Pakistan and Mullah Omar: who knows where he is?
The New York Times has an intriguing story about the sourcing for a report that did the rounds last week saying that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) rushed Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar to Karachi last week after he suffered a heart attack. (h/t Five Rupees)
To recap, the Washington Post said last week that a private intelligence network, the Eclipse Group, had reported that Mullah Omar had a heart attack on Jan. 7 and was treated for several days in a Karachi hospital with the help of the ISI.
It quoted the Eclipse Group as saying its source was a physician in the Karachi hospital, which was not identified in the report, who said he saw Mullah Omar struggling to recover from an operation to put a stent in his heart. “While I was not personally in the operating theater,” the physician reported, “my evaluation based on what I have heard and seeing the patient in the hospital is that Mullah Omar had a cardiac catheter complication resulting in either bleeding or a small cerebral vascular incident, or both.”
As is the way of these things, the story did the rounds of the Internet, blogosphere and Twitter until the original source of the report — an unnamed doctor in an unnamed Karachi hospital quoted by a private intelligence network — was obscured under the weight of repetition.
Mark Mazzetti at the New York Times, in an article titled “Former Spy with Agenda Operates a Private C.I.A”, has now profiled the man who runs the Eclipse Group, former CIA officer Duane R. Clarridge.
“Mr. Clarridge, 78, who was indicted on charges of lying to Congress in the Iran-contra scandal and later pardoned, is described by those who have worked with him as driven by the conviction that Washington is bloated with bureaucrats and lawyers who impede American troops in fighting adversaries and that leaders are overly reliant on mercurial allies,” Mazzetti writes.
“His dispatches — an amalgam of fact, rumor, analysis and uncorroborated reports — have been sent to military officials who, until last spring at least, found some credible enough to be used in planning strikes against militants in Afghanistan. They are also fed to conservative commentators, including Oliver L. North, a compatriot from the Iran-contra days and now a Fox News analyst, and Brad Thor, an author of military thrillers and a frequent guest of Glenn Beck.”
If those names sound familiar in the context of the Afghan Taliban leader, then remember the “Mullah Omar captured” reports that did the rounds in the middle of last year. One came from Brad Thor, and was then “confirmed” by Oliver North, who said that the ISI had picked him up on March 27 and placed him under house arrest. Those reports in turn were duly circulated around the Internet.
The whole episode has got me thinking anew about how many other reports there are out there — circulated widely enough through the echo chambers of the Internet that they then end up being repeated by analysts and officials — that may be incorrect. We already had the fake Taliban leader in Kabul last year (though incidentally Pakistani officials were consistent in their denial of any knowledge of those Kabul talks).
So let’s go back to first principles. The Pakistanis have said repeatedly that they do not know where Mullah Omar is. Let’s take as a working hypothesis the argument that the ISI lost track of him some time after 9/11 and that reports suggesting the Pakistanis have him under watch, or under house arrest (which come up often, and not just from followers of the Eclipse Group), are wrong.
In that case, where is he? It is not inconceivable that Mullah Omar could be hiding in the Pakistani cities of Quetta or Karachi — both with large Pashtun populations — without the ISI finding out. But Mullah Omar, who lost an eye fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, would be quite a hard man to hide. And he would probably also be too much of a traditionalist to have undergone plastic surgery to disguise himself.
Equally, if the ISI does not know where he is, how much influence does it have over the Afghan Taliban — or at least that part of the insurgency that remains loyal to Mullah Omar? Let’s also not forget that there has always been a great deal of distrust between the Afghan Taliban and the ISI, which if you go by the memoirs of former Taliban ambassador Mullah Zaeef, long predates 9/11.
The answer to those questions could undercut the positions taken by both Pakistan and the United States. If Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban is limited, its capacity to deliver them into a peace deal would also be limited. Equally, Washington’s tendency to blame Pakistan for the strength of the insurgency in Afghanistan – an accusation often played up by the U.S. media — would be vastly overstated.
What we can say with reasonable confidence is that Afghan insurgents move relatively easily across the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the very least, both Pakistan and the United States agree on this. The difference is that Pakistan blames the United States for failing to control the Afghan side of the border; Washington blames Islamabad/Rawalpindi for failing to do enough on its side.
We can also say with reasonable confidence that Mullah Omar’s deputy Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was arrested in Pakistan in February last year — again that is something that both Pakistan and the United States seem to agree on. Since he was arrested on the outskirts of Karachi on the border with Baluchistan, that has fed speculation that Afghan Taliban leaders might have begun moving there from Quetta. But there is no confirmation of this.
Nor indeed is there confirmation that Pakistan arrested Mullah Baradar to stop him holding Afghan peace talks outside of the control of the ISI. Though this idea is one of the more widely circulated in the echo chamber, I have never heard, nor read anything to convince me that it is correct. For now, I am more inclined to believe (with some question marks built in) that he was picked up by accident in a raid which did not specifically target Mullah Baradar
Pakistani officials say that Mullah Baradar has since been speaking to them about the Afghan Taliban. So to round up my questions about Mullah Omar, I’m wondering what Mullah Baradar has told them about when and where he last met his leader.
(Update: for another indication on the limitations of ISI influence, see this report on the death of “Colonel Imam”, a former spy known as the godfather of the Taliban, 10 months after he was kidnapped by militants in North Waziristan)