On March 18, Russia hosted negotiations between the Taliban, the Afghan government, and representatives from the United States, China and Pakistan. The meeting was the first in a series of three international conferences intended to find a consensus for an interim Afghan government composed of the Taliban and the central government in Kabul, as proposed by the United States (Gandhara, March 18). As of March 29, the Taliban spokesman, Mohammad Naeem, stated that the organization’s leadership was still reviewing the U.S.-proposed plan in preparation for the next international meeting, set to be held sometime in early April in Istanbul, Turkey (TOLO News, March 29). The Taliban warned, however, that it would exercise its “legal right to free its homeland” should U.S. and coalition forces stay in the country past the May 1 deadline set in the February 2020 Doha agreement (Arab News, February 2). In the background of these events, taking part in the meetings as a member of the Taliban negotiating team is Mullah Sherin Akhund, a little known but influential leader within the Afghan insurgent group.
Akhund, a.k.a. Abdullah Hanafi, is from Kandahar and is a member of the Alizai tribe (UN Security Council, May 16, 2018). He is a long-time member of the Taliban and its leadership council the Rahbari Shura, the organization’s leadership council better known as the Quetta Shura, having been a close aide of the organization’s founder Mullah Mohammad Omar. During the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2003, Sherin was one of the close associates to Omar who helped him escape from the province and evade coalition forces (Afghan Bios, September 13, 2020). After fleeing from coalition forces, Akhund became head of Omar’s personal security detail for the next several years, becoming a close confidant of the Taliban supreme leader.
Following Omar’s death in 2013, which was not publicly announced by the Taliban until 2015, Akhund began taking on larger leadership roles within the organization. In 2016, he was placed in charge of overseeing the Taliban war efforts in 19 provinces in the country’s east and north as part of the organization’s military committee (Afghan Analysts, June 22, 2016). By 2018, a UN Security Council report described him as the group’s head of intelligence for the southern region, before he was moved to the shadow governorship of Kandahar in the same year during a political reshuffling of Taliban leadership by the organization’s Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada (UN Security Council, May 16, 2018). Akhund was reportedly replaced as intelligence chief by Mullah Hamidullah Akhund, who was considered closer to Akhundzada. Sherin Akhund was believed to be closely associated with the then-military chief of the Taliban, Ibrahim Sardar, a fact which might have worked against his ambitions (Pakistan Today, February 1, 2018).
Sardar is believed to be one of the hardline Taliban leaders who is against the peace talks and the supposed concessions made in the February 2020 agreement with the United States. Allegedly, as a check on these hardline beliefs, Sardar was later replaced by Mullah Yaqoob, the prominent son of Mullah Omar, as military chief of the Taliban in May 2020 (see Militant Leader Monitor, June 2, 2020; see Militant Leadership Monitor, July 2, 2020). Sherin Akhund’s removal as intelligence chief, in hindsight, might be considered an early sign of Sardar’s demotion and Akhundzada’s later reorganization.
As the shadow governor of Kandahar, Akhund was charged with overseeing Taliban operations in the pivotal province. In October 2018, the former director of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, accused Akhund of orchestrating the assassination of Kandahar’s police chief, General Abdul Raziq, with the help of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) (Khaama News Agency, October 23, 2018). Akhund was still listed as the shadow governor of Kandahar in a UN Security Council report released in May 2020 (UN Security Council, May 19, 2020).
Following the completion of U.S.-Taliban negotiations in February 2020, Akhundzada reshuffled the members of the organization’s negotiating team. The talks that led to the Doha agreement were led by Mullah Abdul Ghani, better known as Mullah Baradar, and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai. Stanikzai and Baradar were replaced as chief negotiators for the intra-Afghan talks by hardline cleric Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai (see Militant Leadership Monitor, March 4). Three more negotiators were added, including Akhund.
The reshuffling was likely the result of Akhundzada tightening his grip on the negotiating team ahead of the intra-Afghan talks, similarly to how he asserted control of the military wing of the Taliban when he placed Mullah Yaqoob in charge. Akhund, Ishaqzai and the two other additions to the Taliban negotiating team all came from the Quetta Shura, meaning that they could be more answerable to Akhundzada’s leadership.
Additionally, some analysts have speculated that Akhund’s placement on the team, alongside Mawlawi Abdul Kabir and Ishaqzai, was done to sway hardline elements within the Taliban. Reportedly, Akhund was in a faction of the Quetta Shura—including Kabir and Ishaqzai, but also Mullah Yaqoob—who were opposed to the negotiating team involved in the February 2020 deal with the United States. Their inclusion in the team negotiating with the Afghan government was purportedly allowed in order to avoid division within the group, and to ensure that the various factions of the Taliban are represented in the pivotal negotiations (Salaam Times, July 21, 2020).
The Taliban negotiating team is now preparing themselves for the imminent talks in Istanbul. As President Joseph Biden has hinted that the United States will not pull out of the country by May 1, as agreed upon in the February 2020 deal, the Taliban negotiating team is likely to make significant demands of the U.S. side to even consider this. At the same time, the group has threatened to target coalition forces that remain in the country after May 1 (TOLO News, March 30). In either case, Akhund will be a part of ongoing events, ensuring that the Taliban likely will maintain a hardline against the American and Afghan negotiators. Whether the United States will withdraw on May 1 or stay in Afghanistan despite the agreement, Akund should take a leading role in organizing the Taliban’s operations, as he has done for more than two decades.