Introducing...Hibatullah Akhundzada

Richard Swift on the Taliban leadership that now governs over 40 million Afghans.

Illustration: Emma Peer

Akhundzada is the unlikely ‘friendly face’ of the Taliban as it takes power in Afghanistan after the collapse of the trillion-dollar US occupation. He was appointed supreme leader in 2016 after the assassination of his predecessor in a US drone attack. Since the 20-odd years of Western occupation foundered on the fierce Afghan determination to resist all outside interference –dating back to the 19th century when the British military got its nose continually bloodied on what was then called ‘the Northwest frontier’ – he now bears the title Leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Akhundzada comes with a fundamentalist pedigree, which he earned studying in the madrassas of Quetta in Pakistan where his Pashtun family had taken refuge after fleeing their home in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of 1979. While his military experience is minimal (unlike previous Taliban chiefs Mohamed Omar and Akhtar Mansour), he is most respected in fundamentalist circles for his grasp of Sharia law and the issuing of fatwa rulings while presiding over the Islamic court system in the country. He is said to be modest and retiring in his demeanour but is a champion of suicide bombing to which he sacrificed his own son, who blew himself up in Helmand Province with his father’s blessing. He also supported the assassination campaign against Afghan civil society that targeted media figures and women activists.

This reputation pretty much validates the fears of Afghan democratic and feminist activists (such as the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) who opposed both the Taliban and the Western militarized occupation of their country. They had little faith in the staying power of the notoriously corrupt government of former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani who fled the country on a helicopter reportedly stuffed with cash. Despite promises to bring democracy and women’s rights to Afghanistan, the Western occupiers found themselves in an alliance with various warlords with little interest in such rights. With 60,000 Afghan army casualties it is little wonder that the military decided en masse that dying for a corrupt elite was a very bad idea.

It is entirely likely that Akhundzada (like Mullah Omar before him) will remain in Kandahar, the country’s theological touchstone, to ultimately settle questions of the severity of sharia law to be imposed on the men and particularly the women of Afghanistan. The government in Kabul (where most of the sprouts of Afghan civil society remain) will be under the control of the slightly more worldly Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder and deputy-leader of the Taliban, and Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund, who served as deputy prime minister in the first Taliban government and will lead the council of ministers in charge of day-to-day governmental affairs. The Taliban leadership also includes Akhundzada’s deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani. Head of the semi-autonomous Taliban-offshoot the Haqqani network, which operates in Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, he has led much of the recent military effort. The network is less committed to a narrow Afghan religious nationalism and more to an expansive political Islam with connections to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State movement.

It remains unclear whether the Taliban is a coherent organization or an idea under which Afghan national resistance has rallied. In the latter case the severity of rule will depend more on the whims of local commanders than dictates from above by Mullah Akhundzada.