Looking for the Enemy, Mullah Omar and the Unknown Taliban

Book Review By: Prof Shabir Ahmad Khan

The book Looking for the Enemy, Mullah Omar and the Unknown Taliban by Bette Dam is an excellent account on the origin and roots of Taliban movement and its leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. An intensive and extensive research been conducted on the childhood, youth, maturity, his rise as leader, origin of Taliban movement and last days of Mullah Omar.

The author has done a tremendous job by putting her life in danger while visiting many remote places in burka ‘veil’ in Afghanistan. She has been able to interview the Afghans who spent their time with Mullah Omar and who fought along with him. The book is based on empirical research, observations as primary sources though secondary sources have been referred to for authenticity of the work. The book was first published in 2019 in Dutch language. In 2022 it has been published in English language by Vanguard books Lahore Pakistan and Harper-Collins in India.

About the Author

Bette Dam is a Dutch investigative Journalist who made a carrier working in Afghanistan where she spent almost 15 years from 2006 to 2021. She has also authored a book on Karzai “A Man and Motorcycle; how Karzai raised to power?” Bette Dam has also worked in Syria and Iraq. Bette Dam is currently a lecturer at the Prestigious Sciences Po University Paris.
The book comprised of 10 chapters with end notes, bibliography and Index spread over 339 pages. In the Prologue the author has talked about her first visit to Uruzgan in 2006 and 2007. The real situation of war has been narrated with evidence based arguments. The war depicted by the US, NATO and media as a war between the Afghan government and the Taliban was a friction as the author maintains. In fact it was a conflict between different groups for power who switched allegiances. The enemy was not clear, after each attack the US concluded it as the work of Taliban.
The situation created by the US led to the exploitation by their Afghan partners. Local Afghan leaders would send US/NATO troops to deal with what they claimed were Taliban but in reality were merely their local adversaries, resulting in pointless deaths. For instance 7 young Afghans were killed in Tarin Kot the incident was reported by all media outlets present there as act of Taliban.
However the author based on Afghan sources writes that it was a personal conflict between the owners of two madrassas. An Afghan governor Asadulla Khalid did the same by eliminating his rivals. In 2007 Asadulla destroyed a UN convoy that had to dismantle opium, poppy fields.
The Westerners were falling victims to drug interests. It was all about corruption and patronage. Delawar a taxi driver was picked by the Americans taken to Bagram Jail where he died of torture. It was again a case of false reporting as a local administrative Jan Baz Khan wanted carry out an attack on the American and then had told his contact that Dilawar was the Taliban member behind the assault.
The Americans discovered this also later but no investigation under taken. In fact the entire system would have collapsed if such investigations would have been conducted.

In Search of a Terrorist

This chapter talks of Mulla Omar’s home in Deh Rawod where Omar had once lived and grown up during the 1960s and 70s. The author visited Omar’s house where then Said lived. Omar’s father Ghulam Nabi had died while Omar was child, Omar’s uncle Mullah Mohammad Anwar married his mother. He was also imam e masjid, mullah and farmer. In 1995 Omar visited his old house where his mother and step father were still living. Mullah Mohammad Omar was born in village Chai-i-Himmat in Khakrez. After the birth of Omar his father moved to Naw Deh where they lived for some time. The author has spoken to Omar’s childhood friend Abdul Quddos who belonged to a prosperous family in Tangi village of Naw Deh.
Abdul Quddos said Mullah Mohammad Anwar Omar’s father was known as Mullah Musafer served as Imam e masjid in ther mosque. Omar and Abul Quddos spent child hood together. Omar was cheerful boy and loved to play hockey then attending school. Omar attended the Hujra school in Dewanawargh. The author also talked to 80 years old tacher of Omar. The Hujra schools have been explained by the author.

Omar Fights alongside America Against the Soviet Union

Chapter starts with Daud Khan who had dislodged his uncle Zahir Shah in 1973 with the help of Soviet Union. Daud Khan started taking over land from big land lords to re-distribute it amongst the landless laborers as the Soviets had done across the Amu Darya. Daud Khan was also suspected of eroding Afghanistan’s traditional Islamic culture. So resistance against Daud started by both the Khans and Mullas.
In 1979 Soviet militarily intervened. During the Jihad, Mulla Omar belonged to the Islamic Revolutionary Movement of Afghanistan which included the hujra students and led by Mulla Mohammad Nabi. The Arabs and Muslims all over the world were invited to take part in the Jihad. Omar was 22-23 years old then. When the Soviets gained upper hand in Deh Rawod, Omar went to Maiwand.
The author has interviewed Isa a land owner of village Haji Ibrahim who hosted Omar with other Jihadis in Sangisar area. Mir Hamza, Mulla Beradar and Mulla Omar along with other Jihadis were referred to as Uruzgan Band by the Soviets. Mullah Omar was given nick name Rockety Mulla as he successfully deployed rockets. Omar had learnt about Jihad and rules of conduct such as to avoid civil casualties and to provide safety to the enemy when surrenders. At the end of 1980s when Soviet had to withdraw, Omar lost his right eye in a bomb attack. He was brought to Quetta Pakistan for treatment. It was his only visit to Pakistan.

Back to Mosque as Chaos Reigns

After the Soviet withdrawal, Omar continued to live with his small Uruzgan band Hujra students in Haji Ibrahim. However Afghanistan fell into chaos. The Jihadi parties started war amongst themselves. Different groups had controlled different parts of Afghanistan. President Rabbani refused to step down as per Peshawar accord. Kidnapping for ransom, child sex, bombings, toll collection every few kilometers by blocking highways, in short a complete mayhem in socio-economic life of Afghanistan was order of the day.
These were the circumstances that gave birth to the rise of Taliban as the author explains it with empirical evidence. It was in fact my own conviction and belief also as a student of the area. Mullah Omar had started life of an ordinary person and Yaqub, Mulla Omar’s son also born during this time. The road blockings, kidnappings reached to Haji Ibrahim. Mullahs tried but no success to persuade the hooligans.

No Taliban without the Drug Mafias

The book ‘Bush at War’ by Bobwoodward and many other sources have mentioned that Pakistan’s ISI helped in making the Taliban the chapter says.
However the author could not come across any evidence or clue in this regard. The book negates the narrative that the rise of Taliban was a work of Pakistan’s ISI by describing the ground realities and circumstances that gave birth to rise of the Taliban. Interviews from people in village Haji Ibrahim from where the movement started denied that ISI had any role. Haji Bashar a wealthy person who became governor of Maiwand and had heroin factories and major transportation network was much disturbed by the road blockings. These road blockings negatively impacted his business. Haji Bashar called a meeting also inviting Mullah Omar and his Uruzgan group the hujra students as author calls it, to discuss the situation.
Omar came by his bicycle as Isa who was present in the meeting informed the author. Haji Bashar while addressing the meeting said that for this day we the Afghans had fought the Jihad? No one is safe. Today the only neutral party is the hujra students. Mulla Burjan and Mulla Rabbabi the most prominent Jihadis were also present while Omar sat silently in a corner. Haji Bashar pointed towards Mullah Omar for leading this effort to clear road blockings. Mullah Burjan and Mulla Rabbani didn’t agree as Mullah Omar was not a prominent Jihadi.
In the second meeting Mullah Omar selected to lead the movement while Haji Bashar provided weapons and militia also. Haji Bashar did it to secure business interests while Mullah Omar took it as a religious duty. Post after posts fell to Taliban. The notorious toll commanders and child rapists like Amir Lalai and Saleh resisted but soon fled and admitted defeat. The Mullahs called out through loudapeakers that a Talib one of us is advancing to end the turmoil and chaos. The movement then automatically dubbed as Taliban.
The then President Rabbani also sent planes and support to the movement when heard that Taliban have successfully cleared Kandahar and Herat. Rashid Dostum also provided support earlier. Rabbani and Dostum supported Taliban on the hope to use them against Hekmatyar in the civil war.
The Afghan transporters from Quetta also provided support. The incident of Pakistani convoy is also narrated when Amir Lalai a rival of Haji Bashar captured that convoy on the claim that it had to provide weapons to the Taliban. In fact the convoy had to take medicines to Turkmenistan for exchange of cotton. Amir Lalai’s deputy also denied the presence of weapons in that convoy. News of Taliban victories reached to madrassas in Pakistan’s city Quetta where many Afghan students were studying.
They enthusiastically crossed the border and joined the Taliban movement. Mullah Mutawakil remained with Mullah Omar from beginning who became FM later. The Taliban from early stage remained suspicious of ISI and deny any assistance from the agency. Rahimullah Yousafzai when visited Kandahar to see Mullah Omar he was sleeping on the ground as Mullah Omar lived a simple life.

An Inexperienced Leader of an Islamic State (1996)

Kabul fell to Taliban in September 1996. Rabbani and Hekmatyar joined hands against Taliban but in vain. Rabbaniu fled to Panjsher to make Northern Allaince.
When Najibullah was murdered Mullah did not like it and he received the new with sorrow. Mullah Omar was much worried about the plundering and rapes that had become order of the day that’s why Omar insisted on strict observance of Islamic virtues. He actually wanted to use Sharia to improve rule of law in society, however he had never had any experience of governing. Omar remained in stress and always thought to perform a huge religious responsibility with justice. Omar was rather an invisible leader right from the start both to his supporters and to the people of Afghanistan. Mullah Omar saw the Taliban as a neutral peacekeeping force who wanted to put a stop to the conflict and mayhem.

Looking for International Recognition

The Taliban declared that the Afghans have regained control of Afghanistan and the outsider hands have been cut off from our country, it is a national movement driven by Islam. General Hamid Gul, Samiul Haq, Fazlur Rahman, Moinuddeen Haidar all have been mentioned who claimed or were accused of having helped Taliban but no such clue or proof can be found.
Mullah Omar always did what he considered better for the country. Mulla Omar’s approach to foreign countries was accepting aid but no interference. General Malik attacked the Taliban and slaughtered 1500 to 3000 Taliban. No reports appeared in media or by Human Right Watch which showed that there was little interest in writing about the Taliban from a neutral perspective.
In 1998 Taliban recaptured Mazar e Sharif this time Taliban took the revenge though Omar hated vendetta killing but others did not abide by his rules. Mullah Omar released the ten Iranian diplomats held by Taliban. The seat at the UN was still held by Rabbani’s regime. UN resolution denied to accept Taliban’s request for seat at the UN. OIC also refused Taliban’s seat at the organization. After capturing Mazar-e-Sharif, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE recognized the Taliban. Lakhtar Bahimi acknowledged that isolating the movement was a big mistake by US and international community the author writes.

An Awkward Guest (1998)

In May 1996 Osma Bin Laden arrived in Jala Abad from Sudan, according to the author. Osama had still involvement in the fate of Arabs who remained behind in Afghanistan after Jihad. The author has interviewed Omar bin Laden son of Osama. Mulla Khaksar in a meeting with Osama even told him to leave Afghanistan, instead of leaving Afghanistan Osama moved to Kandahar. It shows Taliban approach to Osama was not straightforward.
Before moving to Kandahar Osama stayed in Kabul where he declared war against America in 1996. Mullah Omar did not have a friendly message for Osama and told Bin Laden to stop propaganda for international Jihad. In 1999 during a meeting between Omar and Osama, Omar barely greeted Osama and asked to leave. Omar hoped that Osama would leave of his own accord.
In September 1999 UN frozen all Taliban assets held outside of Afghanistan and US demand for handover Osama intensified. Omar decided not to yield to the Security Council and US demands for not recognizing the Taliban. Omar always sought evidence for the trail of Osama. In 2000 Taliban in frustration of isolation destroyed Buddha statutes in Bamyan. According to Kluijver, it was not Al Qaida who influenced Omar rather the US and UN sanctions frustrated Omar. Mullah Omar proposed constituting an Islamic tribunal in Doha to examine the accusations against Osama but US refused.

Mullah Omar knew Nothing

Mullah Omar was informed by Mutawakil when 9/11 happened, Omar knew nothing about the incident. However US declared Taliban and Al Qaida one and same. The author writes that she could not found any convincing proof that the Taliban or Omar were involved in 9/11. Few Americans acknowledged later that Mullah Omar knew nothing about 9/11 beforehand and declaring Taliban and Al Qaida was a mistake.

The Unwanted Capitulation

In the night of October 2001, Mullah Omar’s office in Kandahar was hit however Omar escaped unharmed. Next morning Operation Enduring Freedom started. Northern Alliance helped from the North while Karzai, Gul Agha Shirazi from the South. Ismail also helped in Herat. The American offensive in Afghanistan heavily depended upon former warlords. Taliban started surrendering. Karzai in Kandahar was assisted by US in fighting Taliban, who announced amnesty for Taliban who laid down weapons.
More and more Taliban started contacts with Karzai including Mulla Obaidullah, Mullah Zaeef, and Mullah Jalil. According to Mullah Abdul Salam on December 4, 2001 Mullah Omar gave command to Mullah Obaidullah and disappeared after asking meeting with prominent Taliban leaders.

Hideout Revelations

Next day December 5, 2001, Mullah Obaidulla approached Karzai for surrender. Karzai announced the Taliban surrender however Rumsfeld called Karzai to denounce this agreement of surrender publically. This has been termed as a historical blunder the denial of surrender. Taliban disappeared for some time.
Kandahar fell to a notorious drug baron Gul Agha Sheerazi. Karzai, USA started the war while appointing one warlord after the other as Governors and mayors. From 2004-2005, Taliban started re-organizing. The warlords in power, the US/NATO conduct of war by bombing wedding and funeral ceremonies helped Taliban to gain sympathy in people. Mullah Omar spent all the years after 2001 to April 2013 in Zabul Afghanistan. He never visited Pakistan. The persons who worked as messengers and provided meal to Omar have been talked about in the book.
The news that most wanted Taliban leader was hiding near a US base inside Afghanistan was a bolt from the blue for the US. The book plainly negates the American and European narratives which might be the reasons that the book could not found a publisher in the West. I would suggest translating the book in Pasto and Urdu languages so the common person may know the ground realities about the Taliban and the so called American war on terror. The only thing not talked about is an important incident happened in Afghanistan just before 9/11 i.e. the murder of Ahmad Shah Masood.

The author is Director of Area Study Centre

University of Peshawar

This book review was presented during the Book Launching Ceremony jointly
organized by Area Study Centre, University and Institute of Management Sciences,
Hayatabad Peshawar at the Institute of Management Sciences Hayatabad Peshawar
Pakistan. The author Bette Dam, Afghan Consul General, Hafiz Mohibullah, Ms.
Charlie Faulkner of British Media, Ms Jagoda Grondecka of Polish Media and a large number of Afghan scholars participated.