On May 7, reports emerged confirming Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob’s appointment as head of the military commission of the Taliban in a political reshuffling that could help unify the insurgent group’s leadership in the lead up to negotiations with the Afghan government (The News, May 10). Yaqoob is the eldest son of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, who died in April 2013.
Yaqoob was reportedly born in 1990 and educated in several religious schools in Karachi, Pakistan (Arab News, May 10; Afghan Bios, May 30). Like his father, he is an ethnic Pashtun from the Hotak tribe, which is a branch of the larger Ghilzai tribe. Yaqoob first rose to a leadership position within the Taliban in April 2016, when he was placed in charge of military operations in 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. At the same time, he was inducted into the Rahbari Shura—the top Taliban decision-making council better known as the Quetta Shura—alongside his uncle and Omar’s brother, Mullah Abdul Manan (Pakistan Today, April 5, 2016). This early promotion of Yaqoob was seen at the time as an attempt by then-Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour to unite various factions of the militant group under his contentious leadership. Akhtar’s rise to power following the announcement of Omar’s death in 2015 was disputed by several prominent leaders of the Taliban, leading to internal fighting.
Following the death of Mansour by a U.S. drone strike in May 2016, Haibatullah Akhundzada was elected as supreme commander of the Taliban. In the same statement announcing the decision, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said Yaqoob would be elevated to deputy leadership position of the organization, under Akhundzada (Dawn, June 9, 2016). Yaqoob was allegedly put forward as a potential successor to Mansour, due to his lineage, but reportedly turned down the offer due to his youth and inexperience (Pakistan Today, April 5, 2016). His promotion to military chief does not mean he will lose his position as deputy leader of the Taliban. Yaqoob will reportedly maintain this position while overseeing military operations (Khaama Press News Agency, May 10).
Yaqoob’s promotion to military chief has been seen as a check on the power of his predecessor, Ibrahim Sardar (The News, May 10). Sardar is a battle-hardened commander and longtime member of the Taliban, who was considered a close ally of Mansour before the former Taliban leader’s death. The position as head of the military commission was technically vacant for several years, but Sardar acted as its de facto commander. He will remain in leadership as a deputy to Yaqoob, alongside Abdul Qayyum Zakir. The military commission is divided between southern and eastern zones. Sardar will now oversee operations in the southern zone, and Zakir—a former head of the commission and prior detainee of Guantanamo—will oversee the eastern, with both answering to Yaqoob.
According to journalist Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL’s Gandhara website and a specialist on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Yaqoob’s appointment, “is a significant step to unite Taliban ranks so there are no spoilers when they negotiate with the Afghan government.”
Siddique further notes that, “…the Taliban are keen on preserving some kind of continuity from [Mullah Omar], this is why his [Omar’s] brother [Mullah Abdul Manan] is an important figure in the Doha office, and his son [Yaqoob] is rising through the military ranks.”  According to the former director of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, Manan receives a monthly salary of approximately $13,500 (50,000 Qatari riyals) a month while working for the Taliban office in Doha (Twitter.com/rahmatullahn, May 23).
While Yaqoob’s appointment is directly tied to both his father’s exalted position within the organization and a bid by Akhundzada to unite the Taliban leadership before beginning negotiations with the Afghan government, Siddique notes that the group is unlikely to give up on their core belief of reestablishing the Islamic Emirate. According to Siddique, “…past analysis and expectations that the Taliban leadership changes or optimistic statements will lead to changes in their core beliefs or abandoning efforts to reestablish their government have proved wrong.”
Indeed, Yaqoob’s background and deep ties with the Taliban indicates that it is highly unlikely his rise in leadership will result in any substantive change in the group’s policy. Since the U.S.-Taliban agreement was signed on February 29, the Taliban has committed over 4,500 attacks (Al Jazeera, May 7). Despite this, Abdullah Abdullah—the briefly self-declared Afghan president whose recent political deal with President Ashraf Ghani placed him in charge of peace talks—said his team is ready to begin negotiating with the Taliban (Al Jazeera, May 30).
The question facing Afghan policymakers now is if the Taliban, under Yaqoob’s military leadership, will continue their aggressive campaign against Afghan forces as they have since signing an agreement with the United States; or if Akhundzada, buoyed by the lower risk of Ibrahim Sardar acting as a spoiler, will lower tensions, commit to confidence-building measures, and negotiate in earnest. A recent unilateral ceasefire by the Taliban over the Eid al-Fitr holiday is a positive sign, but the group still staged an attack on Afghan forces two days following its expiration on May 26 (Al Jazeera, May 28). The Taliban will likely continue to target Afghan forces, in attacks directed by Yaqoob, to gain additional leverage before negotiations begin.
John Foulkes is the Editor of Militant Leadership Monitor.
 Author’s interview with Abubakar Siddique. Conducted by email on May 13 – 15.