Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, a prominent religious scholar and deputy to the killed leader, will head the militant movement, which has been in disarray since its founder, Mullah Omar, was proclaimed dead last summer.
The swift selection of a new chief follows a series of meetings in recent days among the core leadership in Quetta, Pakistan, and can be seen as an attempt to prevent further rifts in the ranks.
Many commanders regarded the selection last summer of Mansoor – a heavy-handed and divisive figure – as a coup, leading to violent clashes between factions. Since then, there has been unrest and unprecedented infighting.
AFP got a photo of Haibatullah straight from the Taliban:
He seems nice.
So, who is this guy? Not a whole lot seems to be known about him. He was appointed the Chief Justice of the Taliban’s Shariʿah courts in the 1990s, after the Taliban had taken over Afghanistan, and he’s reportedly been running one or more religious schools in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province since the Taliban were driven out of power by the post-9/11 US invasion. He’s reportedly got impeccable religious credentials, far better than Mansour’s actually, and I think you can view his selection as a kind of compromise between the Haqqanis and other Taliban who maybe would prefer not to have the Haqqanis running their organization. Despite the Haqqani network’s growing influence within the Taliban, there are plenty of Taliban who would likely balk at a full Haqqani takeover, whether due to the Haqqanis’ violent tendencies, the fact that their network is at this point really more a crime family than a religious movement or political insurgency, the clear influence that Pakistani intelligence has over them, or simply the fact that the Haqqanis don’t hail from the same part of Afghanistan as the core Taliban (their base of support is in the east, the Taliban’s base of support is largely in the south).
The selection of Akhundzada, along with the decision to reappoint Sirajuddin Haqqani as one of his deputies and to appoint Mullah Omar’s son, Muhammad Yaqub, as the other, is, to the Taliban’s credit, the leadership alignment that is (probably) least likely to lead to any serious splinter movements taking root. There are reports that many Taliban are only grudgingly going along with Akhundzada’s appointment, but “everybody is grudgingly going along with it” might as well be the definition of “compromise.” The important thing from the Taliban’s perspective is that nobody appears to be rejecting it, at least not yet (admittedly, it’s very early).
As to the concerns I raised yesterday, I don’t think this appointment does much to assuage them. The Haqqanis are still clearly enough of a force within the Taliban that Sirajuddin had to be kept on as deputy emir, and you can maybe start to see the shape of a rift forming between the Haqqanis and their supporters on one side, and supporters of the late Mullah Omar and his son on the other. If something should now happen to Akhundzada, the chances of an intra-Taliban fight may increase considerably. Then again, maybe Haqqani is happy being a deputy emir with considerable influence and doesn’t feel like he needs the top job.
As to the likelihood that the Taliban are suddenly going to be amenable to peace talks, this seems like wishful thinking. Now that he’s no longer with us, Mansour is suddenly being portrayed as this stubborn obstacle to talks with Kabul, but when it was announced that he’d taken over for Omar the talk was about how he was among the most amenable senior Taliban leaders to the idea of negotiations. That obviously never manifested itself once he took over, but is that because Mansour himself opposed the idea of negotiations or because he knew the people under him wouldn’t abide it? I think the latter is more likely, but what do I know? If I’m right, though, then Akhundzada, whatever his personal feelings might be about talking with Kabul, is going to be just as constrained by the same organizational temperament that constrained Mansour in this area. This is particularly true when you see reports that the Taliban who aren’t really thrilled about Akhundzada pledged allegiance to him anyway in large part out of a desire to “take revenge on the US.” That doesn’t seem like an attitude that will lend itself to peace talks.