Mulla Omar Off The Record

;One of the major frustrations of the war on terrorism has been the continuing elusiveness of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the chief of the Taliban. America and its Afghan allies have repeatedly come close to killing or capturing the self-styled Amir-al-Mumineen--Leader of the Faithful. Just how close was spelled out in an interview with NEWSWEEK last week by Mullah Omar's longtime personal driver, Qari Saheb, who was in hiding in Pakistan. Saheb was with Omar at his compound in Kandahar last Oct. 7 when the first American bombs began to fall. According to Saheb, Omar initially spurned advisers who begged him to flee to safety. "Even if Bush shows up at my door, I will not leave," said Omar. His advisers told him that the Americans would use chemical weapons. Omar brandished a gas mask, but the aides warned him that the masks were good only for an hour. Knowing that the Americans would target his SUV, aides ushered Omar into a rickshaw. Pulled into the center of town, Omar shifted to a mud-covered truck and disappeared. He spent the next several days moving from house to house, sleeping in basements.

Last fall, when the Taliban's control of Afghanistan was crumbling, American soldiers went to search Omar's house. Saheb claims that Omar's supporters were hiding so close by that they threw grenades as the Americans withdrew. A Taliban commander ordered his six tanks to open fire, but U.S. bombs destroyed them first. "What kind of an army are these Americans," marvels Saheb. "It was amazing to see how they destroyed all our tanks."

American firepower is not much use against duplicitous allies, however. The United States wants to find the Taliban and Qaeda leadership and bring them to justice. The fractious warlords who, after a fashion, now control Afghanistan appear to be more interested in making peace with their former enemies. U.S. officials last week were shocked by reports that the new rulers of Kandahar had released several Taliban officials high on the Americans' most-wanted list, including former Justice minister Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, who had set up the Taliban's ghoulishly repressive religious police. Supposedly the Afghans have agreed to turn over Mullah Omar to the United States if they catch him. But has the Taliban leader been allowed to slip away?

Omar has been depicted in the press as a monstrous figure, the one-eyed mullah whose henchmen sometimes buried homosexuals alive and who ordered the destruction of ancient monuments. But driver Saheb, as well as other Omar associates interviewed by NEWSWEEK, pointed out that Omar was seen as a man of the people who had brought order to chaos and at least tried to crack down on corruption. In the end, said Saheb, Omar turned out to be a simpleton and a dupe for Osama bin Laden. But in his interview with NEWSWEEK, Saheb described Mullah Omar as a man who used his simplicity to pose as a symbol of purity in a world of sordidness. Saheb's vantage point at the wheel of one of Mullah Omar's several luxury SUVs offers a revealing glimpse of a messianic figure who was either cunning or deluded or both.

Omar's leadership model was Caliph Umar, the seventh-century leader of Islam who would cloak himself in robes to be able to talk and travel incognito. Saheb claims that Mullah Omar would slip out of his compound at night alone--disguised and riding a cheap motorcycle--to talk to the common folk. "He wanted to know their problems, to see if they were being treated well by the Taliban."

Omar's own roots could not have been more humble. He was born on the side of a road and never received a decent education. His handwriting was so poor that even his semiliterate chauffeur noticed. A freedom fighter--blinded in one eye by a Soviet shell in the 1980s--he became a legendary figure in civil-war-torn Afghanistan in the 1990s by taking revenge on sexual predators who were roaming the lawless streets. In the incident that made him famous, he caught a man who had raped a girl and hanged him from the barrel of a tank. Then he went after two tribal commanders who were bickering over which one would get to sodomize a pair of young boys they both coveted. Elevated to become Leader of the Faithful in 1996, he insisted on personal frugality, reprimanding his cook for serving meat every night when the soldiers in the field had none. "The soldier is my power, not the minister," he'd tell his driver.

Omar was generous with favors, dispensing new cars to commanders who asked for them. After a time, he had so many supplicants that he could no longer maintain an office. "Everywhere is my office," he told Saheb. "I can issue orders from anywhere." Saheb spent hours driving Omar around; after a time, the car began to reek of a kind of perfume which, Omar claimed, had been worn by the Prophet Muhammad himself. As part of the Taliban's war on decadence, Omar had banned all forms of music, but riding in his SUV he liked to pop in a CD of Saraji, a Taliban who has sold millions of recordings of patriotic war chants. Head bowed, Omar would lose himself reciting along: "This is our home, the house of lions and tigers/This is the land of high mountains and green views and rivers/And best of all, this is the country of mujahedin and holy martyrs/We will beat everyone who attacks us/We are the defenders of our great country."

When Omar built a home last year, he had the walls painted with murals of flowers and fighter planes. According to Haji Mohammed Alkozai, the director of the construction company that built the ruler's compound, Omar provided specifications on the strength of a cruise missile and demanded that the house be fortified to withstand attacks. (Alkozai remembers Omar as a miser who would not provide enough food for the workmen and never paid his bills.) Omar attended to small details, requiring that Western toilets be replaced by ground toilets and asking for childproof sockets so his 12 children would not hurt themselves. Omar's eldest son, Yaqoub, then 10, told one of the architects, Amin Zazai, that he was ashamed to see his father riding about the compound on a horse when there were so many fine cars at his disposal.

Omar's desire to live simply was almost primitive. According to architect Zazai, Omar asked him to stop in the final stages of construction on one room in the house because he wanted to use the steel rods that were poking out to hang clothes. The mullah's complex was designed with 10 rooms set aside for three wives, with an adjoining complex of four rooms for an additional wife. It has been widely reported that Omar's fourth wife was a daughter of Osama bin Laden. Not true, says Zazai. He claims that Omar took a fourth spouse (the maximum allowed by Islamic law) to avoid marrying bin Laden's daughter and becoming ensnared in future family squabbles.

Omar may have been smart enough not to join bin Laden's family, but he nonetheless staked his future on bin Laden's fate. In 1998, two sympathetic Afghan exiles living in London, Nabi Misdak and Gen. Rahmatullah Safi, went to Afghanistan to try to persuade Omar to give up bin Laden. According to Saheb, who was at the meeting, Omar demanded guarantees that if he handed over bin Laden, the Americans would accept the Taliban government. The visitors couldn't make such a promise. The Americans, said Omar, "just want to use the card of Osama to stop our government. Osama is not the issue. Islam is the issue." The Americans, said Omar, could not tolerate a single, unified Islamic government--presumably, one run by the Leader of the Faithful, Mullah Omar. Interviewed by NEWSWEEK in London, Safi said, "I told Omar, 'I don't know how Osama bin Laden will provide heaven to the Muslims of Afghanistan. But already here they are living in hell. In history, we have never been a terrorist people."

On the run, Omar is now, in effect, in the hands of his former subjects. Can he trust them? Afghans can be very loyal--until it suits them to switch allegiances. Although an interim government nominally rules in Kabul, the country is rife with shifting tribal alliances and feuds. Indeed, American officials fear that U.S. forces are being used to settle scores. There are strong suspicions that at least some of America's Afghan allies are calling in airstrikes on targets that they claim are Taliban or Al Qaeda--but are in fact rival tribesmen. Recently the first American soldier to be killed by enemy fire, Special Forces Sgt. Nathan Chapman, may have been ambushed by angry tribesmen who had lost family members in a U.S. airstrike. At the time of the shooting, Chapman and his team were inspecting the damage of a raid that is said to have caused a high number of civilian casualties.

As he sat on the top floor of a restaurant last week in Peshawar, Pakistan, talking to a NEWSWEEK reporter while he played with his long black beard, Qari Saheb was pondering his own loyalties. Offered a Hi-Lite Pakistani cigarette, he at first declined, then accepted with a smile. "No one smoked under the Taliban," he said, almost guiltily. "It's a drug just like alcohol." After working for Omar for three years, Saheb says he never became a Taliban warrior. "I was just a simple driver," he says. Now back in Afghanistan, Saheb says he still feels loyal to Omar. "I'd be his driver until I take my last breath," he declared steadfastly. In typical Afghan fashion, however, he is willing to deal. "But if [Hamid] Karzai [the new Afghan ruler] needs a driver, I can do that, too."