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Why is word of Mullah Omar’s death coming out now?

The Taliban's supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar was confirmed dead by a spokesman for Afghanistan's intelligence agency, which claims that he died two years ago at a hospital in Pakistan. Although Omar has not been seen publicly since 2001, the Taliban was issuing statements in his name as recently as two weeks ago. Judy Woodruff talks with Jessica Donati of Reuters.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now to the future of Afghanistan after a longtime enemy of the United States is reportedly dead.

    Earlier today, a spokesman for Afghanistan's intelligence agency confirmed the death of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. According to the agency, the reclusive figure died two years ago at a hospital in Pakistan. So far, the Taliban has not publicly commented on the claim. But as recently as two weeks ago, the group was issuing statements in his name. He had not been seen publicly since 2001.

    Jessica Donati is covering the story for the Reuters news agency. She's in Kabul. And I spoke to her a short time ago.

    Jessica Donati, welcome.

    So, tell us more about what these reports say and how solid are they?

  • JESSICA DONATI, Reuters:

    Well, we're not getting a lot out of the reports, other than that the Afghan intelligence agency has said that they confirmed that Mullah Omar is dead.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And we have the Afghan government saying that they have reason to believe that the reports are credible. But from the Taliban side, we don't have anything. And in terms of he died two years ago in a hospital in Pakistan, any more information than that about why he died, how he died?

  • JESSICA DONATI:

    There isn't a lot of detail.

    We have been speaking to some commanders who suggest that he might have died of tuberculosis. And there are different rumors about different illnesses that he may have had. And it's not clear where he died or what he died of. I think the question really is, why is it coming out now, about two days before there was supposed to be another round of peace talks scheduled to take place somewhere on Friday?

    So the question is, why are the reports now? Because it's possible that they would weaken — make the Taliban appear more weak. So there are a lot of questions being asked as to who is behind these reports.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Is there a theory about who is behind them? And you're saying the Taliban would be weakened because their leader would be gone?

  • JESSICA DONATI:

    Yes, and that would suggest that there is more of a split, which would put them in a more difficult position if they were going to be bargaining with the Afghan government.

    On the one side, there seems to be a group of commanders who are in favor of going ahead with the peace talks. And on the other side, there are commanders who are saying, well, look, the paramilitary foreign forces have left and we're making progress this year in the fighting season. So, this is not a good time for us to be negotiating.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So it is not really a good position for them to be in without leadership. And that could be why they aren't commenting either way. So how strong is the Taliban seen to be right now in Afghanistan?

  • JESSICA DONATI:

    At the moment, they have — they're coming out stronger this year than last year.

    First of all, the Afghan security forces are on their own. The — most foreign forces have left and there is only a limited amount of air support, along with the training mission. So the casualty rates are higher. They have taken over tens of villages in the north. They have captured a couple of district centers which are quite symbolic.

    They have threatened a major city in the north, although they haven't really come close to recapturing it. So they are making progress. On the other hand, they also have to face the fact that there is an Islamic State threat that is rising and is getting attention and perhaps competing for young fighters.

    So, this might not be such a bad time for them to negotiate.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And how far along are the talks between the Taliban and the Afghanistan government seen to be?

  • JESSICA DONATI:

    At the moment, we aren't even entirely clear how official these talks are. There were talks taking place in early July between the Afghan government, the Pakistani government. There were American and Chinese officials present and several Taliban.

    But it is not clear who these Taliban leaders were representing and whether they had authority from leadership — the leadership. So we have statements from the Afghan and the Pakistani side saying that these were the first round of official peace talks and that the next time, they would be talking about an agenda and a possible cease-fire.

    But the Taliban never said anything about whether these talks were official or not. So you could say that they're not very far ahead at all.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, one more twist in, I guess, an endless set of twists and turns.

    Jessica Donati with Reuters in Kabul, we thank you.

  • JESSICA DONATI:

    Thank you.

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