10 July 2015, NYT: Taliban Were Authorized to Talk, Afghan Envoys Say
9 July 2015, NYT: Taliban-Afghan Meeting Ends With Optimism and Plans to Hold More Talks
22 January 2015, NYT: Taliban Fissures in Afghanistan Are Seen as an Opening for ISIS
JULY 29, 2015
Taliban Leader Mullah Omar Died in 2013, Afghans Declare
By ROD NORDLAND and JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN
KABUL, Afghanistan -- After months of speculation, Afghan officials announced Wednesday that they were now certain that the Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, died in a Pakistani hospital in 2013.
The announcement is not likely to conclusively settle the question of Mullah Omar's fate. Afghan officials offered no evidence regarding his death or how they had come to find out about it. And though American officials called the report credible, they, too, were publicly reticent about details or to explain how the news was coming to light only now, even as the Taliban insurgency is gaining momentum on Afghan battlefields.
But if true, the death of the Taliban's legendary unifying figure offers a likely explanation for a brewing power struggle within the group's ranks. Confusion about Mullah Omar's condition led some commanders in recent months to publicly question whether he was alive or even to break away and claim loyalty to other groups, including the Islamic State.
It would also cast more uncertainty on the new peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government, who were scheduled to have their second official face-to-face meeting in Pakistan on Friday. Already not accepted by some wings of the Taliban, the peace process could force further rifts within the group without a widely accepted successor to Mullah Omar to support them.
Some of the official hedging about the details of Mullah Omar's condition may be understandable: The Afghan spy agency also pronounced him dead in 2011, only to back off those claims later. And a spokesman for the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid, told the Voice of America on Wednesday that the new death claims were false.
Even given his impenetrable reclusiveness, and the growing mystery around him in recent years, Mullah Omar proved a remarkable unifying figure for the Taliban's far-flung factions for decades.
Born in 1960, Mullah Omar became a respected veteran of the mujahedeen fight against the Soviets in the 1980s, and he began the Taliban movement with a small band of supporters and students from his madrasa in rural Kandahar Province in the early '90s. Born out of disgust with the corruption and excesses of feuding Afghan warlords, the Taliban rose to conquer the country.
It ruled as the national government from 1996 till the American invasion in 2001 -- and presented a rallying success story for jihadists around the world. Among them was Osama bin Laden, another former mujahedeen fighter who used the shelter offered by Mullah Omar to build up his terrorist group, Al Qaeda.
Mullah Omar's movement quickly became known for harsh justice and a fearsomely rigid enforcement of the most conservative social mores, staging public executions and beating women who did not completely cover themselves in burqas.
Within the Taliban, Mullah Omar ruthlessly purged disloyal commanders or would-be defectors, and adamantly refused to talk peace with the Afghan government while foreign military forces remained in the country.
Now, the reports of his death cast further uncertainty over the fate of the current peace talks, which began  July 7 at a resort in Murree, Pakistan.
The peace process has proved a divisive issue within the Taliban. The insurgents' official political office, in Doha, Qatar, initially declared that the July meeting was invalid because Taliban officials in Qatar were not present and had not approved it.
At the same time, Afghan officials said they had been told that the talks were authorized by the Taliban's deputy leader,  Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, suggesting that he carried the imprimatur of Mullah Omar's leadership.
Indeed, a statement  attributed to Mullah Omar in his annual message commemorating the Eid al-Fitr holiday this month expressed philosophical support for negotiations even as fighting continued.
Reports about the Taliban leader's death have surfaced repeatedly over the past decade, fueled by his complete absence from public view since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. To this day, there is only one known photograph of him.
The talk intensified last week when a little-known breakaway faction that has opposed peace talks, Feday-e-Mahaz, posted a statement saying Mullah Omar had died two years ago and was buried in Zabul Province in southern Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, the Afghan government hurriedly convened a news conference at which, officials told journalists beforehand, they planned to announce Mullah Omar's death. But at the news conference, Sayed Zafar Hashemi, the deputy spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, said only, "We have seen those reports, but we are still in the process of assessing those reports."
Later, Abdul Haseeb Sediqi, the spokesman for the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan spy agency, made it official. "There's no doubt," he said in a telephone interview late Wednesday. "We confirm he is dead. He died in April 2013, two years back, in Karachi." But he offered no details about the circumstances, how the agency knew, or where Mullah Omar might be buried.
A White House spokesman, Eric Schultz, said in a briefing that American officials were aware of the reports and found them "credible." But he stopped short of confirming Mullah Omar's death, saying, "The intelligence agencies are right now reviewing these reports." When asked why the United States was just now becoming aware of the Taliban leader's death after two years, Mr. Schultz said, "I'm just not going to be able to comment on the specifics."
A different American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said American officials had heard "chatter" in recent days among senior Taliban members about their leaders' possible demise. Still, the official cautioned that the communication, which was picked up through electronic surveillance and other sources of intelligence, was not definitive.
A different official at Afghanistan's spy agency, who like other Afghan officials spoke about the matter only on the condition of anonymity, said that the agency had learned of Mullah Omar's death a year and a half ago and that since then, "a lot of our international allies have confirmed the death."
Mullah Omar had been "suffering from a disease" at the time of his death, the official said, adding: "We do not know about the whereabouts of his graveyard or whether he received a ceremony."
The official said that Mullah Omar had been relatively itinerant and was believed to have spent some time in Rawalpindi, home to the headquarters of the Pakistani military, among a host of other places.
"Because of the American drones, they were changing his place very often," the official said.
Though Pakistani military and intelligence officials are widely known to keep tabs on senior Afghan Taliban members and to control their movements to some degree -- the peace talks began in large part because of Pakistani pressure for the Taliban to attend -- there has been no public hint from them that they knew the whereabouts of Mullah Omar or of his death.
In 2011, a spokesman for the Afghan intelligence service, Lutfullah Mashal, was quoted as saying that Pakistan's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, had killed Mullah Omar  after United States Navy SEAL members killed Osama bin Laden. The Afghan agency later backed off  that claim, saying at a news conference late last year that he "might" be dead but that they were unsure.
Speculation about Mullah Omar's death has intensified over the years since he disappeared from public life, with the exception of written pronouncements issued by spokesmen claiming to speak for him.
The last audio statement attributed to Mullah Omar was issued in 2006, and its authenticity has been questioned.
On Wednesday, a European diplomat said that while incontrovertible proof of Mullah Omar's death had not been forthcoming, there was nothing to suggest he was alive.
"It's a balance of probability," the diplomat said, summing up the basis for the growing consensus that Mullah Omar is dead. "The fairest thing to say is that there is nothing to contradict it."
The diplomat referred to intelligence indicating that Taliban commanders were discussing among themselves, with a variety of opinions, whether Mullah Omar was alive or dead. "Almost everyone believes the chatter wouldn't be where it is if there wasn't something significant here," the diplomat said, adding, "It has never been at this volume or intensity before."
That is a change from a few years ago, when Western intelligence officials said they believed Mullah Omar was active and living under official protection in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city. Even then, Mullah Omar was rarely seen by most Afghans, or even lower-level Taliban figures.
The growing belief that their leader is no longer alive has fed dissension in Taliban ranks and is cited as one of the reasons that the Islamic State extremist group has begun to make some inroads in Afghanistan. A commander in Helmand Province named Mirwais explained  his defection to the Islamic State by saying: "We respect Mullah Omar. But if he is alive, why does he not appear and guide us?"
But even with the confusion, the Taliban's offensive this year has reached a new peak, with the insurgent fighters directly threatening a provincial capital, Kunduz, for the first time in many years, and inflicting record casualties on the Afghan security forces.
Reporting was contributed by Jawad Sukhanyar and Fazal Muzhary from Kabul, and Matthew Rosenberg and Gardiner Harris from Washington.