The Afghan Taliban named Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s successor on Wednesday as the group confirmed the late chief was killed in a US drone strike in Balochistan last week.
The new chief, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, is one of the two deputies of Mansour. A scholar known for his extremist views, Akhundzada is unlikely to back a peace process with Kabul.
In a statement sent to the media, the Taliban said he was chosen at a meeting of Taliban leaders, which is believed to have taken place in Pakistan, but offered no other details.
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan announces that Mullah Akhtar Mansoor embraced shahadat in a US drone strike in the border region near Kandahar’s Registan and Balochistan’s Naushki area,” a statement from the Taliban said.
Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Haqqani Network and Maulvi Yakub have been appointed as deputy chiefs of the group.
Akhtar Mansour was appointed head of the Afghan Taliban last July following the revelation that the group’s founder Mullah Omar had been dead for two years. The election of a new leader took time as the Rahbari Shura wanted to evolve a broad-based consensus to avoid any controversy, said the Taliban leaders.
Local media reports said senior members of the Taliban had been keenly aware of the need to appoint a candidate who could bring rival factions together and repair the splits that emerged last year when Mansour was appointed.
Meanwhile, while American and Afghan leaders have confirmed Mansour’s death, Islamabad insists it cannot confirm the man believed to be Mansour is actually him.
Akhundzada is a religious scholar who served as the Taliban’s chief justice before his appointment as a deputy to Mansour. He is known for issuing public statements justifying the existence of the extremist group, their war against the Afghan government and the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. His views are regarded as hawkish, and he could be expected to continue in the aggressive footsteps of Mansour, at least in the early days of his leadership.
He was close to Mullah Omar, who consulted with him on religious matters. A convincing orator, Akhunzada was born in Kandahar — the capital during the Taliban’s 1996-2001 regime.
A member of the Noorzai tribe, he is said to be aged around 50 years, and comes from a line of religious scholars. He leads a string of madrassas, or religious schools — figures in the Taliban say up to 10 — across Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province.
A former foreign minister under the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Ghous, told The Associated Press that the choice of Akhundzada was “a very wise decision.” Akhundzada was well respected among Taliban of all ranks, and could be a unifying force for the fractured movement, Ghous said.
The new deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani was also one of Mansour’s deputies and leads the notorious Haqqani network — the faction behind some of the most ferocious attacks in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. Mullah Yaqoub, the other new deputy, is the son of Mullah Omar and controls the Taliban military commissions for 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Akhundzada’s appointment came as a surprise to some, including Ghous, who said that despite not being a top contender but a “third candidate,” the new leader would rise above any personal animosity or conflict that might have arisen should either Haqqani or Yaqoub have been chosen.
The Taliban statement called on all Muslims to mourn Mansour for three days, starting from Wednesday. It also attempted to calm any qualms among the rank and file by calling for unity and obedience to the new leader.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who took office in 2014, assiduously courted Pakistan in an effort to bring the Taliban into a dialogue that would lead to peace talks. Mansour, however, refused, choosing instead to intensify the war once the international combat mission drew down to a training and support role in 2015. (with agency inputs)