As it forms the Afghan government, the Taliban relies on old guard, Pashtuns

Besides having many faces from the old guard of the Taliban movement, all but three of the new 33-member setup are Pashtuns, while 15 are drawn from Kandahar, the traditional stronghold of the group that has provided most of the leadership in the past
Mohammed Hasan Akhund (centre) has for long been head of the Taliban’s Rehbari Shura or leadership council, a key decision-making body, and hails from Arghandab district of southern Kandahar province, the original base of the Taliban. (Sourced) PREMIUM
Mohammed Hasan Akhund (centre) has for long been head of the Taliban’s Rehbari Shura or leadership council, a key decision-making body, and hails from Arghandab district of southern Kandahar province, the original base of the Taliban. (Sourced)
Updated on Sep 08, 2021 03:22 PM IST
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Mohammad Hasan Akhund, believed to be one of the original 30 members of the Taliban and the man who sanctioned the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, emerged as the surprise choice for the head of new interim setup to govern Afghanistan.

Akhund has for long been head of the Taliban’s Rehbari Shura or leadership council, a key decision-making body, and hails from Arghandab district of southern Kandahar province, the original base of the Taliban. He served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister in the previous Taliban regime during 1996-2001, and was a close confidant of the group’s founder, Mullah Omar.

Though Akhund is the senior-most surviving member of the original Taliban leadership, even experts were surprised when the group named him the head of the 33-member interim setup, comprising mainly old faces from the top hierarchy of the group and key military commanders such as Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mohammad Yaqoob, the eldest son of Mullah Omar.

Ibraheem Bahiss, consultant on Afghanistan for the Crisis Group, said, “There was surprise over Akhund’s nomination but it will help satisfy different groupings within the movement. Everybody will agree on this choice and have no issue with Akhund as he is respected within the Taliban because of his long association with Mullah Omar.”

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The elevation of Akhund

Akhund is largely seen as a political and religious figure, leaving players such as Sirajuddin Haqqani and Yaqoob with a greater say in shaping security and military policies.

An assessment of Akhund in a confidential US diplomatic cable from November 2001 described him as “one of 30 original Taliban” and a “close associate” of Mullah Omar. It also said he was “considered one of the most ineffective and unreasonable Taliban leaders” and that he was “subject to mood swings, and difficult to work with”. The cable also said that Akhund “holds prejudices against both Westerners and mujahideen”.

The cable further said that Akhund had sanctioned the destruction of the historic Bamiyan Buddhas in February 2001, declaring it a religious “duty”.

A majority of the 33-member setup, including Akhund, Sirajuddin Haqqani, Abdul Ghani Baradar and Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai, are under UN sanctions that make them subject to an assets freeze, arms embargo and travel ban. Some of the sanctioned leaders were granted exemptions from the travel ban in 2019 to enable them to participate in peace negotiations and the UN Security Council is set to meet on September 21 to consider the extension of these exemptions.

There are varying estimates for Akhund’s age, ranging from the 60s to the 70s, and Bahiss said it was expected that he would serve as a titular head, probably based in Kandahar, while leaving many of the day-to-day affairs of governance to Baradar, who emerged as the public face of the Taliban during negotiations with the US.

“The Taliban was at a crossroads, having to choose regarding concessions that were beyond their internal dynamics, and making compromises for the sake of international legitimacy and the continuation of humanitarian aid. On the other hand, there were the military commanders who won the war and wanted the reinstatement of the emirate, which they had fought for for 20 years,” Bahiss said.

“It was all about choosing between satisfying the international community, or the domestic constituency or the people in their own movement. In the end, they went with the people they rely on for their existence,” he said.

The old guard and ISI’s imprint

Besides having many faces from the old guard of the Taliban movement, all but three of the new 33-member setup are Pashtuns, while 15 are drawn from Kandahar, the traditional stronghold of the group that has provided most of the leadership in the past.

The setup includes two Tajiks, a nod to the large Tajik population in northern Afghanistan, while one Uzbek leader – Abdul Salam Hanafi – was accommodated in the important position of second deputy prime minister, one rung below Baradar.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, who carries a US bounty of $5 million on his head under the Rewards For Justice programme and is a key leader of the Haqqani Network, was given the interior ministry. Mohammad Yaqoob, the eldest son of Mullah Omar who has worked closely with Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed commanders in recent months, was given the defence ministry.

The two commanders are expected to have the final say in deciding defence and domestic security policies – something that will be of concern for Indian security officials given the proximity of Sirajuddin Haqqani and Yaqoob to Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishments. Experts also believe both men have consolidated their position within the Taliban movement.

Maulvi Amir Khan Mutaqqi, a former education minister, was the surprise pick for foreign minister. Stanekzai, who recently met India’s ambassador in Qatar and has been involved in back-channel contacts with the Indian side for some time, was named the deputy foreign minister, a position he also held more than two decades ago.

Abdul Haq Wassiq, a UN-sanctioned Taliban leader who earlier served as deputy minister of security was named the intelligence chief, with Rahmatullah Najib and Taj Mir Jawad as his deputies. Jawad’s appointment was noted by security officials from several countries, who referred to his links with the Haqqani Network and his role as the head of a brutal suicide bomber network that has carried out devastating attacks in Kabul.

People familiar with developments were also quick to point out that the Taliban’s announcement of the new governing setup came just three days after Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed arrived in Kabul, apparently to push the group to set aside internal differences between various factions in order to speed up the formation of the new dispensation.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Rezaul H Laskar heads the Foreign Affairs desk at Hindustan Times. His interests include movies and music.

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Thursday, December 02, 2021