The Afghan Taliban has named a reclusive, hard-line Sunni cleric as its supreme leader in a still-unrecognized governing structure weeks after a dramatic takeover in which the militants seized most of Afghanistan even before the final withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces.
Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, 55, was already the radical fundamentalist group's appointed leader. That's a position he secured in May 2016, days after the second leader in the Taliban's quarter-century history, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in southwestern Pakistan.
On September 7 Ahmadullah Wasiq, a Taliban spokesman, confirmed to the BBC that Akhundzada will be formally called "commander of the faithful."
“[Akhundzada] is a religious figure who commands tremendous respect because of his religious credentials,” Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai told RFE/RL’s Gandhara. “He was a senior Taliban judge and a close confidant to the movement’s founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar.”
Akhundzada is often referred to as Shaikhul Hadis, a Deobandi -- or Sunni revivalist -- clerical title signifying his status as an authority on the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. “He is an Islamic scholar and has authored several books [on religious issues],” Yousafzai noted.
He said that after the fall of the Taliban regime to U.S.-led invasion forces in late 2001, Akhundzada joined the movement’s leaders to seek refuge in the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan.
“He used to run a madrasah near Quetta,” Yousafzai said of Akhundzada’s time leading a religious school in exile in Balochistan’s provincial capital. “He was known as Akhundzada of Kuchlak and frequently addressed graduation ceremonies of various madrasahs in the region.” Kuchlak is a small town near Quetta where many senior Taliban leaders were believed to have sheltered over the past two decades.
Recent Taliban statements indicate that Akhundzada will likely determine the strategic direction of the movement’s new government atop what it calls an Islamic Emirate.
“The leader of the Islamic Emirate offered comprehensive instructions and made everyone aware of their responsibilities,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted at the end of a three-day consultation among Taliban leaders in the southern city of Kandahar this week.
The Taliban appears to be keen on projecting him as a visionary leader.
“After the withdrawal of all foreign forces from our country, we would like to establish good relations with the world, including the United States,” Taliban media quoted Akhundzada as saying in July. “Such relations should have diplomatic, political, and economic aspects within a framework of mutual benefit.”
Like the movement’s founder, Mullah Omar, Akhundzada hails from Afghanistan's southern Kandahar Province, where the Taliban movement first emerged in 1994. He rose through its ranks and was appointed caretaker chief judge of the Taliban’s military courts by the late 1990s in large part due to his theological credentials.
His tribal connections, good standing with the late leader Mansur, and status as a religious authority cemented his appointment as Mansur’s deputy in 2015 after the latter assumed informal leadership of the Taliban. After a messy struggle, Mansur was formally appointed Taliban leader in 2015, but he had acted as de facto leader while covering up the news of Omar’s death for two years. Omar is thought to have died in April 2013.
Nazar Mohammad Mutmaeen, a Kabul-based former Taliban official who often attempts to explain Taliban positions, wrote that Akhundzada is an unflappable religious scholar with a penchant for long religious speeches.
“He can command his emotions, and the Taliban is now looking to him as someone capable of uniting its ranks,” he said.
Under Akhundzada’s leadership, the Taliban scored diplomatic and military victories. With his political deputy, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, it also successfully negotiated a key agreement with the United States. The February 2020 Doha Agreement paved the way for a full withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces from Afghanistan.
He kept the Taliban’s military ranks united by promoting Omar’s eldest son, Mullah Yaqoob, as his deputy and placing him in charge of the movement’s military arm along with Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani network.
Now that the Taliban military machine has swiftly overrun Kabul and most of the rest of Afghanistan since the beginning of the final U.S. military withdrawal in May, Akhundzada faces a host of challenges.
Under his leadership, the Taliban could be hard-pressed to win international legitimacy, resolve a growing domestic economic crisis, or deliver good governance to Afghanistan’s some 38 million people, who are likely to demand prosperity and personal freedoms in addition to security.
While the Taliban has made sweeping promises of reform under the watchful eye of the global community, Akhundzada’s challenge will be to lead the movement in delivering on the growing demands and expectations of a militant group whose credibility will be under intense scrutiny at home and abroad.