Taliban Leadership in Disarray on Verge of Peace Talks
The coronavirus has swept through the top ranks, leaving Mullah Omar’s son tenuously in charge.
Control of the Afghan Taliban is in disarray as the coronavirus has swept through the leadership, forcing a number of senior officials to seek treatment and leaving the way open for the son of the group’s founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, to take over as interim leader, according to sources in the Taliban and officials with the Afghan government and Western intelligence.
The illness of senior Taliban leaders and their absence from decision-making come at a critical time for Afghanistan, as the United States is drawing down its troops in accordance with a bilateral deal struck with the Taliban in February. Any hint of disunity at the top of the Taliban—and the possibility that it could spill into a violent rivalry—could affect the next phase of the so-called peace process: direct talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government aimed at ending the nearly two-decade-old war.
The Taliban’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, has been absent from meetings for some weeks, his place taken by Sirajuddin Haqqani, his deputy and scion of the brutal jihadi Haqqani network, which has links with al Qaeda, said Antonio Giustozzi, a leading expert on the Taliban at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
But Haqqani has now contracted the coronavirus and is also absent from the leadership mix, Giustozzi said. “When Sirajuddin got sick he probably infected everyone else as he was deputizing at meetings for Haibatullah,” he said.
A Kabul intelligence official, speaking on condition that he not be named, confirmed that members of the Taliban leadership had contracted the coronavirus; and it was believed the supreme leader, Akhundzada, was among them. Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of the late Mullah Omar, who founded the Taliban, has assumed the role of the Taliban’s “chief of operations,” replacing Haqqani, according to Taliban officials in the Pakistani city of Quetta as well as Western intelligence sources, who asked not to be identified.
“Our hero, the son of our great leader, Mullah Yaqoob, is running the entire Taliban operation in Haibatullah’s absence,” an influential senior Taliban commander, Maulama Muhammad Ali Jan Ahmad, told Foreign Policy.
Mullah Yaqoob has been consolidating his power since losing a bid to succeed his father when Mullah Omar’s death, kept secret by a coterie of close aids for more than two years, was revealed in July 2015. He was instead appointed to lead the movement’s military commission for 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The illness of Akhundzada and Haqqani opens a door for Mullah Yaqoob to realize his ambition to take full control of the Taliban. Officials of the insurgent leadership in Quetta said that in recent weeks he has extended his military control to 28 provinces. He is expected to soon take over the remaining six provinces, giving him military control over all of Afghanistan.
“Yaqoob is popular among the battlefield commanders and so they are willing to accept his leadership,” a Taliban official in Quetta said, asking not to be named. Giustozzi said Mullah Yaqoob had close ties to commanders in the country’s north, which has helped consolidate his military control.
Mullah Yaqoob is known to have links to Saudi Arabia, which supports the peace deal, Giustozzi said. Riyadh is believed to be funneling money to him to help him consolidate power. He also has close connections with the Kabul government and intelligence service— seen as useful in ensuring the peace deal is not derailed, he said.
The Taliban sources in Quetta said that since his father’s death became public, Mullah Yaqoob has moved to take control of the Taliban’s vast income streams, setting up a new financial commission to rival that of his late father’s close aid, Gul Agha Ishakzai. The Taliban’s financial strength has grown under his control, with annual income now around $1.7 billion, two sources with knowledge of the Taliban’s financial affairs said. The figure cannot be independently verified.
Ishakzai is on the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions list at number 147. He had for many years controlled the revenue streams funding the Taliban’s insurgency against the internationally supported Kabul administration and the U.S.-led military coalition that has been fighting in Afghanistan since 2001.
Resentment has built between Mullah Yaqoob and Ishakzai since the death of Mullah Omar became public. Mullah Omar’s death was kept secret by Ishakzai and Akhtar Mansour, who succeeded him and led the Taliban until he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in May 2016. Akhundzada, viewed as a hard-line Islamist, succeeded Mansour.
It is not yet clear if Ishakzai has accepted Mullah Yaqoob’s intention to take full control of the Taliban. The two men are from rival tribes—the Hotak and the Ishakzai. Mansour had tribal links to the Ishakzai. Ishakzai is believed to have ties to Iran, which has rejected the U.S.-Taliban deal.
While Mullah Yaqoob is regarded as a supporter of the peace process and is being encouraged to remain so by Saudi Arabia, his bid to take control of the Taliban could alter the peace equation if it leads to a power struggle between his Hotak tribe and the Ishakzai. If intra-Taliban fighting breaks out, each side could commit its resources to resolving the leadership, prioritizing it over dealing with the Afghan government.
“There are two possible outcomes—Mullah Yaqoob will own his position at the top and Ishakzai will accept him as leader, or Ishakzai will gather his forces and attempt to maintain control in his own hands, and if that happens then things will be very bloody,” one of the Quetta sources said, on condition that he not be named.
As it is, the United States is accelerating its drawdown; Reuters reported on May 27 that U.S. troop strength has been cut by about 4,400, to 8,600, ahead of the schedule agreed to with the Taliban. The commitment is zero by next May. The Taliban have extended a three-day cease-fire in their war against Kabul, declared to coincide with this week’s Eid holiday.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani matched the cease-fire. Giustozzi said the Taliban had also decided on “a reduction of violence,” which had escalated since the deal was signed with the United States, following Eid. Afghan media reported a number of attacks during the cease-fire, though it has largely held.
The Taliban released a statement by Akhundzada last week, ahead of Eid, calling on the United States not to squander the chance offered by the deal to end the war. “The Islamic Emirate is committed to the agreement … and urges the other side to honour its own commitments and not allow this critical opportunity to go to waste,” Akhundzada said, using the Taliban’s name for Afghanistan.
Many Taliban hard-liners have cited the Feb. 29 agreement with the United States as a victory over Afghanistan’s “occupiers.” A senior Afghan official said the insurgents were already “preparing for outright war” once U.S. forces are fully drawdown.
Control of revenue sources—including production and smuggling of drugs and minerals, as well as extortion and taxation of freight and road use—is key to controlling the movement. Controlling the purse strings is largely based on the personal contacts of whoever runs the Taliban’s powerful financial commission. Mullah Yaqoob is believed to have used his military power to move into regions with lucrative income streams in illicit mining, as well as drugs, taxation of roads and freight companies, and other business interests.
The Taliban are believed by the U.N. Security Council to earn a minimum of $400 million a year from narcotics alone, and a great deal more from principally derived from “illicit mineral and other resource extraction, taxation, extortion, the sale of commercial and government services and property, and donations from abroad,” according to a report by its Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team in June 2019.
A breakdown of current annual revenues seen by Foreign Policy puts income from drugs at $416 million, and income from mining and minerals sales including exports at $464 million a year. The income—supplemented by rent-seeking activities in a wide range of sectors including telecommunications and construction, along with real estate holdings and exports of agricultural products other than opium—funds the insurgency.
U.S. Army Gen. John Nicholson said in December 2016 that “about 60 percent” of the Taliban’s funding came from opium production in Helmand province, where the fight had been hardest for both the United Kingdom and the United States, and where most of the world’s opium is produced. He said the Taliban worked closely with criminal gangs to produce, traffic, and sell opium.
“The money that’s generated from the opium industry is what fuels the insurgency and why we see so much fighting going on in Helmand,” Nicholson told reporters.
The United Kingdom lost 457 armed forces personnel in Afghanistan, according to the Ministry of Defense, mostly in Helmand. The United States, which leads the international and NATO coalition in Afghanistan, has recorded more than 2,200 military deaths in Afghanistan since 2001.
The peace process initiated by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has faced severe criticism in Afghanistan, as it sidelined the Ghani government and did not include conditions for halting attacks against Afghan forces or other targets. In the months since the peace agreement was signed, dozens of Afghan fighting forces and civilians have been killed in insurgent attacks.
Following a shocking attack on a maternity hospital earlier this month, in which new mothers and newborn babies were targeted by gunmen, Ghani put his forces back on an offensive footing. The Taliban denied they were behind the attack, but analysts say that the Taliban, the Haqqani network, the local franchise of the Islamic State, and other terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan have cross-pollinated and cannot be regarded as separate.
The Eid cease-fire is the first since 2018, which then stoked great hopes among Afghans that the end of the war could be near. Afghanistan has been at war for more than 40 years, since the Russian invasion of 1979. The current phase of fighting is America’s longest war.
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and were quickly driven out of the country by the U.S.-led retaliation for the 9/11 attacks, which were planned and executed by Osama bin Laden while al Qaeda was based in Afghanistan with Mullah Omar’s approval. The Taliban leadership then regrouped over the Pakistan border, with support from the Islamabad government, forming a government-in-exile and fighting to unseat the Kabul administration.
May 30: This story was updated with news of the supreme leader contracting the virus.
Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist, author, and analyst. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.