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The Afghan Taliban: Continuity and Change

May 27th, 2016

By Rohullah Yakobi – Associate Fellow

The leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, was killed by a US drone strike in Pakistan last Saturday.

Confirming Mullah Mansour’s death, the Taliban have announced Mawlawi Hebatullah Akhundzada as their new leader. A statement on their website reiterates the terrorist group’s insistence on violence.

The strike which killed Mansour may signal a change of strategy from the White House. President Barack Obama, reacting to the news, stated that “the Taliban should seize the opportunity to pursue the only real path for ending this long conflict – joining the Afghan government in a reconciliation process that leads to lasting peace and stability.” Secretary of State John Kerry added that the killing of Mullah Mansour sent “a clear message to the world that we will continue to stand with our Afghan partners.”

Pakistan, however, called the drone strike a “violation of its sovereignty”.

Like his predecessor, Mullah Mansour was a Kandahari Pashtun of the Durrani tribe. He had served as Minister of Civil Aviation in the Taliban regime. He fled to Quetta, Pakistan, when the Taliban were deposed in 2001. There he became a member of the Taliban’s ruling body, the Quetta Council. Mullah Omar appointed him as the terror group’s shadow governor for Kandahar.

Mullah Omar died in 2013, but his death was only confirmed by the Taliban in 2015. It was reported that during that period Mansour had been leading the Taliban. After Omar’s death was made public, Mansour saw off challenges to his leadership from different sections of the Taliban, including Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoob.

His controversial ascension to the Taliban throne fractured the terror group, as many commanders loyal to Omar’s son refused to recognise his legitimacy. A splinter group led by Mullah Rasool emerged, accusing Mansour of killing Mullah Omar.

Having lost commanders and authority, Mullah Mansour turned to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the notorious Haqqani network, making him one of his deputies. The Haqqanis have been responsible for some of the most barbaric attacks on civilians in Afghanistan since 2001. Mansour’s move signalled a different turn for the Taliban under his leadership. The Haqqanis have demonstrated their influence on the Taliban by orchestrating many high profile deadly attacks on strategically important parts of Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan.

With Mullah Mansour dead, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is believed to have close ties with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was thought to be one of the main contenders for the Taliban leadership. Sirajuddin Haqqani is the son of a former Mujahidin commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani. The Haqqanis belong to the Pashtun sub-tribe of Zadran, who inhabit eastern Afghanistan and parts of Wazirstan, Pakistan. Under Haqqani’s influence, Mullah Mansour, having previously welcomed peace negotiations, rejected talks with the Afghan government.

The history of Afghanistan is one of power struggle between different Pashtun tribes. Historically, the Durranis of southern Afghanistan have been more successful. Hamid Karzai is of the Popalzai tribe – a Durrani sub-tribe from the south. The current Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, is of the Ahmadzai tribe – a Ghilzai sub-tribe from the east. During the last presidential election, the Durranis of Kandahar convened in Kabul for days in order to unite behind a candidate of their own and stop a Ghilzai becoming president.

Moreover, the time of Mullah Mansour’s killing is interesting. As it has been reported, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Ghilzai Pashtun and experienced veteran of the Afghan conflict, has reached a peace deal with the Afghan government. The death of Mansour and peace with Hekmatyar may act as an incentive for some Taliban commanders to reconsider their future and pursue peace talks with the Afghan government.

By appointing Mawlawi Hebatullah Akhundzada, who is of the Noorzai tribe, a Durrani sub-tribe from Kandahar, the Taliban are seeking unity and continuity. Mullah Yaqoob and Sirajuddin Haqqani are appointed as Akhundzada’s deputies. There is not much known about the terror group’s new leader. He is reported to have been a member of the Quetta Council and one of Mullah Mansour’s deputies. An expert in Islamic jurisprudence, Akhundzada has been responsible for providing religious cover for the Taliban atrocities.

As a Pashtun group, the Taliban are not immune from the centuries old internal Pashtun power politics. The appointment of Akhundzada shows that the southern Pashtuns are still in charge, fighting an Afghan government led by a man from the east. Appointing Sirajuddin Haqqani (an easterner) would have been too great a risk. Akhundzada is likely to continue taking the Taliban in the direction set by Mullah Mansour.

But if the killing of Mullah Mansour heralded a change of policy from the US, Akhundzada should not last long. The message from both the Afghan government and Washington must be clear: Join the peace process or a drone will get you.

Moreover, whoever leads the Taliban, as long as Pakistan continues its support for them, little will change. Any change of direction by the Taliban requires the approval of Pakistan. Unless Pakistan changes, nothing on the ground will.

About Rohullah Yakobi

Rohullah is an Associate Fellow at the HSC. Born in Afghanistan, he fled from Taliban persecution, aged 12, and lived in Iran and Pakistan before coming to Britain in November 2004. Drawing on his often traumatic experiences, he has written extensively on democracy, human rights and terrorism. He has read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the Open University. He is fluent in English, Persian, Pashtu and Hazaragi.