Few Taliban members can reach him, and even fewer Afghans have seen him. He refuses to meet foreigners, including the most distinguished religious scholars from the Muslim world.
Despite the Taliban’s promises of moderation upon seizing power in August 2021, its man behind the curtain, supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, has dominated decision-making as the hard-line Islamist group continues to restore many of the draconian policies it was infamous for when it ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
And while there has been some consistent backlash within the Taliban’s ranks, Akhundzada has cemented himself as the final say in virtually all matters by micromanaging the Taliban government and decreeing policies that deprive Afghans of fundamental rights.
Pure Islamic System
In his attempt to create what he sees as a “pure” Islamic system, experts say, Akhunzada has alienated Afghans and the outside world and is steering the Taliban and the country he rules down a destructive path.
Michael Semple, a former European Union and UN adviser to Afghanistan, says that resistance to Akhunzada’s uncompromising approach could unleash another destructive civil war or even spill over Afghanistan’s borders.
“Haibatullah’s insistence on pushing through the radical program increases the likelihood of a new round of conflict,” Semple told RFE/RL.
Upon returning to power, the Taliban claimed it had put an end to more than four decades of fighting in Afghanistan that began with a communist coup in 1978. The group’s leaders have pointed to the relatively low levels of violence recorded since it took over the government as evidence that war in the country was over.
But more than 16 months of Taliban rule under Akhundzada’s leadership has poured cold water on the hopes of Afghans and the international community for peace and stability.
Semple says the Taliban’s political office in the Qatari capital, Doha, which negotiated the February 2020 agreement with the United States that was to pave the way for a cease-fire with the previous government ahead of the withdrawal of foreign forces, was essentially a public relations stunt. While the Taliban’s diplomats in Doha talked about a peaceful transition of power and a broad-based government, they never had true authority.
“We can now safely say that this was never the policy of the Islamic Emirate and these diplomats never had the power within the movement to push through these ideas … even if they personally thought it was a good idea,” Semple said, referring to the Taliban by its formal name.
Semple attributes Akhundzada’s success in exercising his power in part to the reality that Taliban leaders and foot soldiers obey his commands as a religious obligation.
Akhundzada, 56, is formally titled the “commander of the faithful.” The Taliban also refers to him as the “Sheikh” in a nod to his title of Sheikh al-Hadith, which denotes his status as an eminent scholar of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings.
Semple says that Akhundzada’s loyal followers want to establish their extreme vision of Islamic rule at all costs, regardless of the consequences.
“The Taliban is an armed Islamist revolutionary movement, long committed to establishing their version of an Islamic state and society by force of arms,” he said.
Sami Yousafzai, a veteran Afghan journalist and commentator who has tracked the Taliban since its emergence in the 1990s, says that following the Taliban takeover in August 2021, Akhundzada kept his distance from the group’s caretaker government in Kabul by choosing to stay in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.
Yousafzai says that in recent months Akhundzada has tightened his grip on power by appointing loyalists to key government positions and has even established his own administrative secretariat in Kandahar.
“Akhundzada is running a parallel governance system from Kandahar and has gradually concentrated all the power in his hands,” Yousafzai said, adding that every ministry or governmental department now has at least one Akhundzada loyalist working for it.
“Everyone in that ministry knows that he reports to the big boss,” Yousafzai said.
Yousafzai says that Akhundzada has surrounded himself with like-minded advisers who echo his thinking on religious and temporal matters. In recent months the supreme leader has also formed provincial clerical councils to supervise the Taliban administration in most provinces.
Akhundzada has also appointed prominent loyalists Mawlawi Habibullah Agha and Mawlawi Nida Mohammad Nadim as the ministers of education and higher education, respectively, two key enforcers of the Taliban’s recent ban on women’s education. The Taliban’s chief justice, Abdul Hakim Haqqani, and Mohammad Khalid Haqqani, the head of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, are other vital confidants.
Akhundzada’s religious credentials raise questions as to whether he could become more extreme.
In an interview this week, Shahabuddin Delawar, the Taliban’s minister for mining, revealed that Akhundzada approved of his son carrying out a suicide bombing after his father was selected as the leader of the group in 2016.
He has also taken a defiant stance against outside criticism.
“You are welcome to use even the atomic bomb against us because nothing can scare us into taking any step against Islam or Shari’a,” Akhundzada told a gathering in Kabul in July.
Semple, now a Queen’s University Belfast professor, says Akhundzada has increasingly exercised his authority over the past few months.
Akhundzada added to the Taliban’s long list of restrictions by banning women both from attending university and working for domestic and international nongovernmental organizations. He also ordered the Taliban’s judiciary to implement Islamic corporal punishments collectively called hudood, which prescribes flogging for drinking, amputation of limbs for theft, and stoning for adultery.
Such policies, Semple says, have alienated a growing cross-section of Afghan society. The Taliban’s bans on women pursuing higher education and work, along with severe restrictions on mobility and how they can appear publicly, have taken away fundamental rights. Many men, in turn, have lost their livelihoods amid the economic downturn triggered by the Taliban’s return to power. And ethnic and religious minorities have decried being marginalized by the Islamist government.
“The Taliban’s recent revolutionary enthusiasm is alienating Afghan society almost as thoroughly as did the Afghan communists in 1978 and 1979,” Semple said.
After seizing power in a bloody military coup in April 1978, the ruling Khalq faction of the Afghan communists embarked on a revolutionary program to remake Afghan society. The move quickly provoked a rebellion in the conservative countryside that dramatically expanded after the Soviet invasion in December 1979, which installed the Parcham faction of Afghan communists in power.
Semple says that under Haibatullah’s leadership, the Taliban is also cultivating new conflicts with important neighbors. He says that longtime Taliban ally Pakistan is furious about the sanctuary the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is engaged in fighting against the government in Pakistan, enjoys in Afghanistan. Iran, meanwhile, has expressed concerns about the activities of Sunni Baluch militants active in the southeastern province of Sistan and Balochistan.
Semple says that many Muslim countries are alarmed that Taliban interpretations are giving Islam a bad name. Western donors, he says, are worried about restrictions on aid operations, women’s issues, and terrorism. Highlighting the seriousness of the situation, many nongovernmental organizations suspended their operations in Afghanistan last month after the Taliban ordered them to stop employing Afghan women.
“Even countries which found it expedient to engage with the Taliban diplomatically rather than risking another round of civil war are finding it impossible or unpalatable to sustain that engagement,” he said.
China, Russia, and two of Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, have consistently attempted to improve cooperation with Kabul. But the Taliban’s draconian policies have kept them away from formally recognizing its government.
Akhundzada’s extremism has also provoked consistent criticism within the Taliban ranks, including from Taliban deputy foreign minister Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, a top negotiator in Doha, who has opposed Akhundzada’s ban on women’s education.
“You are only obliged to follow the orders in line with Shari’a Islamic law,” he told a Taliban gathering earlier this month.
But while Akhundzada has steadily exerted his will, those who do put up some opposition to his policies are inconsistent and passive, according to Kabul-based academic Obaidullah Baheer.
And that “is hurting all of us,” Baheer said.
By Abubakar Siddique