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Former Hard-line Judge Appointed Taliban Leader

Taliban's new leader Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada
Taliban's new leader Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada

The Afghan Taliban have appointed a hard-line cleric as their leader after confirming that Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur was killed in a U.S. drone strike in southwestern Pakistan on May 21.

A Taliban statement on May 25 said the Taliban leadership council unanimously appointed Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada on May 25.

“The Islamic Emirate’s (formal name for the Taliban) leadership council calls on all its mujahedin, followers, and citizen believers to unite in these difficult times,” the Pashto-language statement said. “It is now a religious obligation for all to pledge allegiance to him.”

Akhundzada, 50, hails from the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, where the Taliban movement first emerged in the 1990s. He rose through ranks and was appointed as a caretaker chief judge of the Taliban military courts by the late 1990s because of his theological credentials.

Tribal connections, camaraderie with Mansur, and his status as an authority on the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad helped in his appointment as Mansur’s deputy last year after he formally assumed the Taliban’s leadership. Mansur acted as a de facto leader while covering up the news of Taliban founder Mullah Omar’s death for two years. Omar is thought to have died in April 2013.

Unlike most Taliban leaders, Akhundzada is not known for his military prowess but is expected to appeal to the Taliban ranks that fragmented after Mansur assumed leadership last year.

“Akhunzada is someone centrist between those who are very radical -- who continue the war -- and between those who also have a political program and who also will be open to political talks,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

He added that Akhunzada’s appointment four days after Manur’s killing shows that the insurgents wanted to avoid the messy succession struggle that followed the movement's confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death last July.

Many powerful members of the Taliban leadership council questioned Mansur’s appointment and ultimately formed a separate faction that engaged in regular battles with Mansur’s supporters.

“I just hope that the discussions that have always been going on within the ranks of the Taliban -- whether they should take up the option of peace talks -- that the side wins, which is in favor of the peace talks because that will help the people of Afghanistan most,” Ruttig said.

Nazar Muhammad Mutmaeen, a Kabul-based former Taliban official who often attempts to explain insurgent positions, wrote that Akhundzada is a calm religious scholar capable of making long religious speeches.

“He can command his emotions, and the Taliban are now looking to him as someone capable of uniting their ranks,” he said.

In promoting Mullah Omar’s elder son, Mullah Yaqoob, as Akhundzada’s deputy, the Taliban leadership council seems to be trying to prevent dissent within the Taliban ranks. The council has kept Sirajudding Haqqani, who previously was second-in-command under Mansur, as his other deputy. Both were considered top contenders for the job. Yaqoob is now expected be groomed as Akhundzada’s successor.

But within hours of Akhundzada’s appointment, a key dissident faction rejecting Akhundzada’s leadership.

The breakaway faction, led by Mullah Mohammad Rasool, which has frequently battled with Mansur’s supporters, said it did not accept his leadership because he was chosen by the same small clique within the Pakistan-based council that had previously appointed Mansur.

"We will not accept him as a new leader until and unless all religious scholars and tribal elders sit together and appoint a new leader," the faction's spokesman, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, declared.

Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yousafzai says an uphill struggle awaits Akhundzada as he embraces his new role.

"There is no unification of the movement yet, and I don't see how it can unify under Haibatullah (Akhundzada)," he noted.

RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Zhakfar Ahmadi contributed reporting. With reporting by AP, DP, and Reuters.