TIME Afghanistan

How the Death of Mullah Omar Could Disrupt Progress in Afghanistan

The one-eyed leader died two years ago, it has emerged. The news could impact hopes for peace with the Taliban

Only two weeks ago, Mullah Omar’s name surfaced on a website linked to the Afghan Taliban in a message approving of the insurgents’ peace talks with Afghan government officials. There was no video or audio, just a short statement purportedly from the one-eyed leader of the militants who ruled Afghanistan before fleeing into hiding amid U.S. air strikes in late 2001. And there he stayed, appearing only as the shadowy signatory of occasional messages such as the one that appeared in mid-July.

But on Wednesday morning, days before the second round of peace talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban are due to get under way, the Afghan government said it believed that Omar had in fact died as far back as 2013. “The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, based on credible information, confirms that Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban died in April 2013 in Pakistan,” a statement issued by the office of the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, said.

Earlier, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s national intelligence agency said Omar, who carried a $10 million U.S. State Department bounty on his head, was believed to have died at a hospital in the Pakistani port city of Karachi. “He was very sick in a Karachi hospital and died suspiciously there,” Abdul Hassib Sediqi, the spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, told the Associated Press.

Omar’s whereabouts have been the subject of speculation for years, with the Taliban repeatedly denying periodic reports and rumors about incapacitating illness or death. But this time, with the Afghan government confirming the news, “we can now finally be comfortable in our long-held assumptions that he’s been dead,” says Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

Questions, however, remain about how the announcement might impact the talks, which were due to resume this week with a second round of meetings between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives. Islamabad hosted the first set of meetings as Ghani seeks to broker a settlement with the insurgents, who stepped up violent attacks as most NATO forces left the country at the end of 2014. With over 10,000 civilian casualties — up 22% on 2013 — last year was the conflict-ridden country’s deadliest since the U.N. began keeping records in 2007.

Afghanistan’s government said it believes that confirmation of Omar’s death means that the “grounds for the Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before” and called on “all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity and join the peace process.”

But it is possible that the opposite might happen, as news of a leadership vacuum fuels Taliban infighting and different factions openly jostle for position. “The talks are by no means dead, but the momentum has been lost. I think the Taliban will now be consumed by this crisis — and it is a crisis,” Kugelman says. “It is going to be very difficult for the Taliban to think about peace talks. I don’t see how they’ll be able to focus on talks anytime soon.”

The fear that their organization is going to be “torn asunder” by the public announcement of their leader’s death might also explain why some Taliban militants had earlier on Wednesday put out the claim that Omar was still alive. “It could really tear the organization apart,” says Kugelman, who adds that the denials might be an attempt by certain groups to maintain unity.

Already, various Taliban factions are said to be making a push for power, with recent Pakistani press reports highlighting opposition within the militant group’s ranks to the leadership of its acting chief, Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor.

The announcement of Omar’s death by Afghanistan’s government, Kugelman adds, could also prove to be a “big-time victory” for the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which has expanded beyond its home ground in Syria and Iraq into Afghanistan in recent months. “You could argue announcing Mullah Omar’s death amounts to a recruiting tool for [ISIS],” he says, with the confirmed exit of Omar allowing ISIS to lure disaffected Taliban militants who were already concerned about his absentee leadership as foreign troops exited Afghanistan.

“I think you could have large numbers of these militants moving over to ISIS,” he says.

 

TIME Afghanistan

Taliban’s Mullah Omar Died Two Years Ago, Afghan Government Says

Government confirms leader died in April 2013

Two weeks after a message purportedly from the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar appeared on a website linked to the militant group, the Afghanistan government on Wednesday revealed he had in fact died years ago.

President Ashraf Ghani announced that his government had enough “credible information” to confirm that Omar had died in Pakistan in April 2013. A spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security earlier told the Associated Press that Omar, who had a $10m U.S. State Department bounty on his head, had died in a Karachi hospital.

Mullah Omar’s death had been reported several times in the past, with the whereabouts of the reclusive one-eyed leader shrouded in mystery ever since he disappeared from public view in the aftermath of the U.S.-led airstrikes on Afghanistan in late 2001.

The Afghan government used news of his death to call on the Taliban to sue for peace in negotiations due to go ahead later this week. “The government of Afghanistan believes that grounds for the Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before, and thus calls on all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity and join the peace process,” it said, in a statement.

Earlier in July, a message in Omar’s name, issued ahead of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, appeared to signal his approval for peace talks in Pakistan between the insurgents and Afghanistan’s government. There was no video or audio with the message, the authenticity of which, like other communications linked to the fugitive Taliban leader in recent years, remained uncertain.

Another message in April—a lengthy biography of Omar running to 5,000 words—claimed he was “in touch with date-to-day happenings of his country, as well as the outside world.”

TIME On Our Radar

Discover an Enduring Afghanistan Through Its Landscape

War-torn landscape photographer Simon Norfolk traces the passage of time in Afghanistan's central highlands

Afghanistan is a country Simon Norfolk knows well. Since his first visit in 2001, he has returned to the rugged slopes of its snowcapped mountains and gritty valleys at least a dozen times, first in 2002 to depict the ruins of its war-torn towns (Afghanistan: chronotopia) and then again in 2010, to create a series mirroring the earlier work of Victorian photographer John Burke with a modern perspective (Burke + Norfolk).

Traveling from London, where he is currently based, Norfolk has returned eight times over the course of 2013 to bring back an image of Afghanistan that belongs to and speaks of the Afghan people, without turning away from the bruises of war, he says. In Time Taken, Norfolk paints a romantic portrait of one of the most distinctive and poetic aspects of the country: its landscape.

“I wanted something that would say not much about soldiers, helicopters, drones, not about all that kind of thing, which fills the press in the West,” Norfolk says. “I wanted to show something that was the opposite of that.”

Traveling across Bamiyan province, in the central uplands of the country, equipped with a Phase One camera, a digital back, a tripod and the reassuring presence of a good translator to help with security and interactions, Norfolk produced a series of 12 intimate “portraits” of a changing landscape, from winter to summer and back again, tracing the passage of time through details like the snow line “that marches up the mountain as the summer progresses and then descends as the autumn comes on.”

As he embarked on this project during the British and American troops’ withdrawal, yet another episode in Afghanistan’s long history of conflicts and conquerors, Norfolk attempted to summon up the unseen soul of the country. “There was something about this Afghanistan that was there before, and all the way through [the conflict] and that will continue afterwards. The enduring Afghanistan.”

The landscape bears deep wounds. But when nurtured by the farmers, a new cycle of nature, a new hope, rises. Norfolk describes the local farmers as untrained, untaught amateur engineers and talented landscape architects, who cut drainage ditches, smooth fields and dam streams. To those who wonder where Afghan culture lies, Norfolk replies without hesitation: “The landscape itself. The landscape is created by hand, thousands and thousands of hours of hand work,” he says. “[Culture] is all around you.”

Norfolk calls himself an archeologist. “I wanted something that was about history itself, that was about time and time’s thickness,” he says. “On the top of my camera there’s like a dial that says a thirtieth of a second, a fifteenth of a second … I wanted to set the camera to a year, photograph a whole year,” to show the thick layers of which Afghanistan is composed.

The process involved a high degree of unpredictability. The mellow, ethereal aesthetic of the photographs recalls the dreamy atmosphere of romantic European paintings – the golden light in John Constable, J.M.W. Turner and Claude Lorrain’s canvasses – as an endless font of inspiration. To capture the smooth golden light and avoid the wind, Norfolk shot in the early hours of dawn and at sunset. Still, the landscape could change erratically as a result of meteorological forces or human actions, as when a farmer built a wall across the view of his camera. Out of the 60 sequences he took, he saved a dozen. The work also evolved into a video multimedia project, where the slideshow proceeds at the speed of human breathing at rest, Norfolk explains. “I wanted it to have that breathy slowness to it. I live by the sea now, and I wanted to be like the rhythm of the waves breaking on the shore on a very calm day.”

Mostly, Time Taken is a “love poem,” the photographer unabashedly admits. “I’ve never met anybody who has been to Afghanistan who hasn’t fallen in love with the place,” he says. “Everybody I know has this Afghanistanitis.”

Simon Norfolk is a landscape photographer whose work predominantly focuses on conflict zones and on the concept of battlefield in all his forms. His latest work, Time Taken, will be shown at the Michael Hoppen Gallery, in London, from Aug. 3 to Sept. 8.

Lucia De Stefani is a writer and contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

TIME Military

U.S. Army Plans to Cut Troop Numbers to Pre–World War II Levels

The decision has prompted the ire of conservative lawmakers

The U.S. Army has announced plans to cut 40,000 troops and 17,000 civilian employees over the next two and a half years in accordance with Pentagon budget reductions.

The plan will decrease the size of the army to 450,000 troops — the lowest it has been since 1940, the year before the U.S. entered World War II. Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, there were around 480,000 active-duty service members, USA Today reports.

Some of the cuts are the anticipated deflation of the troop surge witnessed in 2012, when the armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were at their peaks. The remainder reflects an ongoing shrinking of the military budget in the wake of two expensive wars.

Conservative pundits and politicians have openly disparaged the plan, citing mounting tensions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

“One person who’s going to be very pleased with this is Vladimir Putin,” said Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska.

On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama remarked that his administration has no current plans to escalate the military presence in areas of ongoing conflict. There are currently 3,500 stationed in Iraq, a point of frustration for those who view Washington’s response to militant Islamic group ISIS as lukewarm.

TIME Innovation

Why Iran Wants a Nuclear Deal

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Here’s the real reason Iran wants a nuclear deal.

By Kathy Gilsinan in the Atlantic

2. We need a Marshall Plan for the victims of America’s War on Drugs.

By Nancy Gertner at the Aspen Ideas Festival

3. Investors and entrepreneurs are getting creative to weather Greece’s crumbling economy.

By Elmira Bayrasli in TechCrunch

4. We need a partner to stabilize Afghanistan. India is right for the job.

By Alyssa Ayres at the Council on Foreign Relations

5. Though a cleaner source of power, hydroelectric dams drastically slash biodiversity.

By the University of East Anglia

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME On Our Radar

Finding Afghanistan’s Resilient Spirit Amid the Destruction

Afghan-born photographer Zalmaï documents an everyday war to survive

Struggle, grief, and yet the dream of normalcy — these are just some in a complex mix of emotions pictured in a new book by Afghan-born photographer Zalmaï.

After the Soviet invasion in 1980, he left Afghanistan for Switzerland, where he pursued his passion for photography and eventually began to work internationally as a freelance photographer.

Following the 9/11 attacks, he returned to his home country to cover the fall of the Taliban where he discovered a resilience he hadn’t known was there. “I felt there was a lot of hope and a desire to build the country,” he says. “Everything was interesting for me, and I was in a beautiful situation because I could speak the language.”

Instead of reiterating the narrative of Afghanistan from the perspective of Western intervention, Zalmaï chose to focus on the Afghan spirit, deliberately circumventing the spectacle of war and illuminating the everyday fight for normalcy in the midst, wake and in spite of destruction. “We could not handle one day of what they have lived through for 35 years,” he says. “And yet people think everything started in 2001. I felt it was necessary to talk about Afghanistan in a different way.”

Between 2008 and 2013, he photographed in remote villages as well as the big cities, where he found deep pain and misery lurking behind each door he knocked upon. But underneath this struggle, there was also defiance. “It’s there, from dawn until sunset,” he says. “Boys and girls are going to school. When you have a child in a country at war, and you send this child to school — for me, this is a force of life, because you believe things are going to change one day.”

The book’s cover features no image, but is cloth-bound in a shade of blue that hints at either dawn or dusk. Its contents, intentionally left uncaptioned, sandwich colorful smartphone snapshots between more classic black-and-white reportage. “You see dread, dream, and you go back to the dread,” Zalmaï tells TIME. “And that, I think, is more accurate to what is happening in Afghanistan.” The emotional seesaw is echoed in his work method — the color images are energetic, loose and spontaneously captured, while the monochromatic images are moodier, with more deliberate compositions.

The release of the work comes at a significant time, says Zalmaï, as the security situation on the ground becomes more precarious. “With all these warlords, corruption and different ethnic groups, it’s very difficult to have a real democracy,” he says. “I think this year it’s going to be a huge test for the Afghan army and coalition government. If they cannot really unite all their political forces right now, it could become a nightmare that I don’t even want to think about.”

Zalmaï hopes his photographs will be a reminder to the world not to forget about Afghanistan again. “Because in 10 years,” he says, “who’s going to send 500,000 soldiers to fix the problem, when you didn’t fix it?”

Zalmaï‘s Dread and Dreams is published by Daylight and is available now.

Jen Tse is a photo editor and contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter @jentse and Instagram.

TIME well-being

This Surprising Country Leads the World in Feeling Good

PANAMA-CANAL-LOCKS
RODRIGO ARANGUA—AFP/Getty Images A merchant ship sails along the Panama Canal.

The U.S. has fallen to No. 23

Panama leads the world in well-being, surpassing even wealthier countries such as Switzerland, Norway, and the United States, according to the research released Wednesday.

It’s the second-year running that Panama has topped the Gallup-Healthways Global Well-Being Index. About 53% of residents are thriving in three or more areas of well-being tracked by Gallup, which includes a person’s sense of purpose, financial well-being, and physical health.

“People in Panama will report a lot of daily happiness, a lot of daily smiling and laughter, and a lot of daily enjoyment without a lot of stress and worry,” Dan Witters, who compiled the index, told Reuters.

Panama’s also had the benefit of a strong and growing economy in the last year, plus the country’s had relative political stability and investments in national development.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has fallen in its well-being ranking, dropping to No. 23 of 145 countries, territories and areas tracked by the index. That’s down from 12th place a year earlier. The decline is credited to a drop in the number of people saying they are satisfied with their sense of community, which includes safety as well as strong social ties, according to Witters.

At the bottom of the list are Afghanistan areas across sub-Saharan Africa, including Togo and Cameroon.

The index is compiled using feedback from more than 146,000 people who are 15-years-old or older. It asks them questions relating to five key areas of well-being: purpose, social, financial, community and physical.

TIME Afghanistan

Witness the Taliban Attack on Afghanistan’s Parliament

Seven Taliban militants were killed on Monday after launching a major attack, involving a suicide bomb and gunmen, on the Afghan Parliament. No lawmakers lost their lives

TIME United Nations

There Have Never Been More Displaced People Across the World Than Now

If the number of displaced persons formed a nation, it would be the 24th largest country in the world

The total number of people forcibly displaced by war, conflict and persecution rose to a record 59.5 million at the end of 2014, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) has said.

The agency’s annual Global Trends Report: World at War, released Thursday, found forced displacement worldwide has reached unprecedented levels, with a record annual rise of 8.3 million more displaced people since 2013. Some 38.2 million of the total were internally displaced in their own countries.

If the number of displaced persons formed a nation, the report said, it would be the 24th largest country in the world.

Speaking in Turkey on Thursday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres confirmed worldwide displacement was at the highest ever recorded.

“When you see the news in any global network, we clearly get the impression that the world is at war,” he said. “Indeed many areas of the world are today in a completely chaotic situation and the result is this staggering escalation of displacement, the staggering escalation of suffering, because each displaced person is a tragic story,” he said.

Syria overtook Afghanistan to become the biggest source of refugees last year, with 1.77 million Syrians having fled the nation’s ongoing civil war.

Just over half of all refugees under UNHCR’s responsibility worldwide came from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. The report also pointed to new and continuing conflicts in South Sudan, Ukraine and Iraq, among others, which have caused suffering and widespread displacement.

Guterres warned that humanitarian organizations were “no longer able to clean up the mess.”

“U.N. agencies, NGOs, the Red Cross — we no longer have the capacities and the resources to respond to such a dramatic increase in humanitarian needs,” he said.

Turkey overtook Pakistan to become the nation hosting the most refugees in the world with 1.59 million people currently displaced within its borders. Guterres praised Turkey’s willingness to keep its frontiers open and called on richer countries to do more.

“That has a special meaning in a world where so many borders are closed or restricted,” he said. “And where new walls are being built or announced.”

TIME Military

U.S. Adapts ‘Lily Pad’ Strategy to Defeat ISIS in Iraq

Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked against the Taliban in Afghanistan

The top U.S. military officer likened the expanding American footprint in Iraq Thursday to “lily pads” that will sprout across the pond known as Anbar Province, where the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria seized the capital last month.

“Our campaign is built on establishing these ‘lily pads’ that allow us to encourage the Iraqi security forces forward,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters during a visit in Italy. “As they go forward, they may exceed the reach of the particular lily pad”—leading to the creation of new ones.

While the strategy may be a new one since the U.S. pulled its forces out of Iraq in 2011, it has been done before. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, similar campaigns were carried out, often called “oil spot” or “ink blot” strategies.

Retired Army lieutenant colonel Andrew Krepinevich popularized the oil-spot notion in a 2005 article in Foreign Affairs, during the darkest days of the U.S.-led alliance in Iraq. “Since the U.S. and Iraqi armies cannot guarantee security to all of Iraq simultaneously, they should start by focusing on certain key areas and then, over time, broadening the effort—hence the image of an expanding oil spot,” wrote Krepinevich, who heads the non-profit Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Military scholar Max Boot advocated using what he called the “‘spreading inkblot’ strategy” in and around Baghdad in 2007.

It makes sense to establish protected bases in potentially-hostile terrain that can be linked to safer rear areas by air and roads. Each lily pad (or oil spot, or ink blot) gets bigger if its troops succeed in expanding the secure zones around them. Military momentum can lead to the creation of additional lily pads. Ultimately, they all expand until the entire region is free of enemy forces and secure.

Wednesday’s announcement boosts the number of U.S. bases in Iraq to five. “We’re looking all the time to see if additional sites might be necessary,” Dempsey said, although he said the two now in Anbar would probably suffice for that province. “I could foresee one in the corridor that runs from Baghdad to Tikrit to Kirkuk over into Mosul,” he added.

Dempsey detailed the evolving U.S. strategy the day after the White House said it would send up to 450 trainers and advisers to a base near Ramadi in eastern Anbar, within easy range of ISIS attacks. President Obama has pledged to keep U.S. troops out of combat with ISIS, even though allowing small numbers to embed with Iraqi forces to call in U.S. air strikes would make them more effective. The additional forces would push the U.S. troop total in Iraq to 3,550. Any decision to plant additional lily pads could require more U.S. troops in Iraq. U.S. troop strength in the 2003-2011 Iraq war peaked at 158,000 in 2008.

Adding U.S. troops to the Taqaddum military base is significant, Dempsey added, because “it gives us access to another Iraqi division and extends their reach into al Anbar province and gives us access to more tribes.” The U.S. is eager to enlist the Sunni tribes in Anbar in the fight against ISIS, whose members are Sunni. Sending the largely Shi’ite forces in Iraq’s national army to battle Sunnis in the Sunni heartland could inflame sectarian tensions.

Of course, lily pads don’t always thrive. In Afghanistan, they’ve shrunk in recent years. John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, warned two years ago that danger was spreading across the country and limiting the places his inspectors could visit to do their jobs. “U.S. officials have told us that it is often difficult for program and contracting staff to visit reconstruction sites in Afghanistan,” he said in October 2013. “U.S. military officials have told us that they will provide civilian access only to areas within a one-hour round trip of an advanced medical facility.”

The Afghan lily pads have continued to shrivel. “Americans can only really travel safely in Kabul, and for most part no travel outside of green zone in Kabul,” one U.S. official said Thursday, speaking of travel in and around the Afghan capital. “Helicopters are needed to travel less than a mile from the embassy to airport.”

SIGAR

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