New Taleban chief Akhundzada a scholar, not a soldier

 Newly appointed Afghan Taleban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada said he would not engage in any peace talks.
Newly appointed Afghan Taleban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada said he would not engage in any peace talks. PHOTO: REUTERS

ISLAMABAD/KABUL (Reuters, AFP) - Haibatullah Akhundzada, named Wednesday as the Afghan Taleban’s new leader, was a senior judge during the insurgent group’s five-year rule over Afghanistan and a close confidant of its founder Mullah Omar.  

Believed to be in his 50s, he hails from Afghanistan’s southern province of Kandahar like both his former boss – Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was killed in a US drone strike on Saturday – and Omar, who died in 2013.  

Akhundzada went on to become the group’s “chief justice” after a US-led invasion toppled the Taleban government in 2001.  He was one of Mansour’s deputies alongside Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the feared Haqqani network based out of eastern Afghanistan.  

Several senior Taleban sources have said Mansour bequeathed Akhunzada the leadership in his will, though some observers have argued in the past that hereditary succession is against the Taleban’s ideology.

Akhundzada is not known for his prowess on the battlefield, having preferred a life of religious and legal study.  He is said to have issued many of the rulings on how Muslims should comply with the Taleban’s extreme interpretation of Islam, and adjudicated internal disputes.  

“He is a religious scholar who was close to Mullah Omar, a close confidant and an adviser on religious issues who wrote fatwas, and was on the council of Ulema (Muslim scholars),” said Thomas Ruttig, a former diplomat and co-director of the Kabul-based Afghan Analysts Network.

A senior Taleban source familiar with proceedings at the Shura (council) which appointed Akhundzada said he was a unanimous choice, adding the group’s rank and file looked to him as a “spiritual leader” who had taught thousands of students in both Pakistan and Afghanistan over 25 years.  

According to Rahimullah Yousafzai, considered the region’s foremost expert on the Taleban, Akhundzada was in Pakistan during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan – unlike Omar and Mansour, who earned reputations as fighters as part of the US-backed mujahideen.  

But he returned to his homeland in time to attend the meeting in the town of Spin Boldak in Kandahar in 1994 at which Omar declared the birth of the Taleban movement, according to the senior militant source.  

It is unclear whether he will follow Mansour in shunning peace negotiations with the Afghan government, though analysts believe he will be more heavily reliant on his Shura than his predecessors.  

In terms of seniority, he was second only to Taleban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.  “Akhundzada was chosen to avoid further conflict and consultation,” said Islamabad-based analyst Amir Rana.

Haqqani was meanwhile named his “senior deputy” while Mullah Mohammad Yaqoub, the son of Mullah Omar, was once again passed over and named a simple “deputy”.  

“He (Akhundzada) will be a more symbolic leader than a functional leader,” suggested Rana. “Maybe Haqqani will deal with the military side and Mullah Yaqoub will deal with the political affairs.  “I think he enjoys some moral supremacy among the 
Taleban ranks, and he is in a position to keep this consensus intact.”

The emergence last year of a splinter group led by Mullah Muhammad Rasool – as well as competition from the Islamic State group and former allies-turned-enemies the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – present a challenge to the 
Taleban’s dominance which would have been hard to imagine in the Omar era.

Akhundzada will have to walk a fine line between hawks calling for intensified attacks in the wake of their leader’s death, and more pragmatic elements seeking to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with Kabul to end the conflict.  

Yousafzai projected a rocky road ahead for Akhundzada.  “I think some other sections were not consulted, there is no unification of the movement yet, and I don’t see how it can unify under Haibatullah (Akhundzada),” the analyst said.

Meanwhile, the official spokesman for the Afghan Taleban said on Wednesday that an audio tape purporting to be from Akhundzada rejecting peace talks was not issued by him and was not from the new insurgent chief.

Two Taleban commanders had provided the audio to reporters late on Wednesday, saying it was an official statement. One of the commanders said he had received the recording directly from Zabihullah Mujahid, the official spokesman who earlier announced Akhundzada’s elevation.  

Mujahid later issued an email from his official account denying the movement had issued an audio.  

Reached by telephone, Mujahid said the Taleban were launching an investigation to learn who was distributing the recording.