Last time the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan – in 1996 – there was never any question of what form of government they would install and who would rule the country. They were filling a vacuum, and Mullah Mohammed Omar, the reclusive cleric who had led the movement since its beginnings two years earlier, took charge.
Then, Kabul was a shattered husk, with a tiny hungry, scared population, almost no economic activity, no telephones and public transport provided by ancient Russian-made cars or 1970s buses once driven from Germany. The Taliban could impose whatever they wanted.
But circumstances are different today. Since the Taliban were ousted by a US-led military coalition after the 9/11 attacks of 2001, Afghanistan’s capital has been transformed into a bustling, crowded, traffic-choked metropolis of 5 million. The rest of the country has changed immensely too. The task facing the new de facto head of state is vastly more challenging and complex.
But who will this ruler be? The most likely candidate is the current supreme leader of the Taliban, Haibatullah Akhundzada, a 60-year-old Islamic legal scholar who took over when his predecessor, Akhtar Mansour, was killed in a US drone strike near the Afghan-Pakistan border in 2016.
Akhunzada grew up in Panjwai, a district just outside Kandahar. Like most of the Taliban’s senior leaders, he is Pashtun, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic community and one which has historically claimed the right to rule the country. During the 1980s, Akhunzada fought the Soviets and their local auxiliaries near his home with brigades of young religious students and clerics which later formed the nucleus of the Taliban. He also studied in religious schools in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan, was the primary religious “adviser” of mullah Omar, and eventually reached the status of sheikh ul-hadith as an outstanding scholar.
In recent decades, Akhunzada has been the Taliban’s top religious judge, resolving thorny issues such as the legitimacy of suicide attacks, or whether it is right to fight the Islamic State as the group sought to establish a presence in Afghanistan. He also taught the most complex and prestigious texts in religious schools.
Known for his personal austerity, Akhunzada was a compromise candidate when promoted to “emir” over the heads of dozens of other better-known leaders by the Taliban’s supreme leadership council in 2016. His tribal background, reputation as a scholar and the respect commanded by his erudition were all advantages. Since he has shown himself more pragmatic than many expected, analysts say, allowing negotiations with the US and repeatedly exhorting low-level Taliban fighters and officials to seek to win over communities through good governance and discipline.
As the Taliban have long shown their contempt for democracy, it appears likely they will annul Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution and declare an “emirate” in place of the current republic. This would mean that current “emir ul momineen” – Akhunzada, who is “leader of the faithful” – will naturally take the supreme post.
But the Taliban are far from monolithic, and even the emir will not enjoy absolute obedience. The leadership council – known as the Quetta shura after the city in western Pakistan where many top Taliban live – is powerful, and though there is a high degree of ideological uniformity among the movement’s leadership, many of its ‘“second tier” have their own preferred strategies, informal network of followers, overseas connections and ambitions. Some are supportive of an effort to gain international recognition, others prioritise the enforcement of strict restrictions on behaviour and the control of the population. Many sit on the leadership council, and head the ‘commissions’ that determine and execute policy in many areas.
Currently, Akhunzada has three deputies, each with different attributes. These could determine their eventual positions within a Taliban government, possibly in some kind of prime minister role or similar if Akhunzada steps away from day to day management, and so the nature of the new regime. One western official described the trio as “the just-about-OK, the bad and the very, very ugly.”
The best known is Mullah Ahmed Ghani Barader, who is in his early 50s.
Barader was among the few dozen original members of the Taliban, and currently heads the group’s political office. His name means “brother” and was conferred by Mullah Omar himself as a mark of affection. Barader spent eight years in a Pakistani jail after being arrested in 2010 in Karachi, the southern Pakistani port city, but was released, possibly after a request from Washington, to help bolster support for talks with the US within the movement. He then became the Taliban’s chief ambassador, conducting dozens of face to face meetings with officials from regional powers such as Pakistan and China, leaders of other Islamist movements, and speaking on the telephone to President Trump.
A second deputy is Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Omar, who recently took over the Taliban’s “military commission”, and so is seen as the architect of the stunning campaign that has brought the group back into power.
Yaqoob, who is thought to be in his mid 30s, was proposed as overall leader of the movement five years ago, but decided to support Akhundzada candidature because he felt he lacked battlefield experience and was too young, according to a Taliban commander at the meeting where Mansour’s successor was chosen.
The third – and possibly most influential – deputy is the one who most worries western intelligence services.
Sirajuddin Haqqani is the son of the late prominent mujahideen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, a veteran of the war against the Soviets who built a powerful force of fighters spanning the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The Haqqani network backed the Taliban in 2001 and have been blamed for dozens of lethal attacks in Kabul and elsewhere. Along with overseeing the Taliban’s financial and military assets in the safe haven offered by Pakistan’s lawless tribal zones, Haqqani, who is probably in his late 40s, has close relations with senior figures in al-Qaida, the transnational terrorist group, and in Pakistan’s intelligence services. He features on the FBI’s list of most wanted suspects where he is described as “armed and dangerous” and last year published an oped in the New York Times entitled “What we, the Taliban want”.
All three men are set to play key roles in the newly established regime in Kabul, whatever form it takes. Few are brave enough to speculate on what this trio and Akhunzada will do with the power they now have. Nor are they likely to give many clues.
“These are experienced men who have survived decades of war. They hold their cards very close to their chests,” said one Afghan observer, who asked not to be named.