Is the Taliban in Transition?
On the 21st of May 2016, a US airstrike killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. This operation, which involved multiple drones, comes as a relief to many as Mansour had been actively planning and carrying out attacks across Afghanistan. US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that Mansour “posed a continuing imminent threat to US personnel in Afghanistan, Afghan civilians, Afghan security forces, and members of the US and the NATO coalition.” President Obama added that “Mansour rejected efforts by the Afghan government to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that has taken the lives of countless innocent Afghan men, women and children.”
The killing of the Taliban leader however, is likely to lead to unwelcome consequences. It could certainly hamper peace talks between the insurgents and the government. This does not come as a surprise as the issue of peace talks has always been unpopular among the Taliban’s most senior leadership. Instead of thinking about peace, the leaders are most probably planning Mansour’s revenge. It could also have an effect on the relationship between the US and Pakistan. The latter claims that the US only informed the Pakistani prime minister and army chief after the strike had taken place, and complained that the strike violated their sovereignty.
Four days after the strike, the Taliban announced that a lesser-known deputy of the group, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada would take over. Despite not having military expertise, he was chosen over the chief of the Haqqani terrorist network and the young son of the Taliban’s founder.
Akhundzada who is said to be in his mid-50’s, fought against the Russians in the 1980’s and then joined the Taliban in 1994 under Mohammad Omar’s leadership. Omar appointed him as the head of the military court in Kandahar and he became a powerful figure during that period.
Akhundzada then became Mansour’s deputy when he succeeded Omar in 2013. Akhundzada is known as a “religious scholar” and as a “ruthless” judge during his tenure as chief justice, during the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan. Hailing from Kandahar in the Taliban heartlands of southern Afghanistan, he seems to be an acceptable choice for many Taliban council members. According to Afghan expert Sami Yousafzai, Akhundzada has a reputation of being very conservative and does not like to appear in public. He adds that “Most Taliban are scared of him because of his role as a judge in the past. They say Akhundzada decreed that anyone who challenged or did not endorse Mullah Mansour’s ‘leadership of the faithful’ should be executed.” Unlike Mansour, Akhundzada has strong religious credentials which he has used to justify the Taliban insurgency as a “holy war.”
After Mohammad Omar’s death, there was an evident split in the Taliban when Mansour took over. This caused mistrust among many fighters and several factions broke away. The Taliban are desperately trying to prevent that from happening again and hope that Akhundzada can mend these rifts. The almost immediate and streamlined appointment of Akhundzada can be seen as an attempt to prevent the tensions that prevailed during the period after Omar’s death. This move by the Taliban seems to be working as the Taliban religious council released a statement which stated that they believed Akhundzada will bring unity and mend the mistakes of the recent past. The Taliban also believe that Akhundzada “will bring back the era of Mullah Omar” with “a simple life, loyalty, and terror on enemies.”
Due to his lack of military expertise, Akhundzada may increase violence to consolidate his position, and as a means of showing his military capabilities. On the other hand, given his legal background, he may also be more open to peace discussions than the previous hard lined military leaders of the Taliban.