What Role Will the Taliban’s ‘Supreme Leader’ Play in the New Government?

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What Role Will the Taliban’s ‘Supreme Leader’ Play in the New Government?

Akhundzada’s word will be final on all matters – political, religious, and military

What Role Will the Taliban’s ‘Supreme Leader’ Play in the New Government?

In this undated photo from an unknown location, released in 2016, the leader of the Afghanistan Taliban Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada poses for a portrait.

Credit: Afghan Islamic Press via AP

On September 7, hours after Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid unveiled the group’s new all-male interim government, Supreme Leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada issued a statement confirming that the Taliban remain fully committed to enforcing Shariah, or Islamic law, in Afghanistan.

Twenty-five years ago, soon after capturing power in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s founder-chief Mullah Mohamed Omar had said that the Taliban would establish “a pure Islamic system” in Afghanistan. A strict interpretation of Shariah was enforced during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001.

In his first public statement since the Taliban swept to power in Kabul on August 15, Akhundzada echoed Mullah Omar’s words. “I assure all the countrymen that the figures [ministers in the Taliban government] will work hard towards upholding Islamic rules and Shariah law in the country,” he said.

“Our previous 20 years of struggle and Jihad had had two major goals. Firstly to end foreign occupation and aggression and to liberate the country, and secondly to establish a complete, independent, stable, and central Islamic system in the country,” Akhundzada said, adding that “in the future, all matters of governance and life in Afghanistan will be regulated by the laws of the Holy Shariah.”

Islamic law will guide the conduct of the new government in its engagement of other countries too. The “Islamic Emirate,” as the Taliban calls the new set-up, is committed to international law and to Afghanistan’s treaties and commitments that are “not in conflict with Islamic law,” Akhundzada said. Assuring Afghans that the new leadership would ensure “lasting peace, prosperity and development,” the Taliban’s supreme leader said that “people should not try to leave the country.”

“The Islamic Emirate has no problem with anyone,” he claimed.

A religious cleric, Akhundzada has been the leader of the Taliban since May 2016, when his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan.

At the time of his appointment as Taliban chief by the Rahbari Shura (leadership council), Akhundzada, like his two predecessors, Omar and Mansour, was conferred the title of “Amir ul Mumineen” or “Commander of the Faithful.”

Announcing the line-up in the new government, spokesman Mujahid said that Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, who was foreign minister in the previous Taliban regime, would head the Islamic Emirate as prime minister, while Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who headed the Political Office in Qatar, would serve as his deputy. Haqqani Network chief Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of Omar, will head the powerful ministries of interior and defense, respectively.

Women, Hazaras, Shias, and members of the previous government find no place in the new set-up.

Reports in the media suggest that Afghanistan’s new governing structure will be similar to the one in Iran. For one, it will be dominated by religious clerics.

As in Iran, where its Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei is the head of state and the highest political and religious authority, with the army and all other institutions subservient to him, in Afghanistan too, Supreme Leader Akhundzada’s word will be final on all matters – religious, political, and military.

Akhundzada is the “most powerful man in the Islamic Emirate,” Tahir Khan, an Islamabad-based Pakistani journalist, said. Akhundzada would be the “main figure behind the Taliban government.”

Recalling the system that existed during the previous Taliban regime (1996-2001), Khan said that real power resided with the Rahbari Shura. Omar headed that shura. He issued fatwas (edicts) and diktats. Omar’s word was final, Khan said.

Speaking to The Diplomat from Kabul, Khan claimed that Akhundzada will play a similar role in the new government. In the present set-up too, “the Rahbari Shura will oversee and monitor the government’s work” and will “have the upper hand or play a dominant role in key government decisions.”

And as the head of the Rahbari Shura, it is Akhundzada who will call the shots. Indeed, he will not be at the top of the government but above it.

Of course, many of those who have been appointed ministers in the interim set-up are members of the Rahbari Shura too.

The appointment of ministers in the Taliban interim government has Akhundzada’s stamp of approval. Citing a Taliban leader who spoke to him last month, Khan said that Akhundzada had reportedly nominated Sirajuddin Haqqani and Yaqoob to recommend names for the cabinet and other top government positions. He subsequently approved these names.

Is Akhundzada then a powerless figurehead, someone who will just give his stamp of approval to decisions made by others?

This is unlikely. According to Khan, “no one can dare speak against Akhundzada’s decisions, even if he disagrees with him.”

Apparently Akhundzada has taken “major decision in the past even without consulting Rahbari Shura members.” This was the case with the appointment of Yaqoob as head of the military commission, Khan says.

Akhundzada has appointed Mullah Mohammed Hasan Akhund as the head of the government, who is among his most trusted colleagues and also a confidante of Mullah Omar.

Like other Rahbari Shura members, Akhundzada has been living in Quetta in Pakistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. With the exit of U.S. troops from Afghanistan he is said to have moved to Kandahar. However, unlike several other Taliban leaders, he is yet to appear in public. This has fueled rumors that he might be dead.

Last year, there were strong rumors that Akhundzada had died of COVID-19. The Taliban dismissed the allegations. But his failure to come out of the shadows even after the Taliban captured power in Kabul in August or at the announcement of the new government early this week has given the rumors a fresh lease on life.

If he is dead, why is the Taliban not announcing the news?

Omar is said to have died in 2013 but his deputy, Mansour, and his supporters kept the news of his death secret to prevent a war of succession from breaking out in the Taliban. It was only in 2015 that Omar’s death was revealed. By that time, Mansour had consolidated control over the Taliban, although there were strong challenges to his leadership during his short stint at the helm.

It is possible therefore that the Taliban could be keeping news of Akhundzada’s death a secret, as the group does not want to risk infighting among various commanders and leaders over who will succeed Akhundzada at this critical juncture.

Recent photographs of a smiling Akhundzada are being circulated as evidence that he is alive. Perhaps he is. Taliban leaders are now saying that the supreme leader will make his appearance when the new government takes charge.

Born in the late 1960s in Kandahar’s Panjwai district, Akhundzada came from a family of religious teachers. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he moved to Pakistan where he pursued religious studies.

Interestingly, unlike several of the Taliban’s top leaders, including Baradar and Akhund, Akhundzada is not a co-founder of the Taliban. Neither can he boast of any military experience.  During Taliban rule, he worked at the Kandahar provincial court, where he met Omar and then went on to head military courts in Nangarhar and Kabul until the fall of the regime. His verdicts in this period were reportedly “harsh,” reflecting the Taliban’s extreme interpretation of Islam.

Akhundzada’s stature in the Taliban apparently stems from his deep knowledge and experience of Islamic law. He was a close confidante of Omar, who reportedly consulted Akhundzada on issues related to Islamic jurisprudence. Akhundzada was also a religious teacher to thousands of Taliban fighters and thus enjoys their respect and obedience.

A low-profile person, Akhundzada was chosen to succeed Mansour because he was not divisive. Under Mansour, the Taliban had been on the verge of splintering. The Rahbari Shura was looking for a leader who would heal the divisions in the Taliban. The non-controversial Akhundzada, who was chief justice in the Taliban shadow government and subsequently Mansour’s deputy, became their unanimous choice.

Unlike his predecessors at the helm of the Taliban, Akhundzada lacks charisma or battlefield experience. But these very qualities may have helped him survive the past five years; his lackluster personality was likely non-threatening to other leaders.

Not much was expected of Akhundzada when he took over the reins of the Taliban in May 2016. He was perceived to be a weak leader.

Despite his apparent weakness, Akhundzada did take huge risks; it was under his leadership that the Taliban for the first time ever announced a ceasefire in 2018 and followed that up with historic talks with the United States, which culminated in a deal that saw the exit of American troops from Afghanistan. It is under his leadership that the Taliban have captured power in Kabul too.

And unlike several members of the new government like Akhund or Sirajuddin Haqqani, Akhundzada does not figure in U.S. wanted lists or on U.N. Sanctions Lists. Akhundzada’s standing as a religious scholar and his non-threatening personality helped him hold the Taliban’s feuding factions together when it was an insurgent group. But steering a government that possesses little governing expertise and inspires little public confidence will prove far more challenging.

Is Akhundzada up to it? That is, if he is alive.