“A madman who wants to cut our hair” – that’s what Taliban students said about Mullah Omar

SSoon after, I came across a tape from 1996 with a recording of Mullah Omar himself talking about those early days in front of a large crowd of mullahs. My Pashto teacher was there when Omar spoke, reflecting on that time, and the teacher had recorded the speech. This was the first documented recording I found of Mullah Omar speaking.

When I pressed ‘Play’, I heard a dark voice speaking slowly. It was the first time I heard Omar’s voice. Everyone in my office in Kabul was very excited. I had investigated this man for two years at that time, but we had never heard from him or seen him in a movie. We knew that there were audio recordings in the archives of the Ariana National Radio and Television in Kabul, but the archivists dared not give us access to them. They were afraid that the recordings would be leaked and become popular among the Afghan people.

Mullah Omar spoke like an old man, speaking at a leisurely, even slow pace. In his pronunciation, the Pashto vowels were longer than necessary. He looked like a mix between an aging, uneducated villager with a bit of a stutter – he repeated words like “I” (I, I, I) as if he had forgotten what he meant – and a Baptist preacher of the South addressing his herd with endless arguments. It was as if he would much rather not stand behind the desk with my Pashto teacher’s microphone and tape recorder in front of his nose. He looked like a man who didn’t like to talk on formal occasions like this.

“So that’s how the Taliban started,” the dark voice said. He was obviously not reading a printed or handwritten text in front of him. He spoke as if standing in front of his
home to Haji Ibrahim and telling a passing neighbor how he became the chief.

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Mullah Omar spoke about the immorality that plagued Haji Ibrahim in 1994. There were wicked people then and the situation was unstable, he said. People looted and stole, murders were committed for no reason, and bodies could not be buried afterwards. He mentioned roadblocks set up by toll collectors. In his speech, he admitted he had doubts about whether he should be the one to tackle this. “Allah tells us that no one is responsible for more than he can bear,” he said, citing the Quran. But he also said he had no choice but to trust in Allah. Then he gave a detailed account of the birth of the Taliban.

“Some wonder how this movement started, under what “secret circumstances”. Who supported us? Who organized us? And who trained us? Without answering these questions, Mullah Omar recounted how he visited the hujras on a scooter to mobilize students in the campaign against toll collectors. “We students,” Omar said, using the word taliban, ‘need to get up. If we want to serve Allah, we have to stop studying and start fighting.

According to Mullah Omar, the students of the first hujras he visited were reluctant and he could not count on their support. They would say, “We could manage on Friday night,” for example, but he thought that wasn’t enough. Eventually a few students – he literally said “five to seven” – agreed to join him. After that, the movement quickly grew to over fifty students. They met in his mosque in Haji Ibrahim. This is how it all started, according to Mullah Omar.

At the end of his speech, Mullah Omar recalled a dream he had of angels with
hands. We don’t take dreams very seriously in the West, but I found that many in Kandahar believe in them. Even my Afghan friend who has been to America often has, as I found out to my surprise. She once asked for advice in her dreams about whether she should marry the man she was in love with, a request known as istikhara.

While playing the tape, I heard Omar fall silent after describing the angels in his dream. A moment later, I heard him hold back tears. My Pashto teacher confirmed that he saw Mullah Omar get emotional talking about his dream. The room was deathly silent. But Omar regained control and continued, “So I said the angels should touch me. At these words, the audience stood up and applauded as if he had told them that these angels were a sign that Allah himself had chosen him. The audience began to chant rallying cries such as “Allah is great” and “Long live Islam”. Mullah Omar called on them to be quiet and concluded his speech: “So that was the beginning of the movement, and everything started in twenty-four hours. That’s what happened.’

When the fighters – a mixture of hujara students recruited by Mullah Omar and men of Haji Bashar’s militias – gathered to prepare the confrontation with the toll collectors, had a surprise. Mullah Omar believed that Haji Bashar’s men in particular were in no condition to fight his religious battle. Their hair hadn’t been cut or washed, their robes were dirty and full of holes, and most of them also smoked hashish nonstop.

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“If I’m going to lead this uprising, your men will have to be sharper,” Mullah Omar said upon arriving at Haji Bashar’s command post. Surrounded by militiamen, Omar announced that anyone with shaggy hair should have a haircut. The fighters were amazed. Who did this man think he was? One of Haji Bashar’s commanders said he heard horrified voices on his walkie-talkie that day. “We have a madman here who wants to cut our hair,” the young men had said. ‘What should we do?’ “He’s one of ours,” replied the commander.

Haji Bashar had to go first.13 Once he had his hair cut, the other young activists went through the process without protest. Incidentally, the knife was so blunt that it left fighters with spiky hair. One of them was so disgusted by what he saw in the mirror that he grabbed a sharper razor blade and shaved off all his hair.

Omar wanted the fight to adhere to strict rules of conduct, as is clear from another incident. Just before the fighting started, Haji Bashar saw an opportunity to settle a tribal dispute in which his family’s honor was at stake. He hanged a rival in his district. Mullah Omar was furious. Honor killings were against the rules of Islam and it was even more important in this particular fight that everyone set a good example, including Haji Bashar. It didn’t matter to Mullah Omar that Bashar’s rival was probably an accomplice of the Communists; the man had never been tried for it.

In fact, the clean and well-dressed fighters assembled by Haji Bashar and Mullah Omar were not yet going to go into action, because the first task was to secure the support of one of the main leaders of the province of Kandahar: Naqibullah. 15 He was a very influential and opportunistic man of the Civil War era. In 1979, he had supported the communists, but then he joined the jihad. He now supported Rabbani, the president clinging to power in the distant capital Kabul. Naqibullah was the local defense minister, which meant he controlled all weapons in Kandahar province. Haji Bashar and Mullah Omar quickly managed to get Naqibullah on their side. He approved of their holy fight and gave Haji Bashar large amounts of weapons and money.

According to the Quran, if a conflict arises, you should first try to resolve it by talking, and only use violence if all else fails. I also read this in Michael Griffin’s book, Reaping the Whirlwind, who says that much of what the movement achieved in its early days was accomplished by talking to people.16 But that’s not the Mullah Omar who spoke; it was mostly Haji Bashar. He had the money, the power and the connections necessary for this uprising. As Haji Bashar’s deputy told me, without Haji Bashar, there would have been no Taliban.

Read also : What my 20 years in Afghanistan taught me about the Taliban

Mullah Omar participated in the talks primarily to lend religious legitimacy to the company. Haji Bashar pointed to the silent man next to him and said, “He is the leader of the movement. Naqibullah’s support had a positive effect on negotiations with early toll collectors and their commanders. One after another they surrendered without a shot being fired. The first real challenge to Omar’s movement was the warlord Amir Lalai. He was one of the most powerful tribal leaders in Kandahar, with at least a hundred collectors in his service on the road through the province.

Amir Lalai was unimpressed with the alliance Haji Bashar and Mullah Omar had forged with Naqibullah. He was one of Naqibullah’s rivals and was determined to stand up to the alliance. Mullah Omar responded to his resistance by showing up at his house with a large group of fighters. “Join us”, he warns Amir Lalai.

It was clear from the large group of men he had brought that he was beginning to lose patience. Amir Lalai did not give in saying: “Try your luck with others first. At that time, Mullah Omar’s students attacked. Amir Lalai’s local men quickly fled and his toll collectors deserted their posts on the Haji Ibrahim road in Kandahar. Omar’s students planted their first makeshift white flags, pieces of fabric tied to broken branches and bearing the hastily written Arabic words: La ilaha illallah Muhammadur Rasulullah – ‘There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet.’

The most notorious toll commander on the road, known as Saleh the child rapist because he owned underage sex slaves, was treated the same as Amir Lalai.

Omar has spoken to the man at least three times and asked him to step down voluntarily. Saleh also initially refused to surrender. He was unimpressed with the new movement, which he thought was weak and easy to defeat. Mullah Omar had his men surround the roadblock and ordered them to fire. Saleh fought fire with fire but eventually had to admit defeat.

These two victories were followed by the discovery of crates full of weapons which Omar’s men took with them to add to their stockpiles. The movement was turning into an army that could no longer be considered a band of well-meaning mullahs and students fighting the good fight without weapons or violence.

This excerpt from Looking for the Enemy by Bette Dam was published with permission from HarperCollins India.

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