On September 8, 2016, the recently appointed Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada released his Eid al-Adha message. While much of the language is familiar – he terms the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan a puppet state working for foreign infidels imposing their will on the country – the tone he adopted is very different to that of his predecessors, stressing religiosity and even talking of a “new era” into which the Taliban has entered (Chekad, September 9)
Akhundzada’s Eid message addresses issues of governance and public relations, as well as moral issues affecting fighters within the Taliban ranks across Afghanistan. He claims in his message that his group of fighters controls vast tracts of Afghanistan that are in need of governance and he orders his commanders and various council members in the field to govern the people in those areas with “justice and equality.”
He calls for them to implement sharia but also to build trust with the local inhabitants, including preventing Taliban fighters from treating citizens badly. In the final two paragraphs, he points the finger at Afghans who support and work for the government of Afghanistan and calls on them to leave their government jobs. Lastly, he calls on the international community, referring to the Taliban’s political office and saying: “We want to have relations with international players and address their concerns and questions regarding us so that, in the future, we protect our country from harm by others, and nothing bad should take place in others’ affairs from our country.”
The message appears more inwardly focused, directed at the Taliban’s rank and file in Afghanistan, and this internally-focused Eid message may have its roots in the threatened splintering of the group that began when Mullah Mansoor, Akhundzada’s predecessor, took over leadership of the group in July 2015 (Khabar Online, April 9)
Three months after Mansoor’s death, it would appear the risk of fragmentation within the Taliban remains a major issue for the group. Certainly Akhundzada’s Eid message suggests the issue continues to take up the time and energy of the insurgency’s new leadership.
Under New Leadership
Following Mansoor’s death in a U.S. drone strike in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan in May, Akhundzada was named as the Taliban leader, the figurehead of the insurgency in Afghanistan. The announcement was made on May 25, with the group at the same time naming Akhundzada’s deputies – Mullah Yaqub, the son of Mullah Omar, as the Taliban’s first deputy leader, with Sirjuddin Haqqani, the son of Jaluluddin Haqqani and leader of the brutal Haqqani Network (HQN), named as second deputy leader (al-Jazeera, May 26). Both are young and from well-known Taliban leadership families.
Prior to taking on the leadership of the group, Akhundzada had been the deputy Taliban leader. Under Mansoor, he was an ideological guru of the insurgency. He was not known for his military mind, instead his focus was on legitimizing the Taliban’s tactics, including its use of suicide attacks, through his fatwas (Islamic religious decrees), attempting to give the violent acts some basis in sharia and painting them as a route to paradise.
Mansoor had been a divisive figure within the Taliban. His appointment, which followed the delayed disclosure of the death of the then Taliban leader Mullah Omar in 2015, had encountered considerable resistance from many Taliban commanders, with a group of some of the most influential figures forming a breakaway group under Mullah Rasool (BBC, November 4, 2015). While Mansoor was militarily-speaking a strong and established figure, he lacked religious legitimacy and was deeply uncharismatic. For the first time, the Taliban had been in danger of fragmenting into smaller groups.
By contrast, with his established religious background, Akhunduzada was seen as someone who could unify group. He had the religious credentials deemed necessary for acceptance among the leadership and field commanders of the Taliban.
The ‘Real Mastermind’ Behind the Insurgency
During the discussions over who would replace Mansoor at the head of the insurgency, Haqqani was considered to be a leading candidate to replace Mansoor by many informed circles in Pakistan close to the ISI, Pakistan’s military intelligence agency that is alleged to have supported HQN (Express Tribune, May 22).
Despite his role as second deputy leader, many policy makers and media pundits see him as the guiding hand behind the Taliban’s strategy in Afghanistan, and the true commander of the insurgency (AAN, February 10). He has for more than a decade run the HQN, a branch of the Taliban with a strong terror network in the large cities of eastern Afghanistan and in the capital city of Kabul. Under Haqqani, the HQN has waged some of the most bloody and sophisticated suicide operations seen in the capital for at least for the last six years (Tolonews, January 22).
Since 2003 Haqqani, who has a bounty of up to $10 million under the U.S. Rewards for Justice Program, has moved steadily into the central command structure of the Taliban from a position on the sidelines of the insurgency (Khabarnama, September 7). He has managed to run the most brutal terror network in Afghanistan under the Taliban banner with a degree of sophistication and success.
As the head of HQN, Haqqani has been able to put pressure on the Afghan capital leaving parts of it in lock down for hours through suicide operations. With focused attacks, such as the one targeting the aid organization CARE International, he has gained the attention of the international media (FirstPost, September 6). The attacks have instilled fear in Afghan citizens, affected the Afghan economy and disrupted the activities of international organizations in Afghanistan. They have also raised the profile of the Taliban among militants and prompted the United States to add the HQN to its list of designated terrorist groups in 2012. It may well be this notoriety, Haqqani’s high profile record as one of the most wanted on the terror lists in Washington, which prevented him from assuming Taliban leadership.
In a surprise move following the announcement of his role as a Taliban deputy leader, Haqqani released an audio message in which he hinted at a possible openness to peace talks, as long as they were held in accordance with sharia (Express Tribune, June 15). But Pakistan’s ISI and other backchannel contacts of the Taliban believe that under Haqqani’s leadership the already stalled peace would be unlikely to occur at all.
Some analysts believe that Pakistan is pushing for this slow “Haqqanization” of the Taliban. Some say that by making Haqqani the second in command of the Taliban and associating him with the peace talks, he is being protected from the United States and its international allies (Indian Express, May 8). However, an increased association of HQN with the Taliban is likely a move that will prolong the Afghan conflict rather than progress any negotiations.
While there may be some acceptance of Haqqani within the second rank of the Taliban leadership, the upper echelons of the group are not ready to give their blessing to Haqqani who is young and lacks religious credentials. Haqqani also does not share the leadership’s Southern Durrani ancestral roots – the Taliban leadership and founders come from southern Afghanistan and their roots are in Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan province. It is still too early to talk of a transformation of the leadership of the group to an easterner like Haqqani.
Uniting the Taliban
The new Taliban leadership is following a two-fold policy of unifying the Afghan insurgency by weakening the splinter groups that threaten it, and expanding the conflict across Afghanistan. This dual strategy means there are roles for both Akhundzada and Haqqani.
As he stated in his Eid message, Haibatullah wants his field commanders and council members to expunge from their networks criminals and offenders, and promote confidence-building measures. He plays a unifying role as Taliban leader with the potential to issue fatwas that could be expected to delegitimize splinter groups and overly ambitious commanders no longer interested in serving in the Taliban ranks.
Meanwhile, Haqqani can focus on expanding the insurgency to multiple battlefields in Afghanistan. Since May 2016, with the Taliban under this new command, the group has focused on fighting in large numbers in the battlefields as well as targeting high-profile targets with suicide operations in Afghanistan’s major cities and provincial capitals. His successes as commander-in-chief have been mixed, however, as Taliban forces were ultimately prevented from capturing the cities of Helmand and Uruzgan provinces in the south, and are facing heavy casualties and defeat in northern provinces of Kunduz, Takhar and Balghan.
Akhundzada and Haqqani’s “double act” has also yet to see lasting success in terms of unifying the insurgency. The Taliban’s major splinter group, under the command of Mullah Rasool, still has a significant presence in western Afghanistan and has waged brutal attacks against Taliban forces loyal to Akhundzada (Khaama, June 22).
Another group known as the Mullah Dadullah Front (Mahaaz-e-Dadullah) has reemerged following the death of its leader, Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, killed during infighting in Zabul province last year (Pajhwok, November 12, 2015). Mullah Emdadullah Mansoor, a nephew of Dadullah, now leads the group. As conflict season in Afghanistan this year draws to an end, it appears that despite escalating the geographical scope of the insurgency, the Taliban’s new leaders have been unable to bring the splinter groups to heel.