Afghan Taleban appoints new chief

STATUS QUO REMAINS: Even if he favours peace talks, he is unlikely to proceed without consensus within the supreme council. - ANALYST AMIR RANA, on new Taleban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada (above)
STATUS QUO REMAINS: Even if he favours peace talks, he is unlikely to proceed without consensus within the supreme council. - ANALYST AMIR RANA, on new Taleban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada (above)

Religious figure takes helm after US drone killed leader Mansour

KABUL • The Afghan Taleban has announced the appointment of Haibatullah Akhundzada as its new chief, elevating a low-profile religious figure in a swift power transition after officially confirming the death of leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in an American drone strike.

The surprise announcement yesterday coincided with a Taleban suicide bombing near Kabul that killed at least 10 court employees, illustrating the potency of the insurgency despite the change in leadership.

"Haibatullah Akhundzada has been appointed as the new leader of the Islamic Emirate (Taleban) after a unanimous agreement in the shura (supreme council), and all the members of shura pledged allegiance to him," the insurgents said in a statement.

"The leader of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and commander of faithful, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, was martyred in a United States drone strike in... Pakistan's Balochistan province," they added, in the insurgents' first confirmation of his death, using the Taleban's official name.

The statement also said that Sirajuddin Haqqani, an implacable foe of American forces, and Mullah Yakoub, the son of Taleban founder Mullah Omar, have been appointed as the deputies of new leader Akhundzada, a religious scholar who was named in a United Nations (UN) report last year as the Taleban's former chief justice.

The "status quo remains unchanged" after Akhundzada's appointment, Taleban expert Rahimullah Yousafzai said. "I don't foresee any shift from Mansour's policies. He is unlikely to negotiate with the Afghan government."

Other observers say Akhundzada, who was a deputy under Mansour, is seen more as a religious figure than a military commander.

Even if he favours peace talks, "he is unlikely to proceed without consensus within the supreme council" where many strongly oppose negotiations, said analyst Amir Rana.

Last Saturday's drone attack, the first-known American assault on a top Afghan Taleban leader on Pakistani soil, sent shock waves through the insurgent movement that had seen a resurgence under Mansour.

Senior members of the group had been keenly aware of the need to appoint a candidate who could bring disparate factions together.

"It was much quicker than most people expected, including myself. It shows that the Taleban is keen not to have a new conflict," said Mr Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

The killing of Mansour showed that Washington has, at least for now, abandoned hopes of reviving direct peace talks between Kabul and the Taleban that broke down last summer.

US President Barack Obama, who authorised the drone strike, said that Mansour had rejected efforts "to seriously engage in peace talks", asserting that direct negotiations with the Afghan government were the only way to end the conflict.

A spokesman for Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah called on the new Taleban leader to join talks or face dire consequences.

"We invite Mula #Haibatullah to peace. Political settlement is the only option for #Taliban or new leadership will face the fate of #Mansoor (sic)," spokesman Javid Faisal said in a tweet.

Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said yesterday's attack on staff from the judicial system, which the UN condemned as "cowardly", was in response to the Afghan government's decision earlier this month to execute six Taleban prisoners on death row. Other attacks would follow, he said.

The executions were approved as part of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's new hardline policy against the insurgents after a brazen Taleban attack in April killed at least 64.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 26, 2016, with the headline 'Afghan Taleban appoints new chief'. Print Edition | Subscribe