Report

Meet the Taliban’s New Mullah, Same as the Taliban’s Old Mullah

The rise of Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada shows that the Taliban’s old guard is still holding the reins of power -- and deciding the future of the Afghan war.

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The new head of the Taliban isn’t new to the Taliban. Instead of choosing among rivals from a younger generation of militants, the group has turned to a member of the old guard, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, to take the reins of the insurgency.

The militants moved quickly to elevate Akhundzada, who was given his new post just four days after their former chief, Mullah Akhtar ­Mohammad Mansour, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.

Two members of the Taliban’s young guard were seen as potential replacements: Sirajuddin Haqqani, the hardline head of the insurgency’s military operations, and Mohammad Yaqob, the son of the group’s reclusive founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar. They were instead appointed as his deputies.

Naming either Haqqani or Yaqob as chief could have aggravated fissures in the group, which faced internal divisions in 2015 after the Taliban acknowledged that Mullah Omar, its longtime leader, had been dead for nearly two years.

Instead, the Taliban chose a relatively obscure veteran of the insurgency who has worked under senior leaders in the Taliban for more than two decades.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, Akhundzada helped mete out the group’s brutal idea of justice as a cleric and top-ranking judge. Under the Taliban’s longtime chief, Mullah Mohammad Omar, Akhundzada regularly issued fatwas justifying suicide bombings and other Taliban atrocities, and presided over shadow courts in areas under the insurgency’s sway.

Akhundzada represents a compromise choice for the Taliban. He enjoys widespread respect inside the group as a religious scholar but poses no clear threat to other powerful figures — he comes to the job without having commanded military operations or served in a leadership post, experts said.

“His selection makes sense from the perspective of the Taliban. His religious background would make him a top candidate to unify a very fragmented organization,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Foreign Policy contributor.

Indeed, rather than a break with the past, Akhundzada’s selection signals continuity for the insurgency, which has seized upon the drawdown of U.S.-led forces to strike hard at the Afghan government over the past year, including a series of lethal bombings in the capital Kabul.

“Not much is going to change. I don’t imagine that this new leader will come marching into peace negotiations,” Kugelman said. “I see no reason why he would want to break with the policy of his former boss, which was to avoid talks like the plague.”

Omar’s successor, Mansour, was opposed in some quarters of the insurgency from the outset, partly because he had helped keep Omar’s death a secret.

Some Taliban members from the large Noorzai tribe in the Kandahar region harbored acute resentment of Mansour and rejected his authority. Akhundzada is himself a Noorzai, and his selection could be aimed in part at bringing militants from his tribe back into the fold, said Seth Jones, a former advisor to U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan.

His roots in the Pashtun heartland of the insurgency in Kandahar, and the political skills he has honed during his long tenure among senior ranks of the Taliban, could be crucial to his survival, Jones said.

“Any good insurgency is first a political organization that has a political vision, and the military arm is a tool to realize the political vision,” Jones said. “So it makes sense for the Taliban to choose a strong religious figure.”

Akhundzada will need all the political acumen he can muster to keep a lid on the divisions inside the insurgency, to counter the threat posed by former Taliban fighters who have pledged loyalty to the Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan and to manage relations with the group’s patrons in Pakistan, experts said.

But to assert his authority initially, the new chief will need to push for major assaults on the battlefield and more deadly terror attacks in Kabul to demonstrate the strength of the insurgency despite the loss of its leader in the American drone raid, experts said.

“The first thing he has to do is to avenge the death of Mansour,” said Barnett Rubin, a former senior U.S. diplomat with years of experience in Afghanistan. “He can’t even contemplate any peace talks until he has avenged Mansour’s death.”

Only hours after the Taliban announced its new leader on Wednesday, it claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed at least 10 people and wounded four Afghans, in an attack that targeted a bus carrying employees from a court west of Kabul.

Photo credit: Afghan Islamic Press/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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