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Taliban Leader Mullah Omar Died 2 Years Ago, Afghan Government Says

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

News has come from Afghanistan that Mullah Omar has died. He is the charismatic and reclusive leader of the Taliban and has been pronounced dead several times since he was forced from power by U.S.-led coalition forces back in 2001. This time, the announcement came from high Afghan officials and also the presidential palace saying the top Taliban chief died two years ago in Pakistan. For more, we've reached Graeme Smith. He's a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Kabul. Welcome.

GRAEME SMITH: Thanks.

MONTAGNE: Now, Mullah Omar has not been seen really since fleeing Afghanistan in 2001 except for the occasional, you know, obscure footage. He's been known to be in Pakistan all these years. Why is it just being announced that he's dead now?

SMITH: Well, lots of people had an interest in keeping the myth of Mullah Omar alive, not least his sub commanders, the people who were telling the Taliban rank-and-file Mullah Omar told me to do this, and Mullah Omar wants us to do that. These people, you know, very much wanted Mullah Omar's idea, at least, to live on. He'd always been a reclusive leader. And so, you know, it didn't matter to the Senior Leadership Council of the Taliban whether or not he was actually there or not. What mattered was whether people believed that he was there. And that belief has been breaking down and seems to have reached a kind of a breaking point now on the eve of some very serious negotiations.

MONTAGNE: The notion that his death has been kept secret for the last two years suggests that there are competing factions within the Taliban among other things. What does this mean now, both for the Taliban and, maybe more importantly, for peace talks?

SMITH: Well, the faction that was keeping up this myth of Mullah Omar's existence is also the faction that seems to favor peace talks, whereas some of the sort of splinter groups within the insurgency have been the loudest in criticizing the leadership of the Taliban and saying look, Mullah Omar's dead, and, by the way, we don't believe in this negotiation process. So there has to be a reset on the negotiation side.

MONTAGNE: Now, with this acknowledgement that Mullah Omar died two years ago, what does that mean for the Taliban?

SMITH: Well, the main Taliban media arm has just put out a statement today saying that Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, a former minister, is going to take over and replace Mullah Omar. But the reality is, there's really no replacement for Mullah Omar. He was an incredibly big figure in the imaginations of militants across this region. And so, what you're likely to see, unfortunately, is a splintering, and that opens the way for more hard-line groups such as the self-declared Islamic State factions that are now becoming more prominent in Eastern Afghanistan

MONTAGNE: Speaking to us from Kabul, Graeme Smith is a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. Thanks very much.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.