The recently named Taliban emir, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, has been described as an extremist religious cleric, rather than a soldier.
“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 group’s rulings on how Muslims should comply with the Taliban’s extreme interpretation of Islam,” reports Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“According to Rahimullah Yousafzai, considered the region’s foremost expert on the Taliban, Akhundzada was away 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,” it adds.
Mullah Akhundzada served as chief justice of the sharia-based legal system during the terrorist group’s five-year rule over Afghanistan, which ended with their removal by the US in 2001.
The “shura,” or leadership council, appointed Mullah Akhundzada as the Taliban’s third leader in less than a year after his predecessor, Akhtar Mansour, succeeded Mohammad Omar, founder and longtime leader of the jihadist group.
Mullah Mansour was recently killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan. The appointment of Mansour gave birth to a Taliban splinter group led by Mullah Mohammad Rasool and intensified competition from the Islamic State branch in the region (ISIL-K/IS-KP).
However, The Long War Journal (LWJ) suggests, Mullah Akhundzada “may serve as a uniting force within the Taliban movement.”
“Mansour’s appointment caused discord within the Taliban, with some mid-level commanders defecting to the Islamic State, and a significant faction led by Mullah [Rasool] forming a parallel branch,” notes LWJ.
However, it adds that with Mullah Omar’s son and brother, identified respectively as Mullah Mohammad Yaqoub and Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund, “returning to the fold and receiving senior positions with the group two months ago, there are indications that the rift with the [Rasool] faction may be mending.”
The Associated Press (AP) quotes senior Taliban figures as saying that the death of Mansour may unify terrorist group’s movement given that he was a divisive figure.
Meanwhile, TOLO News reports that various prominent jihadi leaders in Afghanistan have predicted further divisions developing among the Taliban now that Mullah Mansour is dead.
“The analysts said they believe that a number of Mansour’s followers will likely mount terrorist attacks in a bid to give the impression that their leader’s death has not affected their activities,” points out the report.
It remains unclear whether the new leader will follow Mullah Mansour in refusing to engage in peace talks with the Afghan government.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s administration has warned Mullah Akhundzada to end the war or face serious consequences.
“Latest developments offer Taliban groups opportunity to end violence and resume peaceful life; else they will face the fate of their leadership,” Sayed Zafar Hashemi, a spokesman for President Ghani, said via Twitter, reports Reuters.
“Within an hour of the announcement of Haibatullah Akhundzada’s appointment, a Taliban suicide bomber attacked a shuttle bus carrying court employees west of the Afghan capital, Kabul, killing up to 11 people and wounding several others, including children,” adds the news outlet.
Like his former chief, Mullah Akhundzada is from the Afghan southern province of Kandahar, considered to be the birthplace of the Taliban.
“In terms of age and seniority, he was second only to Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, whom many sources had believed was in contention for the leadership despite his reported detention by Pakistani authorities,” notes AFP, referring to the new chief.
Mullah Omar, whose death was kept secret for years, died in 2013.