The Taliban Shura or Council unanimously elected Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzadah as their new leader on May 25 2015 and has called upon Muslims to declare their allegiance to him as a matter of religious obligation.

The Taliban in a press release earlier this week confirmed the death of their leader, Mullah Mansour, and said he was killed as a result of a US drone attack on the 21st May 2016 along the Afghanistan border in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan.

The Taliban Council, also known as the Quetta Shura, has also elected Serajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network, and Mullah Mohammad Yaqub, the son of former Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, as the deputies of Haibatullah Akhundzadah.

Who is Haibatullah Akhundzadah?

Haibatullah Akhundzadah

Haibatullah Akhundzadah, who is in his mid-forties, has received religious education in Pakistani religious schools and has been running a number of madrasas or religious schools in Kuchlak, a town near Quetta, as well as across the Baluchistan province of Pakistan.

He has come from the Panjwayi District in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar and belongs to the Noorzai tribe. He was previously a member of Hezb-i-Islami of Mawlawi Mohammad Yunus Khalis, one of the main seven Mujahideen parties fighting against the Soviet Union forces in the 1980s in Afghanistan.

Haibatullah Akhundzadah, who has extremist views and was one of the closest aides of Mullah Omar, worked in the Taliban courts in Kandahar in the past. It is reported that Mullah Omar was used to consult and take Akhundzadah’s view on religious affairs. After the fall of the Taliban and their relocation in Quetta, he was appointed as the Taliban Chief Justice in Quetta, where the Taliban have their offices, according to eyewitnesses and media reports.

After revelations of the death of the Taliban leader and the election of Mullah Mansour as the leader of the Taliban in July last year, Akhundzadah was appointed as one of the deputies of the late Taliban leader. Some Afghan political analysts are of the view that one of the main reasons behind the appointment of Akhundzadah as the new leader of the Taliban is his close relations with various Taliban commanders and members of the Quetta Shura who are willing to announce their allegiance.

Internal strife within the Taliban:

However, soon after the announcement of the election of a new Taliban leader yesterday, problems emerged among the Taliban. A splinter group of the Taliban, led by Mullah Mohammad Rasool, has already refused to accept Akhundzadah as their leader. Associated Press has quoted Rasool’s deputy, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, as saying the faction would not accept Akhundzadah’s leadership for the same reason they rejected Mansour, he was elected by a small clique of Pakistan-based insiders with little input from the rank-and-file or field commanders in Afghanistan.

“For us, the issue with Mullah Akhtar Mansour and this Haibatullah is the same,” Niazi was quoted by the AP as saying. “We were not against Mullah Akhtar Mansour but the way he was selected, and yet again they sit together and choose one another. … We will not accept him as a new leader until and unless all religious scholars and tribal elders sit together and appoint a new leader.”

There were some reports recently saying that the government of Afghanistan has been supporting the splinter Taliban group under Rasool and some Afghan experts are of the view that the killing of Mansour might have taken place as a result of joint cooperation between the US, the Afghan government and the breakaway faction of the Taliban, under Rasool. However, the Afghan government has denied any support to and cooperation with the Mullah Rasoon led Taliban.

On May 21 2016, US officials reported that the Department of Defense conducted an airstrike that targeted Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in a remote area of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. His death was later on officially confirmed by the US officials as well as the Afghan government and the Taliban, but the Pakistan authorities have still not confirmed his death in their soil.

Mullah Mansour: A pragmatic leader

Some local Afghan media have reported that Mullah Mansour came under a US drone attack while he was returning to Quetta from Iran, where he had meeting with a Russian delegation. Afghan and international media have recently reported that Russians have established contact with the Taliban in an attempt to make a joint front against the IS fighters. The Russian special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kaboulov, has recently been quoted by the media as saying: “Taliban interests coincide with ours.”

“Both the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban have said they don’t recognize Isis and they don’t recognize the ISIS leader as the caliph; that is very important. We have communication channels with the Taliban to exchange information,” Independent newspaper recently quoted Zamir Kaboulov.

It is believed that Mullah Mansour was a pragmatic leader, close to Pakistan, attempting to get the Taliban out of isolation to play a more active role in the regional and international politics, especially fighting the IS militants in Afghanistan. Iran, China as well as Russia are concerned about the increasing influence of IS fighters in Afghanistan. The new Taliban leader is believed to be a traditional religious leader without much political, military and operational knowledge and skills, but a hardliner with extreme views and pro-continuation of war in Afghanistan.

Hezb-i-Islami’s message to the Taliban:

Meanwhile, the leader of Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has called on the armed Taliban to give up fighting and opposition and to join his party to plan out a joint strategy for achieving common objectives.

“In this important juncture of time my advice to the Taliban is to take a joint position with regard to peace, Jihad and resistance, the future of Afghanistan and resolving the crisis in the country,” reads part of Hekmatyar’s written message through which he has also expressed his sympathy to the followers and family of Mullah Akhtar Mansour.

On May 18 2016, the head of the Afghanistan High Peace Council signed the draft of a peace agreement with Hezb-i-Islami in Kabul. If approved by Hekmatyar, the draft peace agreement will enable Hekmatyar to return to Afghanistan and give up armed struggle against Afghanistan and its international allied forces.

In the past, the Taliban have always rejected Hezb-i-Islami’s call for creating a joint front and now that the Hezb-i-Islami is negotiating a deal with the Afghan government, it is obvious that the Taliban will not listen to them and will continue to their fight against the Afghan and international forces in Afghanistan.

The coming weeks will prove crucial for Afghanistan not only because of an expected escalation of the Taliban attacks, but also because of the strained US and Pakistan relations after the death of the Taliban leader in Pakistani soil and the consequent impacts of the strained relations between the two countries on the military operations of the Taliban and the bleak prospect of peace negotiations with the Taliban.

Ahmad Masoud has worked for more than a decade for national and international organizations, including the United Nations, in Asia, Africa and the United Kingdom.  He holds an MBA degree and an Honours Diploma in Feature Writing and Freelance journalism and he usually writes on social,  political and economic developments in Afghanistan.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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