The Afghan Taliban, formally called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, has proved to be resilient in its commitment to imposing its own version of Islam. The hardline movement is steered by a dozen veteran leaders collectively called the Rahbari Shura, better known as the Quetta Shura. The Shura (consultative council) directs a multi-pronged insurgency from sanctuaries in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan Province, of which Quetta is the capital.
Quetta Shura members are veterans of the Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s. A majority are mullahs, or Islamic clerics, who adhere to Deobandism – a puritanical sect of Sunni Islam in South Asia. The death of senior leaders such as Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani (in 2006), Mullah Dadullah (2007) and the arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (2010) has led to less senior leaders assuming their places in the hierarchy.
Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Amir al-Mumineen (Commander of the Faithful), during the Taliban’s time in power (1996 – 2001), remains the movement’s undisputed leader. All important political and strategic decisions are taken in his name. His biannual statements, issued during the Muslim festivals of Eid-ul Fitr and Eid-ul Adha, are considered authentic Taliban policy pronouncements and outline the movement’s response to important events and issues.
No-one in the current Taliban hierarchy seems to have personally met Omar for at least a decade. Mullah Gul Agha Akhund, a Quetta Shura member and longtime aide to the Taliban leader, is the only figure considered to be in active contact with the reclusive leader and is seen as the sole credible source through which Omar transmits orders.
The Quetta Shura is led by Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, a former aviation minister during the Taliban’s stint in power. He is considered a pragmatist and appears to have the backing of many Taliban from the larger Pashtun Durrani confederacy. The Durranis now comprise a significant part, if not a majority, of Taliban cadres in the movement’s erstwhile stronghold of Loy Kandahar, or Greater Kandahar. The region includes the southern Afghan provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Nimroz, Uruzgan, Zabul and Farah. Mansour replaced Abdul Qayum Zakir in 2012. The two are considered rivals, but their competition now seems contained. 
Zakir, a former Guantanamo Bay inmate, remains a leading Shura member and is considered the overall commander of military operations in Loy Kandahar. Mullah Mohammad Hassan Rahmani and Abdul Rauf Khadim are two key Quetta Shura members who were very close to Mullah Omar. Former ministers Mullah Abdul Razzaq and Mawlavi Qudratullah Jamal are also considered important members of the leadership. Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi, a former Taliban minister of culture and information, directs Taliban publications and propaganda.
Jalaluddin Haqqani is a Shura member, but is not known to have ever personally participated in council deliberations. He was represented by his son Naseeruddin Haqqani and a close confidant, Maulvi Ahmad Jan. Both were killed last year – Haqqani in a shootout in Islamabad, and Jan in a suspected drone strike in a remote region of Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
An overwhelming majority of Taliban fighters and leaders are ethnic Pashtuns, but the movement is neither ethno-nationalist nor is it a tribal uprising. The Taliban has a mix of Ghilzai and Durrani Pashtuns within its ranks, but attracts members from other Pashtun tribes and some non-Pashtuns, too. Clan and tribal identity has never been the sole criteria for membership or leadership. The Taliban have never been able to mobilize a whole tribe or a clan for their cause. However, the exclusion of some Durrani tribes from local governance in Greater Kandahar has resulted in additional recruits to the movement.
A disproportionally high number of Ishaqzai, Noorzai and Alizai tribesmen compose the Taliban fighting force and Shura membership, mostly because these tribes have been largely deprived of senior government positions. Friendship networks, or andiwali (Pashto for camaraderie), often play an important role in attracting recruits, maintaining group solidarity and contributing to the authority of some Taliban figures.
The Shura has all the trappings of a government in exile, essentially functioning as the Taliban’s central cabinet or main policymaking forum. It claims to derive its legitimacy from Islam and justifies its actions in the name of Islam. The Shura controls a range of commissions responsible for the military, political, financial and propaganda elements of the insurgency.
Since 2006, the Shura has issued and frequently updated a Pashto-language document called the “Rulebook for the Mujahedeen of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” It contains directives through which the Shura asserts central command over military field operations and other issues. The Shura also controls a Taliban shadow government inside Afghanistan, including provincial governors, district administrators and judges. The Taliban style of central command has prevented the kind of fragmentation that has historically hobbled other Afghan political and military organizations.
In statements posted on their website, the Taliban have clearly acknowledged the battlefield autonomy of the Haqqani Network, but the Haqqanis have remained politically subservient to the Shura. “[My son] Shaheed Naseeruddin Haqqani was neither the first martyr from our family nor will he be the last,” Jalaluddin Haqqani said in a November 2013 statement after his son was killed. “Seeking martyrdom through the campaign for the supremacy of Islamic government and the defense of our beloved nation is the Haqqani family’s most ardent desire.” 
Over the years, the Shura has established some clear political positions. It is keen on keeping an identity separate from the Arab-led al-Qaeda organization, limiting its ambitions strictly to Afghanistan. Crucially, it has indicated that it is ready to consider an alternative to recreating the Taliban Emirate by insisting that a future Afghan government be inclusive. The movement has stated that it has no desire to “create a monopoly on power.” 
Since 2010, Shura leaders Zakir and Mansour have personally supervised Taliban contacts with U.S. and European officials. These contacts led to the opening of a Taliban office in the Qatari capital of Doha in 2013. The Shura has also backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s reluctance to sign a bilateral agreement with the United States. 
The Shura has largely been silent about its relationship with Pakistan. Islamabad and the Afghan Taliban do not share an ultimate strategic purpose, but they engage in a transactional relationship that has been cemented by more than two decades of interdependence. Islamabad has been reluctant to shut down the Shura, despite American pressure and repeated demands from the Afghan government. Although it has arrested a few Shura leaders, Islamabad has not launched a major crackdown against the group since the 2010 arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Most Taliban leaders enjoy freedom of movement inside Pakistan.
The Taliban are unlikely to remain Islamabad’s proxies if they recapture the Afghan government. It is also improbable that the Taliban will formally recognize the 19th century Durand Line as the international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. No government of Afghanistan has ever recognized the Durand Line as an international border. For now, the Taliban’s sanctuary in Pakistan enables the movement to foment violence Afghanistan, keeping the movement subservient to Islamabad.
The recent assassination of several senior Taliban figures in Quetta could potentially drive the Taliban further away from their Pakistani sponsors. The Taliban have acknowledged that Afghan clerics Mawlawi Abdul Salam and Maulana Abdullah Zakiri were senior ideologues. They were killed in Quetta in December and January, respectively. Maulana Abdullah Zakiri’s funeral in Quetta on December 31, 2013 attracted 10,000 people and was addressed by prominent Afghan and Pakistani clerics. 
Abubakar Siddique is a journalist with RFE/RL and the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan (London: Hurst and Company, 2014).
1. I am indebted to Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai for explaining some issues related to the Quetta Shura.
2. “The Message of Mawlawi Jalaluddin Haqqani – a member of the Islamic Emirate’s Leadership Council and a scholar and Mujahid of Afghanistan – to the valiant Afghan nation on the occasion of Doctor Naseeruddin Haqqani’s Martyrdom,” November 13, 2013, Available at: https://shahamat-english.com/index.php/paighamoona/39631-the-message-of-mawlawi-jalaluddin-haqqani-a-member-of-the-islamic-emirate-s-leadership-council-and-a-scholar-and-mujahid-of-afghanistan-to-the-valiant-afghan-nation-on-the-occassion-of-doctor-naseeruddin-haqqani-s-martyrdom.
3. For a detailed discussion of these issues see, Abubakar Siddique, The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Hurst and Company, London, 2014.
4. “Islamic Emirate’s Statement Regarding Karzai’s Position on an Agreement with the Invaders (Pashto),” December 2, 2013, Available at: https://tinyurl.com/o5uef7d.
5. Abdul Hanan Himat, “A Report on the Funeral of Martyr Abdullah Zakiri,” January 31, 2014. Available at: https://tinyurl.com/p3kz5ra.