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Afghan Government Says Taliban Leader Mullah Omar Is Dead


Mullah Mohammed Omar, the reclusive leader of the Taliban, is dead. In fact, he's been dead for more than two years. That's what the Afghan government now says. News of his death comes days before peace talks between the Taliban and Afghanistan are due to resume. NPR's Jackie Northam has the story.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Mullah Mohammed Omar, the one eyed cleric who led the Taliban for nearly two decades, has not been seen since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Over the years, there have been rumors of his death. Today, Afghanistan's main spy agency confirmed it, saying it had credible information Mullah Omar died in the Pakistani port city of Karachi in April 2013. Ahmed Rashid, an author and expert on the Taliban, says Pakistan has some explaining to do.

AHMED RASHID: There was no way that Taliban leader could live in Pakistan without the knowledge of the military or the military intelligence. The idea that he could somehow secretly have entered a hospital but then died without anybody knowing about it is a bit far-fetched.

NORTHAM: The Taliban had been releasing statements claiming to have been written by Mullah Omar right up until last month. Graeme Smith with the International Crisis Group in Kabul says there's a good reason an increasingly factionalized Taliban didn't want news of Mullah Omar's death known.

GRAEME SMITH: Mullah Omar is very important symbol for the Taliban. When people join the Taliban, they swear an oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar personally. His existence is actually the glue that holds these different factions together.

NORTHAM: The Taliban has captured territory during this year's spring offensive, and attacks have sharply increased casualties among Afghan forces. Still, Rashid says news of Mullah Omar's death will likely demoralize Taliban fighters.

RASHID: They will really feel that they've been made fools of by their own leadership for two years. And now who will be appointed leader and whether that will be accepted by all the rank-and-file fighters, we still don't know.

NORTHAM: Smith says Afghanistan's decision to announce Mullah Omar's death could also affect upcoming peace talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban.

SMITH: It's been hard to drag the Taliban to the table. And the Afghan government itself is actually not all that enthusiastic. And so this is maybe an attempt to spoil those talks.

NORTHAM: Despite today's news, the White House says it hopes the Taliban will still attend the peace talks. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.

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