- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Uncertainty swirled Wednesday around new reports that long-secretive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has been dead for perhaps as long as two years, as U.S. officials declined to confirm an Afghan government claim and analysts debated how the death might impact Afghan-Taliban peace talks and the group’s surging operations in the war-torn nation.

Mullah Omar, the legendary and charismatic one-eyed leader who hosted Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda during the years leading up to 9/11, has not been seen in public since 2001, when he fled across the border into Pakistan as U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan. But he was seen as the organizational glue behind the group, which has survived a long, grinding war against a U.S.-led international coalition.

The announcement by Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency on Wednesday that he died in a Pakistani hospital in 2013 came just as other Taliban leaders claiming to represent the group are slated to hold fresh rounds of peace talks with Afghan officials — talks that have caused division among the militant group’s rank and file.

The White House said Wednesday that administration officials believe the Afghan National Directorate of Security’s claim is “credible,” but could not independently confirm its accuracy.

The uncertainty, coupled with the announcement’s timing, prompted speculation that Afghan authorities may be trying to pressure the Taliban’s regional commanders to get behind the peace process with Kabul.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office insisted its intelligence about Mullah Omar was “accurate,” and that his demise would benefit the peace talks, aimed at ending the war that has gripped the nation since a U.S.-led coalition of forces drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan 14 years ago.

“The Afghan government believes that the ground for the Afghan peace talks is more solid now than before and thus calls on all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity to join the peace process,” a statement from Mr. Ghani’s office said.

But regional Taliban commanders have been openly split in recent months on whether to continue the war or negotiate with Mr. Ghani, who has pushed for reconciliation with the militants since coming to office last year. The death report also comes amid reports that the far more radical Islamic State movement has been trying to expand into Afghanistan as well.

As they have in past years, lower-level Taliban operatives in Afghanistan dismissed the Afghan government’s claims on Wednesday. Sky News reported that Qari Yousef Ahmadi, widely regarded to be one of two main spokesmen for the Taliban, said, “Omar is still alive and leading the movement.”

Private U.S. analysts also expressed skepticism about the news.

“I don’t think he’s dead,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, who edits the terrorism-focused Long War Journal. “If these guys get caught claiming he’s alive and he’s really dead, it has very negative implications, including Shariah religious law implications. So I just don’t think they’re going to take that risk.”

CNN noted on Wednesday that the Taliban also published a “biography” earlier this year of the reclusive mullah, saying he was still in charge. The piece appeared on a Taliban website with the apparent goal of dispelling rumors that he died, possibly years ago.

But the Afghan government’s claim on Wednesday offered new, more specific details. Abdul Hassib Sediqi, the spokesman for the Afghan National Directorate of Security, told The Associated Press that Mullah Omar died in a hospital in the Pakistani city of Karachi in April 2013.

“He was very sick in a Karachi hospital and died suspiciously there,” Mr. Sediqi said, without elaborating. He said the Afghan government had been aware of Mullah Omar’s death for two years and had made it public on a number of occasions.

The AP also cited an unnamed former Taliban minister who was once close to Mullah Omar as saying that the Taliban leader died of tuberculosis and was “buried somewhere near the border on the Afghan side.”

• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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