Leader of Afghan Taliban Said to Be Gravely Ill With the Coronavirus
“Nearly all the Taliban leadership in Doha has the bug,” a senior Afghan official said.
The supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban has contracted COVID-19 and has possibly died while receiving treatment, according to Taliban officials. Confirmation that Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada had contracted the virus, which has stricken a number of senior Taliban leaders, came Monday from a senior military official of the Islamist movement, Moulawi Muhammad Ali Jan Ahmed.
“Our leader is sick, but he is recovering,” Ahmed told Foreign Policy in an interview. However, three other Taliban figures in the Pakistani city of Quetta, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they believed Akhunzada had died of the illness. No official confirmation appeared to be forthcoming Monday.
A senior official in the Afghan government said other Taliban leaders, including many in the movement’s office in Doha, Qatar, who negotiated a bilateral deal with the United States that was signed in February, were also ill with COVID-19. Speaking on the condition that he not be identified, the official said: “Nearly all the Taliban leadership in Doha has the bug.”
“This is significant because if talks [between the Afghan government and the Taliban] are likely not to start within the next few weeks if they’re sick, how long will they keep up the cease-fire?” the official added.
The Taliban officials who would not be named said Akhunzada, the supreme leader, had not been seen for the past three months and had not made any voice recordings, including an Eid al-Fitr message released as a statement ahead of the holiday last month.
Ahmed, the senior Taliban official, said Akhunzada had been hospitalized but he would not confirm where. Asked if the Taliban’s leader had received treatment in Pakistan, he responded: “Why do you people think that Pakistan is the only country [where he would be hospitalized]? There are other countries that are stronger than Pakistan, that support us, and the world knows that. I will not name the country, but it is a powerful country that is one of our allies.”
Afghan government and Western official sources have suspected that Akhunzada contracted the virus some time ago. Antonio Giustozzi, a Taliban expert with the Royal United Services Institute in London, said his Taliban sources confirmed Akhunzada had contracted the coronavirus. “Haibatullah is seriously sick and in hospital in Pakistan,” Giustozzi said. Some Taliban sources in Quetta have said Akhunzada went to Russia for treatment.
The Taliban offered a three-day cease-fire to coincide with the Eid holiday. Afghan media quoted an unnamed Kabul government source saying the cease-fire would continue unofficially as neither side had yet announced its end.
However, as COVID-19 sweeps through the Taliban leadership, infecting negotiators and commanders, the peace process has been hit by the uncertainty of how the pandemic will impact the uppermost echelons of the group. Foreign Policy reported on May 29 that many of the Taliban’s senior leaders in Quetta had caught COVID-19, including Akhunzada’s deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the jihadi Haqqani network, which has been behind many brutal attacks on Afghan and international forces and civilians in Afghanistan and has close ties to al Qaeda.
With the top two leaders out of action, the Taliban movement is now being run by the son of its founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar, whose death was revealed in mid-2015, more than two years after he had died.
Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob has taken over administrative, operational, and military command of the movement, according to Taliban officials, including Ahmed, and Western intelligence sources. COVID-19 appears to have helped Yaqoob on the way to realizing his long-held ambition of taking his late father’s mantle as Taliban leader.
He has stepped into Haqqani’s role as chief of operations and is consolidating his hold on the group’s military operations, expected to soon extend his reach from 28 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces to the whole country. Commanders have said they support his leadership.
What this could mean for the peace process, the nature of the war, and the vast money-making ventures that the Taliban use to fund their almost 20-year insurgency remains unclear. But the questions being raised in Kabul by the recent changes are causing consternation among the government.
While Yaqoob is believed to support peace in Afghanistan, sources in Quetta said this may depend on what support he receives in his bid for a formal takeover of the Taliban. “The prince is trying to claim his crown,” said one source close to the Taliban leadership. While Yaqoob is believed to support the peace process, “it will depend on whether he gets support as leader,” the source said.
The Taliban and Afghan government are in the process of a prisoner swap that was negotiated as part of the deal signed on Feb. 29 between the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump and Taliban officials in Doha.
The agreement calls for the release by the Kabul government of some 5,000 Taliban prisoners. The release process has been proceeding haltingly and could be adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic that has sickened the Taliban leadership.
The Kabul official said the head of the Taliban’s prisoners commission, Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, remains ill with COVID-19, despite some media reports that he has recovered. The official said Turabi “remains bedridden” with the virus.
“He was supposed to come to Kabul for the current rounds of talks” on the status of the prisoner swap, the official said. Turabi was the minister of vice and virtue in the Taliban’s 1996-2001 administration, which ruled Afghanistan until a U.S.-led military invasion drove it from power in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
Osama bin Laden, as the head of al Qaeda, planned and carried out the attacks while based in Afghanistan with the blessing of Mullah Omar. The Taliban leadership remains linked to al Qaeda, as well the Islamic State and other violent insurgent groups with a presence in Afghanistan.
A Western intelligence source described the Haqqani network as “essentially an opportunistic business operation” close to al Qaeda. Haqqani became Akhunzada’s deputy when he took over as the Taliban’s leader in 2016—following the killing by U.S. drone strike of Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who succeeded Mullah Omar.
Haqqani’s elevation formalized the relationship between the extremist groups and ensured a flow of funding from the wealthy Haqqani into Taliban coffers. A Western diplomat said that with Haqqani sidelined by illness and Yaqoob’s elevation to chief of operations, the Haqqani network “will probably just go its own way and operate in its own way.”
The Kabul official also confirmed that another Doha-based Taliban figure, Mohammad Nabi Omari, who was directly involved in negotiating the deal with the United States, had been ill with COVID-19 and was now recovered. “He has been leading the Taliban delegation during video teleconferences with the government that set the stage for prisoner releases,” the official said.
Omari was held in U.S. custody at Guantánamo Bay for nearly 12 years—one of the so-called Taliban Five who were prominent in the group’s pre-9/11 administration. They were released in 2014 in a prisoner swap for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held by the Taliban for five years.
“Omari was out of commission for several weeks,” the official said, and unable to maintain contact with Kabul in making progress in ending the war.
The Afghan government would not make any official comment on the impact that the illness of Taliban leaders could have on direct talks with the group—the next stage of the process that had been expected to begin within weeks. With the United States proceeding with a troop drawdown as part of the Feb. 29 agreement with the Taliban, the Kabul government appears vulnerable as the Afghan military is not seen as ready to stand alone against the insurgents.
Long War Journal, a project of the Washington-based think tank the Foundation for Defense Of Democracies, says the Taliban have been “unquestionably” resurgent since 2011, when the U.S. troop presence drew down from its peak. The NATO mission switched from military support to a “train, advise, assist” role at the end of 2014. Under the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the United States will draw down to zero by next year; NATO partners are largely expected to follow suit.
Long War Journal describes nearly half of Afghanistan’s districts as “contested.” Of a total of 398 districts, 189 are contested, 133 are believed to be under government control, and 75 are under Taliban control.
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.
Mirwais Khan is a journalist, broadcaster, and researcher based in Islamabad.