The Taliban’s Cruel New Leader
Mullah Haibatullah Akhondzada was known as a hanging judge in Kandahar before rising to power over the last year, but he seems to be a favorite of the Pakistanis.
Just before two American Hellfire missiles blew up the leader of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan over the weekend, he was on the phone with other senior figures in the movement, one of them tells The Daily Beast, “Then we lost contact with him.”
That Mullah Mansour was using a form of communication that American intelligence can monitor, and does, and which probably helped pinpoint his location, suggests just how secure he felt as he reportedly made his way from a visit with family in Iran to the city of Quetta, capital of Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.
Afghan Taliban leaders have long enjoyed safe haven in Pakistan, especially in Baluchistan, under the watchful eye of the some elements in the country’s intelligence services.
Mansour’s successor, named Wednesday, is not likely to feel so secure. As Bruce Riedel of Brookings wrote in The Daily Beast on Sunday, the hit on Mansour was a clear message to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (the ISI) that the days of the Baluchistan refuge may be coming to an end.
By all indications, the new Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhondzada, will be a harder target. Certainly he has a reputation as a hard, even cruel man, whose background is mysterious and habits are secretive.
According to Afghan Taliban websites the 55-year-old Akhondzada fought against the Russians during the 1980s, then joined the Taliban movement in 1994 under Mullah Omar in the fight to unify the country under strict Islamic law.
Omar appointed Akhondzada head of the Taliban military court in Kandahar and he became a powerful figure in the overall Taliban judicial system.
But a senior Taliban figure tells The Daily Beast that while Omar was in charge, Akhondzada did not have much seniority and was not on anyone’s list as a potential leader. His rise toward the top of the Taliban hierarchy only came after the announcement of Omar’s death and Mullah Mansour’s succession last year. Mansour made Akhondzada his first deputy.
Partly this was a function of tribal politics. A senior Afghan leader told The Daily Beast, “After Mansour took over in July 2015, Mullah Rasol from the Noorzai tribe did not endorse Mansour’s leadership.” But Akhondzada was from the Noorzai tribe, so Mansour appointed him “to defy Rasol and keep the Noorzai happy.“
“At the beginning,” said the same source, “we thought he was a simple mullah from the countryside, he wouldn’t be very active, and his position would be symbolic. But he turned more active than we thought.’’
Indeed, for a time “Mullah Mansour was deeply underground and Akhondzada was practically running the Taliban show,” said this source.
Another senior Afghan Taliban tells The Daily Beast, “I would say he is not a charismatic leader like Mullah Omar and neither is he comparatively modern like Mullah Mansour. He is more uncompromising, complicated. Going forward toward peace talks [with the Afghan government] would be very surprising from Haibatullah.”
Within Taliban circles Mullah Haibatullah Akhondzada has the reputation of being very conservative, even by Taliban standards. Some claim he is sadistic with underlings and has little idea about or interest in politics as such. A former Afghan Taliban leader tells us, “I even heard he was against the photos and videos of Taliban in the Taliban media.” Some ultra-conservative Muslims believe any representation of humans is forbidden by God.
A senior aide to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani says it’s up to Pakistan to shape the new Taliban leadership. “Pakistan can change the personality and attitude of the Taliban, squeezing them like an aluminum can,” said the aide. “The Taliban are puppets. Their soul and soil is Pakistani, and it’s up to Pakistan’s establishment to make them terrorists, good, or bad Taliban,” he said.
A key commander of one Taliban splinter group, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, said, “We opposed the new leader and it is not clear how he was appointed. … This was done in a very mysterious way, exactly like with way Mullah Mansour was appointed. So we continue opposing this new leader.”
According to various Taliban sources, when Akhondzadawas was head of the Taliban military courts in Kandahar he was famous for severe punishments. They say Akhondzada decreed that anyone who challenged or did not endorse Mullah Mansour’s “leadership of the faithful” should be executed. As a result, several rival Taliban commanders were killed.
The former Afghan Taliban deputy foreign minister, Abdul Rahman Zahid, told The Daily Beast, Mansour was much more flexible, experienced and advantageous for the peace process, and eventually Mansour would have come back to the talks. That’s less likely with his successor.
“Mullah Haibatullah has a very narrow mind and the typical tribal attitudes,” said Zahid. “It will take years to bring him into the political process.”