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Who is who behind the Taliban in Afghanistan

Haibatullah Akhundzada was appointed leader of the Taliban in a swift power transition after a United States drone strike killed his predecessor, Mullah Mansour Akhtar, in 2016.

The Afghan Taliban movement’s inner workings and leadership have always been largely shrouded in secrecy, even during their rule of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

As the hardline Islamist group is on the brink of regaining power in Afghanistan once again, here is a rundown of what little is known about its leadership.

Haibatullah Akhundzada, the supreme leader

Haibatullah Akhundzada was appointed leader of the Taliban in a swift power transition after a United States drone strike killed his predecessor, Mullah Mansour Akhtar, in 2016.

Before ascending the movement’s ranks, Akhundzada was a low-profile religious figure. He is widely believed to have been selected to serve more as a spiritual figurehead than a military commander.

After being appointed leader, Akhundzada secured a pledge of loyalty from Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, who showered the religious scholar with praise — calling him “the emir of the faithful”.

This helped seal his jihadist credentials with the group’s long-time allies.

Akhundzada was tasked with the enormous challenge of unifying a militant movement that briefly fractured during a bitter power struggle following the assassination of his predecessor, and the revelation that the leadership had hid the death of Taliban founder Mullah Omar for years. The leader’s public profile has been largely limited to the release of annual messages during Islamic holidays.

Mullah Baradar, the founder

Abdul Ghani Baradar was raised in Kandahar — the birthplace of the Taliban movement. Like most Afghans, Baradar’s life was forever altered by the Soviet invasion of the country in the late 1970s, transforming him into an insurgent. He was believed to have fought side-by-side with the one-eyed cleric Mullah Omar.

The two would go on to found the Taliban movement in the early 1990s amid the chaos and corruption of the civil war that erupted after the Soviet withdrawal.

Following the Taliban’s collapse in 2001, Baradar is believed to have been among a small group of insurgents who approached interim leader Hamid Karzai with a letter outlining a potential deal that would have seen the militants recognise the new administration.

Arrested in Pakistan in 2010, Baradar was kept in custody until pressure from the United States saw him freed in 2018 and relocated to Qatar.

This is where he was appointed head of the Taliban’s political office and oversaw the signing of the withdrawal agreement with the Americans.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Haqqani Network

The son of the famed commander from the anti-Soviet jihad, Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Sirajuddin doubles as both the deputy leader of the Taliban movement while also heading the powerful Haqqani network.

The Haqqani Network is a US-designated terror group that has long been viewed as one of the most dangerous factions fighting Afghan and US-led Nato forces in Afghanistan during the past two decades.

The group is infamous for its use of suicide bombers and is believed to have orchestrated some of the most high-profile attacks in Kabul over the years.

The network has also been accused of assassinating top Afghan officials and holding kidnapped Western citizens for ransom — including US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, released in 2014.

Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace after the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021.

Known for their independence, fighting acumen, and savvy business dealings, the Haqqanis are believed to oversee operations in the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan, while holding considerable sway over the Taliban’s leadership council.

Mullah Yaqoob, the scion

The son of the Taliban’s founder Mullah Omar, Mullah Yaqoob heads the group’s powerful military commission, which oversees a vast network of field commanders charged with executing the insurgency’s strategic operations in the war.

His lineage and ties to his father — who enjoyed a cult-like status as the Taliban’s leader — serves as a potent symbol and makes him a unifying figure over a sprawling movement.

However, speculation remains rife about Yaqoob’s exact role within the movement, with some analysts arguing that his appointment to the role in 2020 was merely cosmetic.

Javed Mahmood
Written By

I am an experienced writer, analyst, and author. My exposure in English journalism spans more than 28 years. In the past, I have been working with daily The Muslim (Lahore Bureau), daily Business Recorder (Lahore/Islamabad Bureaus), Daily Times, Islamabad, daily The Nation (Lahore and Karachi). With daily The Nation, I have served as Resident Editor, Karachi. Since 2009, I have been working as a Freelance Writer/Editor for American organizations.

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