Afghanistan’s new supreme leader, Hibatullah (or Haibatullah) Akhundzada, is a mysterious figure associated with everything that has made the Taliban synonymous with ultra-religious Islamic repression.
A Pashtun of the Noorzai tribe, he was born sometime in 1961 in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar Province — which would become the spiritual center of the Taliban after the group’s founding in 1994.
The son of an imam, priest and Muslim scholar, he moved to Quetta, Pakistan, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and was educated in a madrasah (religious school).
According to the meager accounts available, he came into contact with mujahedin (holy warriors) who fought against the communist occupiers of his land throughout the 1980s, but he never engaged in combat, unlike almost all Taliban leaders.
His authority was consolidated spiritually when he joined the Taliban in the civil war that tore Afghanistan after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal. He was already treated as a mullah, Muslim cleric equivalent to parish head in Catholicism, and mawlawi (or maulana). an Islamic scholar.
In 1995, he became a member of the vices and virtues police, the feared force that implemented the fundamentalist group’s radical vision of Islamic law in the occupied areas.
Executions, annulment of the role of women in society, public persecutions and punishments were the rule of the aberrant regime implemented in almost the entire country from the following year.
He worked in Farah province and then moved to Kandahar, where he joined the Jihadi madrassa, favored by Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar. It rose through the hierarchy of religious legislation, reaching number 2 on the country’s Supreme Court.
Known for extreme positions in the application of sharia, when the Taliban were driven from power by the Americans in 2001 he gained even more prestige. He held the post of president of all Islamic courts linked to the Taliban and became a personal advisor to Mullah Omar.
It gained fame for its fatwas, religious sentences, harsh to impose discipline on the group during its initial disintegration after the fall. When Omar died of tuberculosis in 2013, he was succeeded by Akhtar Mansur, who kept Akhundzada in his position.
In 2015, when Omar’s death was revealed to the world, he became one of the deputy leaders of the Taliban. The following year, an American drone attack killed Mansur, and the cleric was eventually elected by Quetta’s shura (tribal assembly) as the group’s new leader.
So he apparently pacified a dispute between Mohammad Yaqoob, one of Umar’s five sons and a military chief of the Taliban, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the powerful terrorist network that bears his surname.
Apparently that’s the term to use: little is known of Akhundzada’s actions. Like Omar after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, he is never seen in public. There’s only one known photo of him. The leader has an uncertain number of children, and one of them killed himself in a suicide bombing with his father’s blessing in 2017, against a military base in Helmand province, according to Afghan media.
His role in the new consolidating regime will be similar to that of the Taliban’s founder: supreme leader, with final say on any aspects of life in the country, but in practice a more symbolic figure. It is somewhat similar to the post held by Shiite Ali Khamenei in Iran.
The day-to-day life of the country will be in the hands of another mullah, Abdul Ghani Baradar, who turned the public face of the Taliban by heading the delegation of the group that negotiated peace with the Americans in Doha in 2020.
Baradar, whose last name is a nickname (“brother”) given by Mullah Omar, was the Taliban’s top executive after 2001 and was arrested in 2010 in Pakistan for negotiating with the Afghan government without telling his Islamabad secret service hosts.
Released in 2018 at the request of the US to work on the peace process, he became number 2 in the group. He was the first exiled leader to return to the country after taking power on 15 August.
He will have to concentrate many powers, given his external interlocution and experience, leaving in theory to Akhundzada a more ceremonial function. But that was said of Omar too, and he concentrated absolute powers on his management of Afghanistan.
This does not seem to be the case now, as the Taliban is a more multifaceted group today, and the government is expected to look more like a normal administration, keeping existing ministries, to believe the statements of their spokespersons since the return to power. It will also remain to know the behavior of “Amir-ul Monimeen”, the “commander of the faithful”, regarding the barbarities committed in the first Taliban government, given that the group has promised moderation in its reincarnation.
The Taliban’s internal power division is noticeable in the prominence of some of its leaders. While the leader of the Haqqani network, Sirajuddin, is a recluse and has a US$10 million bounty placed on his head, his brother Anas has taken a seat in every discussion in Kabul.
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The network, classified as a terrorist by the UN and the Americans, takes care of the capital’s security. The soldiers in uniform and equipped with US material seen in the city, with professional looks that distance them from men in traditional garb and slippers associated with the former Taliban, are from their elite unit, Badri-313.
Former Taliban leaders, in addition to Baradar, also deal the cards. This is the case with Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai. A veteran of the war against the Soviets, he was a police officer in India and is seen as one of the most diplomatic members of the Taliban summit — he was Baradar’s No. 2 in Doha.
Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Omar, holds great respect and, despite being the Taliban’s military chief since 2020, has troops specifically loyal to him during his moves in Kandahar. Passed over in the previous dispute for the leadership of the group due to his young age, perhaps 25 at the time, he is now the centerpiece of chess.
At other times, as in the post-Soviet withdrawal, these divisions were the recipe for civil war. Furthermore, even today there are important “warlords” outside the Taliban in the country, such as Uzbek Abdul Rashid Dostum. Whether the new owners of power will manage to fix the board is still open.