“This is an amazing story,” said Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who coordinated the Obama administration’s initial review of Afghanistan policy in the spring. “He’s a semiliterate individual who has met with no more than a handful of non-Muslims in his entire life. And he’s staged one of the most remarkable military comebacks in modern history.”

American officials are weighing the significance of this comeback: Is Mullah Omar the brains behind shrewd shifts of Taliban tactics and propaganda in recent years, or does he have help from Pakistani intelligence? Might the Taliban be amenable to negotiations, as Mullah Omar hinted in a Sept. 19 statement, or can his network be divided and weakened in some other way? Or is the Taliban’s total defeat required to ensure that Afghanistan will never again become a haven for Al Qaeda?…

Day-to-day decisions are made by Mullah Omar’s deputies, in particular Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a skilled, pragmatic commander, who runs many meetings with Taliban commanders and “shadow governors” appointed in much of the country, analysts say.

Mullah Omar heads the Taliban’s Rahbari Shura, or leadership council, often called the Quetta Shura since it relocated to the Pakistani city in 2002. The shura, consisting of the Taliban commanders, “operates like the politburo of a communist party,” setting broad strategy, said Mr. Yusufzai, the Pakistani journalist. General McChrystal wrote in his assessment that the shura “conducts a formal campaign review each winter, after which Mullah Omar announces his guidance and intent for the coming year.”