The reclusive ruler who runs the Taliban

A Pakistani official arrived in Kandahar, Afghanistan, this spring, on a mission to save two towering 1,700-year-old mountain carvings of Buddha. He tried to dissuade the Taliban Supreme Leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, from blowing up the statues.

Mullah Omar replied by describing a dream he'd had about "a mountain falling down on him." Before it hit him, Allah appeared, asking Omar why he did nothing to get rid of the false idols.

"I closed my attaché case," the Pakistani recalls, shoulders sagging. "There was nothing left to say."

Such private visions are part of the decisionmaking process that has guided the life of the man who rose from village mullah to Taliban leader to partner of Osama bin Laden.

Those who have met Omar, say he's tall (6 foot, 6 inches) bearded, reclusive, and a lover of war stories. A fierce commander, he was wounded four times in the jihad against the Soviets, leaving him with one eye.

His title, "Commander of the Faithful," has not been adopted by any Muslim anywhere for nearly 1000 years. Omar has given few interviews, rarely meets with non-Muslims, and there is only one known photo of him - as a young man. Diplomats describe him as shy and untalkative with foreigners. Omar says he has one son.

"He has never visited Kabul, the capital," says Rahimullah Yousefzai, who has interviewed Omar twice for The News, a Karachi, Pakistan, based newspaper. "He is not a great speaker. To his followers, his strength is his piety, the force of his belief."

In the past year, facing drought, military problems, a lack of international recognition, and sanctions, Omar has become increasingly isolated, and influenced by Arabs such as Ayman Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden's No. 2. Omar's rhetoric used to focus on rebuilding Afghanistan, and even on censuring Mr. bin Ladin. During the past year, his public statements have taken on a pan-Islamic tone found more among militant Islamists from Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Omar used to be seen cross-legged in local mosques talking with his followers. But in recent months (until this week's air raids), he was seen in convoys of Landcruisers with tinted windows, a gift of wealthy Arabs. Omar's house (reportedly hit by bombs yesterday) was was one of 16 large residences built with Arab money along a stretch of Herat St. in Kandahar. Mr. Zawahiri is a neighbor.

Born in 1959 as the son of a peasant farmer, he grew up in mud huts around the village of Singesar, near Kandahar. In short, he's an unlikely leader in a country where pedigree and royalty have always been the path to power.

Omar, in fact, was relatively unknown in Afghanistan until 1994. He came to power reluctantly, says Mr. Yousefzai. Omar told him that he started the Taliban after a dream in which Allah came to him in the shape of a man, asking him to lead the faithful. There were also practical reasons.

Omar, known for a pure devotion to Islam, was a mullah with a village madrassah near Kandahar. But he was "horrified," says Yousefzai, by the behavior of former mujahideen commanders that he had fought alongside from 1989 to 1992. They were kidnapping and raping boys and girls, stealing from Afghans at gunpoint on the road, and driving international aid workers out of Kandahar. So, Omar and 30 ethnic Pashtun followers "picked up the gun" - at first to stop four notorious mujahideen who were raping women near Omar's village - and later to bring law and order to an entire country.

The idea: create a Muslim state that would perfectly practice a strict interpretation of the Koran, one taught in the fundamentalist madrassahs of Pakistan, where Omar went to school.

The Taliban movement, backed by the Pakistani secret service, succeeded beyond anyone's imagination - capturing most of the country by 1998.

In 1996, as Taliban fervor increased, Omar accepted the title of "Amirul Momineen," or "commander of the faithful," in an emotional meeting in Kandahar where he appeared on a balcony above thousands of cheering Taliban, wrapping himself in a cloak said to belong to the Prophet Mohammad. The cloak had not been removed from its Kandahar shrine in 60 years, and had never been worn before. Omar is the first Muslim since the Fourth Caliph, a nephew of Prophet Mohammad, to publicly accept the Amirul title, a ranking in Islam nearly second to the Prophet.

Omar's weighty title, which is not accepted by Muslims outside Afghanistan, represents a long journey for a man who never finished his Islamic education. In fact, Omar laments his interrupted schooling, and still calls himself a "talib," (one who seeks), rather than a "mullah" (one who gives) - even while some of his followers think of him as a god.

Many ordinary ethnic Pashtun followers see him as a repository of piety. "It is our duty to follow Omar, he is our father, the first man to take the cloak of the prophet," says Qoari Ali Khan, the head of a madrassah in Pabbi, Pakistan, who was one of 250 mujahideen commanded by Omar in the anti-Soviet war, where the Taliban chief made a name for himself as a marksman with anti-tank rockets.

Still, in the past year, some of the shine has come off the mantle of the current Amirul Momineen of Afghanistan. Some young Pashtuns who used to support Omar, and his dream of a pure Islamic state, are disillusioned.

Omar has never traveled to Kabul to set up a functioning government. Decisions are made in private with a small council of elders. Funds are often distributed among the Taliban by special envoys who travel to Kandahar for an audience with Omar. A plea is made, and Omar opens a large tin box, kept near his bed, which is filled with US dollars.

Some Afghans now speak of Omar's past year as something of an evolving tragedy, as he continues to be buffeted between Arab, Pakistani, and other influences. Some Muslims sympathetic to the Taliban do not want to see Afghanistan used as a platform for bin Laden's violent pan-Islamic jihad.

"There is no question that at the top levels, the Arabs have grown strong in the past two years," says a young Pakistani journalist who has visited Kandahar recently. "People like Osama and Zawahiri don't have to actually see Omar to influence him. Their presence isn't needed. The circumstances and their moves make it possible."

In the Taliban ranks, there is some dissatisfaction - though US strikes may again bring a rallying to Omar. Still, as the country undergoes drought, farmers are reportedly tired of handing over their sons each year for a jihad to take the Panjshir Valley, held by the Northern Alliance. That's another reason Omar depends on Arab fighters on the front lines.

Moreover, in something of a risky move that did not yield Omar any of the international credit he expected, the Taliban did last year stop an entire harvest of poppy. Farmers growing poppy earn about $5,000 a hectare, as compared with $1200 a hectare for wheat.

Last year as well, a huge truck bomb exploded near Omar's headquarters, killing his brother, and reportedly sending the mullah into a period of troubled silence.

During this time, as well, wealthy Arabs who come to Afghanistan to cut their teeth as radical jihadis - have often been reported as "bossing around" and "treating badly" many of the local Taliban. "We used to see them once in awhile, and knew they lived in camps," says the Pakistani journalist. "But in the past year, they are seen on the streets, in the restaurants, everywhere. Omar seems unaware of this."

In the late 1990s, Omar told Mr. Yousafzai that "I am ready to sacrifice everything in completing the unfinished agenda of our noble jihad...until there is no bloodshed in Afghanistan and Islam becomes a way of life for our people." Yet the country has lived in fear, with continued bloodshed.

Again, in the late 1990s, Omar is on record condemning any export of jihad by the Taliban to neighboring countries, and especially by Osama bin Laden. "We have told Osama not to use Afghan soil to carry out political activities as it creates unnecessary confusion about Taliban objectives," Omar told Yousefzai.

Yet the Pakistani Minister of Interior Moinuddin Haider, who visited Omar last month to persuade him to turn over Osama bin Laden, say the man is isolated: "I told Mullah Omar, 'You have switched off your TV set,'" Mr. Haider told reporters here. "I said, 'You don't have many embassies tell you what is happening. You don't know what the Muslim world is saying right now.'"

Some observers say that Omar, who never finished his Islamic schooling, has become swayed by Gulf Arabs who have Islamic credentials that, for a man with humble origins, must be dazzling.

The scholars and clerics from the schools of Egypt and the land of Saudi Arabia, the land of the prophet, and, in the mind of a fundamentalist, the place where a restoration of "true Islam" must spring from - give these figures great influence on Omar, experts say.

In a Voice of America interview on Sept. 21, Omar said: "God says he will never be satisfied with the infidels. In terms of worldly affairs, America is very strong. Even if it were twice as strong or twice that, it could not be strong enough to defeat us. We are confident that no one can harm us if God is with us."

"I want an independent state for Palestine too," says one local Muslim who has followed the Taliban closely. "But I don't want to put my gun on your shoulder, the way the Arabs are doing with Omar.

"The tragedy is that at the beginning, Omar sounds like the man who will pave the way for the king's [Zahir Shah's] return. He talked about peace and security. But he never said he would try to become the leader of the Muslim world.

But when he says, 'there is one authority, and that is me,' which he has said, influenced by I-don't-know-who, it becomes a farce."

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