Haibatullah Akhundzada: The Taliban's 'ghost' leader poised to take control of Afghanistan

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Haibatullah Akhundzada
Haibatullah Akhundzada

His one known photo shows him staring calmly at the camera, sporting a crisp white turban and well-groomed beard. Unlike many other Islamic militant leaders, Haibatullah Akhundzada does not favour bloodthirsty videos or swaggering poses with guns.

Yet as the Taliban seizes control of Afghanistan, the image of the publicity-shy cleric will become more familiar to the world.

Akhundzada will arguably become the world’s most powerful Islamic insurgent leader as the militant groups regains control of the country, shaping the future of a land of nearly 40 million people.

In a hint that he was readying himself for power, he issued a statement last month saying he wanted a political settlement to the Afghan conflict, despite his own fighters' bloody onslaught against Afghan forces.

"In spite of the military gains and advances, the Islamic Emirate strenuously favours a political settlement in the country," he declared.

Afghan security forces have been struggling to fend off the Taliban's advances
Afghan security forces have been struggling to fend off the Taliban's advances

So who exactly is Akhundzada, and what is his vision for Afghanistan? That key question, unfortunately, is one that even well-informed Afghan analysts have struggled to answer.

Like the late Mullah Omar, the one-eyed former mujahedeen fighter who founded the Taliban, he is a reclusive figure. He issues public messages only occasionally written communiques, and avoids public appearances for fear of assassination. To some Afghans, he is more myth than man.

"He is a ghost," said the senior security official. "And his messages aren't in his handwriting - who is to know if they are even written by him? Is he really in charge, does he really exist?"

The few facts on record about Akhundzada suggest a figure steeped in Taliban orthodoxy. Born near the southern city of Kandahar, he joined the movement in 1994, the year it was formed.

However, unlike Mullah Omar, who lost his eye fighting the Soviets, Akhundzada was no warrior.

His rise through the Taliban's ranks was as a religious scholar, propagating the group's hardline edicts as part of the feared “vice and virtue” police. By the time the Taliban were ousted by by US forces in 2001, he was one of Mullah Omar's trusted inner circle.

He was announced as the Taliban’s new leader in 2016, taking over from Mullah Akhthar Mansour, killed that year in a US drone strike. The following year, Akhundzada allowed his own 23-year-old son to volunteer for a suicide bombing at an Afghan army base, enhancing his standing within the Taliban's military wing.

The one-eyed Mullah Omar
The one-eyed Mullah Omar

His legend has also been burnished by the story of how he is said to have survived an assassination attempt in 2012, alleged by the Taliban to have been by Afghan government assassins.

“During one of his lectures, a man stood among the students and pointed a pistol (at Akhundzada) from a close range, but the pistol stuck,” one former associate told the New York Times in 2016. Akhundzada, the story goes, did not even flinch.

Accounts vary as to just how hardline Akhundzada is. Some claim he opposes any softening on of the Taliban's edicts against music and dancing. Others say he is at least open to women's education.

"Everybody in the Taliban is roughly on the same page, but at times they seem willing to modernise, and at times they want to take things straight back to the 1990s," said Gareth Price, senior research fellow in the Asia Pacific Programme at Chatham House.

Akhundzada does, however, seem keen to ensure that the Taliban avoid being overly brutal - if only to prevent resistance to their rule.

He is once said to have told a group of Taliban officials: "Do you know why people support the government militias? It’s because you people cut off their heads for receiving minor help from an aid agency."

The departure of foreign forces from Afghanistan means, theoretically, that Akhundzada would no longer have to stay hidden for fear of drone attacks.

Many, though, suspect that his low-profile will remain. He is said to be seldom in contact with the Taliban delegates in Qatar. And critics argue that clerics used to issuing edicts have little interest in the give-and-take required of normal politics.

That is a point not lost on democratically-minded Afghans, who do not relish sharing power with figures who never even grace voters with their presence.

"How many Afghans can go to see him and talk to him?" asked the security official. "We don't want an emir chosen by the Taliban - we want leaders that every Afghan has the right to choose."

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