Afghan Taliban: Haibatullah Akhunzada named new leader

Haibatullah Akhunzada, member of the conservative old guard, to head group whose last leader died in a US drone strike.

An Afghan Taliban spokesman has confirmed the death of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the armed group’s leader, in a US drone strike and announced the appointment of Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada as his successor.

The Taliban spokesman told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Yaqub, son of former leader Mullah Omar, have been appointed the group’s new deputy leaders.

“We confirm the death of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor and after thorough discussion and meetings with the respected Taliban members among the group we’ve decided to name Haibatullah Akhunzada as our new leader,” he told Al Jazeera. 

The announcement followed confirmation on Monday by President Barack Obama that Mansoor was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.

Haibatullah Akhunzada [Reuters]
Haibatullah Akhunzada [Reuters]

Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s chief executive,  said on Twitter on Sunday that Mansoor was dead. Afghanistan’s spy agency also said he had been killed.

Mansoor was chosen to head the Afghan Taliban last summer after it was announced that the group’s longtime leader Mullah Omar had died two years earlier.

The Taliban seized power and ruled Afghanistan in 1996, but were toppled by US-led invasion after September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

Almost 15 years later, about 13,000 troops from a US-NATO coalition remain in the country, including about 9,800 Americans.

The Taliban is fighting to impose Islamic law and drive the foreign forces out of the country.

The violence left about 11,000 civilians killed or wounded last year alone as well as 5,500 government troops and police officers.

‘Well-known figure’

Al Jazeera’s Qais Azimy, reporting from Kabul, said Akhunzada is a well-known figure in the group.

“He is not a new man in Taliban leadership; he was the second deputy of Mullah Mansoor,” he said.

“He is very respected. He’s an old man, definitely older than Mullah Omar, who referred to him [Akhunzada] as his teacher.

“Akhunzada is from Kandahar, from the Noorzai tribe. It’s a strong tribe among the Taliban leadership. All these things are signals that he might be able to unite the Taliban. That looks like one of the reasons they didn’t choose [Sirajuddin] Haqqani as the leader.”

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Al Jazeera’s Azimy said Akhunzada has held the role of chief justice within the Taliban previously. 

“He was very active and a senior member of the Quetta Shura,” he said.

The Taliban has repeatedly refused to take part in peace talks sponsored by the Quadrilateral Coordination Group,  which comprises representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US.

The group also shows no signs of easing its ongoing spring offensive against the Afghan government.

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“The new Taliban leader is known to be ‘a Stone Age mullah’ who strongly believes in the Taliban,” Sami Yousafzai, an Afghan expert who has met both the late Mansoor and Akhunzada several times, told Al Jazeera.

“The appointment of Akhunzada could affect the peace process. He was very close to Mullah Omar and is known as a hardline mujahid [fighter] who will bring the Taliban together and will make sure the group gets stronger.”

A Taliban source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Taliban under Akhunzada has pledged to take revenge against foreign forces and the Afghan government for Mansoor’s killing.

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“They [the foreign forces and Afghan government] should now fasten their seat belts as the attacks will continue and will be stronger than before,” he told Al Jazeera.

“We will be taking our revenge and will also make sure we come out stronger than before.”

The warning coincided with an attack that claimed the lives of at least 10 people on Wednesday.

A suicide bomber on foot detonated his explosives, striking a vehicle carrying court employees near the capital Kabul, according to the the interior ministry.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

Taliban leadership dispute

Mullah Mansoor was appointed as the new leader of the Taliban in August last year after the death of Mullah Omar. The move was rejected by some senior Taliban commanders and led to deadly infighting.

A breakaway faction elected its own leader, Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund, and battled Taliban under Mansoor’s leadership.

Commenting on the appointment of Akhunzada, the spokesman for the breakaway faction, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, said the decision was taken just among a handful of senior Taliban leaders.

“Akhunzada was appointed in the same way to how Mullah Mansoor was appointed, without consulting with anyone,” Manan Niazi told Al Jazeera.

“Mullah Yaqub has been promoted as well but is powerless and is not knowledgeable enough to lead the Taliban movement.”

Manan Niazi said his breakaway faction will continue to fight against the Taliban under Akhunzada and will not stand united with “the group that has forgotten Mullah Omar’s purpose”.

“God has taken our revenge and Mullah Mansoor got killed. He was a shame to the Taliban movement and was completely opposite to Mullah Omar.”

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Source: Al Jazeera