Omar would have gone down in history as one of the most unique Heads of State in the world.
He shunned publicity and the centre stage of politics so much that there are only two photographs of his available. In the five years he was Afghanistan President, he visited Kabul, the capital only twice; preferring to live in his Khandar home, and leave his lieutenants to run government.
The Taliban he founded, are a disciplined set of fighters; judging by their ability to withstand the combined forces of some of the strongest armies in the world, they are among the best guerrilla fighters in modern history. The Taliban are a committed and unrelenting army, with Islam as its guiding ideology; that in itself, does not make them terrorists. It is primarily, a local Afghan movement, peopled mainly by Pashtun Afghans interested in running government and doing business with all countries including the United States whose recognition, it craved.
Despite its years of conflict against European, Canadian and American armies on Afghan soil and the perpetual detention without trial of its captured members, the Afghan Taliban is not known to carry out attacks in other countries. The reputation of the Taliban as an extremist and terrorist group, is based on some issues. The first was its imposition of strict Sharia rule on Afghanistan. But there are countries around the world like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Mauritania, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Iran that imposed sharia rule.
Yet they are not regarded as terrorists. The system of merciless flogging and beheading in public squares which the Taliban was noted for, is also widely practiced in a pro-western country like Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the most devastating act of the Taliban was its March 2001 destruction of the historical Buddhas of Bamiyan monument. For those of us who embrace knowledge, are married to history, love art and believe the world is big enough for all religions to operate, this was a horrific act. Another issue was its ban of television which it regarded as a vehicle of modern Western decadence.
But this is not strictly a Taliban or Islamic view. In the 1980s and 90s, one of the largest and fastest growing churches in Nigeria, founded by an academic, taught its members that the television set is the Devil’s box which must be smashed and destroyed. Another issue was the Taliban declaring the country an Islamic State. Again, there are countries with similar declarations including Zambia which declared itself a Christian state. There is also the treatment of women, but the Taliban tended to treat women with respect including encouraging them to get education (unlike the Taliban in Pakistan) Women had far more freedom under Taliban rule than in Saudi Arabia where, they have no voting right or cannot drive a car.
Before Taliban rule, tribal feuds could be settled by trading-off women (Swara) or traditionally, executing them to settle blood-price; Omar issued a fatwa on these. The main case against the Taliban was that it gave Bin Laden and his lieutenants , political asylum prior to the barbaric 9/11 terror attacks in America. al-Qaeda had fought on the side of the Afghans in the 1980s in their war against what was seen as Soviet occupation.
So when Bin Laden had to leave Sudan after its host had become uncomfortable, the Taliban regime gave it shelter. The Taliban had no appetite for war; it knew the awesome powers of America and were conscious that no world power including Russia and China would come to their aid in case of a conflict with the West. Omar had at 23, joined the Mujahideen in 1983 and four years later, a shrapnel destroyed one of his eyes so he retired to be a teacher in Pakistan. After the Najibullah government was overthrown in 1992, anarchy, like happened in post-Barre Somalia and post-Ghadaffi Libya, became rife.
In the ensuring chaos, Omar returned to Afghanistan to teach. With the various Mujahideen factions setting up check points to extort money and running riot, his desire was to free his area from anarchy. So in 1994, with his students numbering about thirty, he raided and seized the two check points in his neighbourhood and freed two young women and a boy seized as sex slaves. With news of this, more demands were made of him to free neighbourhoods, and more students flocked to his side. Within two years, the group which was simply known as students (Taliban) had taken most of the country including Kabul. On August 7, 1998, the United States (US) embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed and Bin Laden was a suspect.
Omar wanted proof of his involvement, promising to put him on trial in Afghanistan, or if the US objected, to hand him over to any Islamic country except Saudi Arabia for trial. When 9/11 happened, the Taliban regime began debating whether to seize Bin Laden and hand him over to the US or push him out of the country. After all, the al-Qaeda regional base was in Pakistan and fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudis. These debates were cut short by the American-led invasion.
The Taliban did not stand to fight; it simply melted before the advance of the invaders. So when in 2001, NATO declared victory, the Taliban army was intact. It merely transformed into a guerrilla movement which until today has made the Afghan war, an unwinnable for the Western allies.
Omar encouraged peace talks based on two conditions; the withdrawal of foreign troops and establishment of Sharia law. In return, the Taliban would kick out all non Afgan groups including al-Qaeda. The Karzai government was keen on a peace deal, but the West feel that the Taliban cannot be trusted. With the demise of Omar who had issued a fatwa against the ISIS gang, the Afghan peace process might have lost an ally.