Haibatullah Akhundzada: The enigmatic Supreme Leader of the Taliban who does not appear | Ideas

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A militiaman looks at posters of Taliban leaders Haibatullah Akhundzada (right) and Abdulghani Baradar, in Kabul, on Aug.25, 2021.
A militiaman looks at posters of Taliban leaders Haibatullah Akhundzada (right) and Abdulghani Baradar, in Kabul, on Aug.25, 2021.AP

Afghanistan is not on the edge of the precipice, it has started to slide. Since the Taliban seized power last August, the country has lost access to its foreign exchange and, what is more serious, to numerous professionals from all fields, from education to medicine to state management. and the private company. In the midst of the demands of the fundamentalist leaders for international aid to go beyond the humanitarian and to be recognized as legitimate representatives, the silence of their supreme leader, the maulana Haibatullah Akhundzada.

Unlike other Taliban officials, Akhundzada has never given interviews or appeared in public. He has not even appeared before the Afghans after completing two decades of struggle against the democratic system installed after the intervention of the United States that ousted them from power. Nor has he been seen with other leaders of the group, which has only released a photograph of him, in 2016, as a result of his election to replace Mohammad Mansur, killed by an American drone. It shows a man in his fifties, wearing a white turban and a long beard, staring blankly at the camera. Is it Sheikh Haibatullah?

There is little biographical data on who as the supreme leader of the Taliban has the final say in the religious, political and military affairs of the movement that controls Afghanistan. Like any self-respecting guerrilla leader, much of his life has been spent in hiding. His extreme discretion, or prudence, has raised questions about whether he was still alive. Some time ago he was presumed dead in an attack. Last year it was said that he had died of covid, an extreme denied by fundamentalists. But the fact that it took the group two years to admit the death of its founder, Mohamed Omar, better known as Mullah Omar, fuels speculation.

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Perhaps to silence the rumors, Taliban sources spread an unusual public appearance by the elusive leader on the last Saturday in October. According to that account, Akhundzada, better known by the ambitious title of emir ul mominin, or prince of the believers, attended the Jamia Darul Aloom Hakimia, a religious school in Kandahar, the southern Afghan city considered the spiritual center of the Taliban. But there are no images of the visit.

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His public absence does not mean a lack of influence, as all major decisions are attributed to his inspiration or, at the very least, his endorsement. Taliban spokesmen proclaimed in his name the first steps of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as they have christened the country, and said that the negotiations to form the transitional government were carried out under his supervision. Contrary to expectations, when the Executive was finally announced at the beginning of September, he was not mentioned as the highest authority of the State.

However, a message with his signature was spread that established the foundations of the new regime. In it he asked ministers to respect Islamic law (sharia). In addition, he claimed that the Taliban wanted “strong and healthy relations” with their neighbors and all other countries “based on mutual respect”, something that has since become a mantra for all the spokesmen of the group. The apparent restraint of those words reads differently in light of his life trajectory.

When he succeeded Mansur, the Afghan BBC service revealed that Akhundzada had been the head of the courts of the Taliban regime (1996-2001). Under his mandate, corporal punishment such as whipping or amputations were institutionalized. The Taliban referred to their interpretation of Islamic law to justify these penalties, prohibited under international law for their cruelty. That reputation explains the fear that his coming to power has aroused among human rights activists and especially women.

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Haibatullah, in Arabic “gift of God”, is the son of the director of a madrasa (that is what Akhundzada means). He is estimated to be around 60 years old and was born in the Panjwai county, in the Kandahar province. His family belongs to the Nurzai clan, part of the Durrani tribal confederation, one of the most influential among the Pashtuns and which also includes the former Afghan royal family and former President Hamid Karzai. Between 40% and 50% of Afghans are Pashtuns.

Until he replaced Mansur, he was considered more of a religious leader than a military commander, and he is credited with most of the fettuas the Taliban emit. Hence the honorific maulana with which his followers address him. However, his militancy began in the fight against the Soviet occupation during the eighties of the last century. In 1994 he joined the Taliban guerrilla under the aegis of Mullah Omar, with whom he became a very close collaborator until his death in 2013.

Thanks to his religious credentials and his ties with the Taliban leaders based in the Pakistani city of Quetta (the so-called Shura of Quetta), Akhundzada was soon able to control the group and close the divisions that were opened by the death of Omar. All the members of that council pledged loyalty to him, including Mohamed Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Omar, who had hoped to succeed him and distanced himself from Mansur. Akhundzada appointed him deputy, on the same level as Abdulghani Baradar (co-founder of the group) and Sirajjudin Haqqani, leader of a semi-autonomous faction within the movement. Today, the three control the key positions of the provisional government.

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Ignorance of Akhundzada’s specific role in the group’s day-to-day activities has produced contradictory analyzes. From those who attribute the hard line that led the Taliban to refuse to negotiate with the previous Afghan government to those who see him as more of a symbolic figure than an operational leader.

Akhundzada suffered in her own family the consequences of the radical militancy to which she has devoted her life. According to Reuters, one of his sons, Abdul Rahman, died executing a suicide attack against an Afghan Army base in Helmand province in July 2017. He was 23 years old. Two years later, the Al Jazeera television network reported the death of a younger brother of the leader, Ahmadullah, in an attack on the mosque where he was preaching on the outskirts of Quetta. Two of his sons were also injured in the explosion. He himself suffered an assassination attempt in that same city a few years ago, one of his students revealed to the newspaper. The New York Times.

His confinement follows the line of Mullah Omar, who also did not show himself in public and rarely received foreigners. Only on the occasion of some Islamic festivals does he issue a message. It remains to be seen how long it will be able to stay in the shade. Upon his coming to power, the Taliban said that he would soon appear in public. The zeal with which they protect him from scrutiny may turn against him if it is confirmed that he has already left the scene.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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