The Taliban have appointed Haibatullah Akhundzada as their new leader. The successor to Mullah Mansour does not have a military background, but experts don’t expect this to lead to a drop in violence.
“Haibatullah Akhundzada has been appointed as the new leader of the Islamic Emirate after a unanimous agreement in the Shura [the Taliban Supreme Council], and all the members of the Shura pledged allegiance to him,” the statement said, referring to Afghanistan as the Islamic Emirate.
The new Taliban leader is believed to be in his early 50s and, like other former heads of the insurgent group, hails from Afghanistan’s southern province of Kandahar, the birthplace of the movement. He had served as deputy to his predecessor Mansour, who had taken charge of the Taliban after Mullah Omar’s demise.
“Akhundzada is a religious scholar and a military court judge for the Taliban,” Rahimullah Yousafzai, a Pakistan-based expert on the Taliban, told DW.
Unlike Mullah Omar and Mullah Mansour, Haibatullah Akhundzada is not a military commander, and very little is known about his activities prior to the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Akhundzada was a “young man when the Taliban ruled over Afghanistan in the late 1990s,” according to Wahid Muzhdah, an Islamism expert and former member of the group.
But the expert says that Akhudnzada has always remained close to the Taliban leadership, and has been its member since the group was founded.
The Taliban insurgency unlike to abate
The Taliban statement also stated that Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network, and Mullah Yakoub, the son of the Taliban founder Mullah Omar, were appointed deputies to Akhundzada. Both had also served as deputies to Mullah Mansour, and have a significant influence among the Taliban fighters.
Haqqani, whose network has been blamed for high-profile suicide attacks in Afghanistan, has the backing of Pakistan. Washington considers the Haqqani Network a terrorist group and recently urged Islamabad to launch a military operation against it. So far, the Pakistani authorities – particularly the country’s military establishment – have been reluctant to act against the Haqqanis.
Mullah Yakoub, on the other hand, is trusted by a number of powerful Taliban commanders who founded the insurgent group with his father, Mullah Omar.
Experts believe it will be very difficult for Akhundzada to gain absolute control over the group, and he may hand over the military affairs to the Haqqani Network.
“Mansour could make decisions on his own, but Akhundzada does not have that kind of power,” Muzhdah told DW, adding that the new leader could face challenges in the future. “This will pave the way for more splinter groups among the Taliban,” he warned.
A unifying figure
But Muzhdah believes Akhundzada’s appointment as the new Taliban head could unify the movement, which has been engaged in a power struggle since Mullah Mansour succeeded Omar less then a year ago.
“He may not have absolute authority over all Taliban commanders, but the fact that he belongs to the Noorzai tribe, will bring some breakaway commanders back to the movement,” said Muzhdah.
A number of Taliban commanders opposed Mansour’s appointment, as he did not belong to the Noorzai tribe that Mullah Omar hailed from.
But Rahimullah Yousafzai says Akhundzada’s appointment was done in haste, which means that all Taliban commanders were not consulted. “The power struggle within the organization will continue,” he said.
The future of peace talks
Akhundzada’s rise to power coincided with a suicide attack in the Afghan capital Kabul on Wednesday, which killed at least 10 people and wounded four others. Experts believe the Taliban are sending a message to the Afghan government that the insurgency will continue even without Mullah Mansour.
“The new Taliban chief will continue attacks in Afghanistan to prove that the movement has not been weakened despite the killing of their leader,” Ahmad Saidi, a former Afghan diplomat, told DW.
Experts believe that a change in the Taliban command will not help the Afghan peace process and can even intensify the war in Afghanistan.
It is not yet clear what approach the new leader will take towards peace talks, but analysts fear that, with the Haqqanis gaining more control over the group, the war in the country is likely to become even bloodier.
“Mullah Mansour could have convinced the Taliban commanders to engage in peace talks – any other leader can’t,” said Wahid Muzhdah.
Both deputies of the new Taliban leader are in favor of continuing the insurgency, which makes it unlikely for peace talks to take place any time soon.
Additional reporting by Abdul Bari Hakim and Sayed Raiz.