A powerful vanishing act

Times Staff Writer

Where’s Mullah Omar?

It has been more than five years since the Taliban’s supreme leader, a onetime village cleric, vanished into the trackless terrain outside his fallen Afghan stronghold, Kandahar. And his likeliest source of sanctuary is thought to be the belt of rugged tribal territory straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where the law of no nation prevails.

In Kuchlak, a dusty desert crossroads in the southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan, Mullah Mohammed Omar still is referred to by the title he assumed in 1996, when he and his puritanical Islamist movement seized power in Afghanistan: Amir al-Muminin, or Commander of the Faithful.

Omar’s feat of eluding a long manhunt by the Americans and their allies, even with a $10-million bounty on his head, is celebrated here as proof of his mystical powers.


“With all their sophisticated satellites that can see a single needle from high in the sky, they cannot find him,” said Fazil Mohammad Baraich, a district amir, or chieftain. “It is no surprise that God almighty protects him, and this increases our faith.”

Rumors of Omar sightings abound, and are repeated by locals with an air of satisfied certainty.

“I, myself, have heard on good authority that he is living in a camp” in the military enclave outside Quetta, said Mohammed Ashiq, head of a merchants association in that provincial capital.

“And,” Ashiq said, leaning forward conspiratorially, “I hear that he has gotten fat. Very fat.”

During the Taliban’s rule, it was Omar who ordered such stringent measures as the banishment of women from schools and public life, and the destruction of one of Afghanistan’s greatest cultural treasures, the giant Buddha statues at Bamian.

He outlawed simple pleasures such as music and kite flying, even as he decreed, disastrously for his country, that the Taliban would provide aid and shelter to Osama bin Laden, who likewise has remained at large.


A Taliban presence

In tribal communities such as Kuchlak, sympathy for the toppled militia is defiantly undiminished. Many townspeople are of the same Pashtun clan as Omar, who by most accounts has never flown in an airplane and has rarely strayed from his homeland.

The cult-like devotion to Omar in the mosques and makeshift classrooms of the tribal territories helps ensure a steady supply of Taliban fighters. The militia’s white flags flutter over Kuchlak’s small, desolate graveyard, where the names of slain fighters are scratched into bare rock.

Little boys trudge through the town’s rutted streets, bearing bags of bread donated to the town’s many madrasas, or Islamic religious schools. On Kuchlak’s edge, single tracks, equally suitable for wandering goats or militants on motorbikes, fade into a horizon the color of khaki, the Pashto word for dusty.

Across the border in Afghanistan, allied military commanders say they are putting increasing pressure on the Taliban leadership, most notably with a precision airstrike on Dec. 19 on a lonely road in Helmand province that killed Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Osmani, a senior deputy to Omar.

Tracking Omar “is certainly a priority, and this kind of success shows we have the potential to reach those at his level,” said Maj. Dominic Whyte, a spokesman for North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces.

But if Omar has taken shelter in Pakistan, he may be out of the reach of coalition guns. An airstrike in October on a madrasa in the Pakistani tribal region of Bajur, which left dozens dead, triggered a heavy anti-American and anti-government backlash.


For that reason, a strike on a madrasa or village thought to be harboring Omar would be politically explosive unless American forces were absolutely certain that he, or a similarly high-profile target, was present.

Kuchlak, 10 miles north of Quetta, is a convenient way station for anyone looking to move surreptitiously in and out of the tribal belt.

One road out of town leads north to the Afghan border and continues to Kandahar. Another, with only a single police checkpoint in more than 100 miles, leads northeast to the tribal area of Waziristan, where Pakistani authorities have struck controversial truces with tribal elders that prevent troops from pursuing militants.

Because of Omar’s longtime aversion to being photographed -- a policy he was said to have adopted on religious grounds -- few in the border hinterlands would be in a position to positively identify him. His missing right eye was his most recognizable characteristic, but allied military reports say he may have been fitted with a glass eye.

In any event, many observers believe that betrayal from within Omar’s tribal milieu would be unthinkable. For one thing, it would violate the rigid Pashtun code of behavior, which places a premium on clan honor and the unquestioning protection of guests. For another, any traitor probably would pay with his life, and with the lives of his family.

Political questions

Omar’s role in the Taliban leadership, whether as figurehead or active military commander, is widely debated among analysts.


Last week, before the beginning of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, Western news agencies received a statement from a purported spokesman for Omar, in which the Taliban leader boasted that his fighters would drive foreign troops out of Afghanistan.

The possibility that Omar has been sheltered in Pakistan raises thorny political questions for President Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan became a crucial U.S. ally after the Sept. 11 attacks, but the motives and loyalties of its government are under increasing Western scrutiny.

The Taliban movement, in its early days, was nurtured by Pakistan’s intelligence service, and some observers doubt that Omar could have survived this long without its continued help. But others say no hard-and-fast proof has emerged that Omar is hiding on the Pakistani side of the border.

“He could be in Afghanistan, or he could be in Pakistan,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a longtime Taliban watcher based in the Pakistani frontier city of Peshawar.

To admirers, the near-completeness of Omar’s vanishing act after fleeing his gaudily appointed compound outside Kandahar in late 2001 is a triumphant rebuttal of the allies’ characterizations of him as a simpleton.

“If that is the case,” said Baraich, the amir, “then why has he been able to hide so well, and for so long?”