KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban, it turns out, had been sending the world messages from a dead man. And the world kept answering him.
It continued until last month, when the Taliban issued a statement in the name of their supreme leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, intended to “elucidate some issues about the previous and present ongoing jihadi struggle.” In it, Mullah Omar seemed open to the idea of peace negotiations, raising hopes in Kabul.
The reclusive Mullah Omar, of course, had not been seen in public in nearly 14 years, and some of his commanders, having last heard from him around 2008 or 2009, had been demanding proof of life.
Mullah Omar, according to the Afghan spy service and some Taliban officials, had already been dead for more than two years — as many Afghan officials strongly suspected.
Still, President Ashraf Ghani, who had gone all out for months to open talks with the Taliban, said before news cameras that he was encouraged by Mullah Omar’s latest words, characterizing him as having said that “negotiation is the solution.”
For every major player in the Afghan war — the Afghan government, the Taliban, the United States and Pakistan — Mullah Omar and the unity his name imposed on the Afghan insurgency became convenient in some way, either politically or militarily.
How the insurgent leader’s death remained a secret for so long is a striking phenomenon that illuminates some of the murkier dynamics of the war in Afghanistan.
For the Taliban, news of Mullah Omar’s death risked fracturing an insurgency that has not just held together, but grown over a decade. No successor was likely to be as unifying in life as Mullah Omar proved to be even in death.
His name, and his rank — emir of the faithful — became a kind of talisman against defection to competing groups. When some Taliban-allied commanders finally began jumping ship this past year, some to pledge loyalty to the Islamic State, they cited growing evidence of Mullah Omar’s death as the reason.
Mullah Omar’s deputies drew much of their authority from their association, real or perceived, with the cleric, who the Afghan spy service said died in a Pakistani hospital in April 2013.
So until last month, the Taliban continued to issue in Mullah Omar’s name intermittent statements, marking holidays, bolstering morale and excoriating the government in Kabul and foreign invaders.
The more complicated part is that Afghan, American and European officials largely went along, even though many privately acknowledged that Mullah Omar, alive or dead, was completely emeritus.
Back in January, after the official end of the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan, the Pentagon hinted that Mullah Omar possibly remained a dangerous enemy. “To the degree he is still targeting our Afghan allies and U.S. troops, yes, he remains a threat,” the Pentagon’s press secretary said.
Diplomats made talking about Mullah Omar a kind of parlor game, compulsively discussing the latest official statements.
“If you had never gotten confirmation that Mullah Omar had died, this would have gone on until he was 110,” said the European Union’s representative to Afghanistan, Franz-Michael Mellbin. “When they would say ‘Mullah Omar issued this statement,’ I would say, ‘No, he didn’t; he’s not around.’ That’s been my line.”
Some Afghans wondered why the Taliban’s enemies seemed willing to keep breathing life into Mullah Omar.
“America especially should have undermined the notion that Mullah Omar was alive,” said Hajji Atta Mohammad Ahmadi, the head of Kandahar’s peace council. He said this would have helped uncover who actually led the Taliban, important information to “conduct peace talks from the standpoint of reliable knowledge.”
Yet for officials seeking peace negotiations, which are central to the long-term American hopes for Afghanistan, it was preferable that the insurgency possessed a clear hierarchy that could choose negotiators and decide terms. With Mullah Omar’s myth intact, the Taliban possessed that.
Moreover, any Taliban statements that sounded remotely like a peace overture were usually said to have Mullah Omar’s imprimatur. There was the time Mullah Omar was said to have sanctioned the opening of a political office in Qatar. And this year, Mullah Omar’s name was invoked during a nascent peace process, which stalled when his death was acknowledged last week.
“It doesn’t make sense to undermine a leader who sounds as though he is coming around to the idea of peace,” a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Kabul, Graeme Smith, said, offering an explanation for why diplomats might have gone along with treating Mullah Omar as alive and relevant.
Pakistani officials have also invoked Mullah Omar’s name. As Pakistani officials told Afghanistan in recent months that they would try to get a Taliban delegation to meet with the Afghan government, the Pakistanis, perhaps to lower expectations, added a caveat: It depended on Mullah Omar’s blessing, two Afghan officials familiar with the discussions said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomacy.
Pakistani officials deny that Mullah Omar ever lived in their country. But American and some, though not all, Afghan officials claim he had been living there for years. If it is true that Mullah Omar died in a Karachi-area hospital two years ago, it seems unlikely that Pakistani security officials would not have known he was dead even when they were evoking his name in the peace process.
Again, the myth of an engaged Mullah Omar proved handy. It bolstered Pakistan’s public argument that the Afghan Taliban were autonomous, even while the Pakistani security forces kept themselves at the center of the peace talks by pressuring senior Taliban members to take part.
Some Western officials suggest that Mullah Omar’s myth became somewhat comfortable for a few reasons. No one knew what might come after. And over the course of a long war it helped obscure a discomfiting truth: The identities and motives of the insurgents, and their various factions, often remained opaque.
At times, the idea of Mullah Omar helped keep “hidden a simple truth that we don’t really know what’s going on or who we’re fighting on any given day, and who their backers are,” a Western official in Kabul said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering colleagues.
Underlying it all, too, was the difficulty of getting reliable intelligence on a man who, even when known to be alive, had cloaked himself in a calculated unapproachability.
“It was not out of convenience so much as the fact that while there wasn’t hard evidence he was alive, there certainly wasn’t any he was dead,” said James F. Dobbins, who was the State Department’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2013 and 2014. “We wondered, but in the absence of any evidence that he passed away, we simply operated under the assumption that he might still be living.”
Mr. Dobbins was not surprised at how little was ever learned about Mullah Omar’s whereabouts.
“Look how long it took us to find Bin Laden, and we were looking a lot harder for him,” said Mr. Dobbins, who is now at the RAND Corporation. Asked why the search for Mullah Omar had not taken on greater urgency, Mr. Dobbins replied, “I guess the answer is: What difference would it have made?”
He added, “Whether he was alive or not, the Taliban was operating in a coherent, unified fashion in his name.”
All that raises the question: If the United States government had learned of Mullah Omar’s death, would it have acknowledged it?
“We would have had to decide whether to announce it or not,” Mr. Dobbins said. “We never faced that.”
Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan.