Hibatullah Akhundzada is officially referred to as the leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, commander of the faithful, and scholar of the Quran and the hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad).
His words, written or spoken, are high law and strictly enforced by a regime that does not have a constitution or limits on the unchecked powers of its supreme leader.
Except for some senior Taliban officials who claim to have seen him in person, Akhundzada, believed to be in his 70s, is an enigma to Afghans — and the world — because there is no information about the man who rules Afghanistan without being seen, elected or accountable to anyone.
A photo of a man with a long black beard and wearing a white turban, believed to have been taken in 1990 for a passport, is the only image of Akhundzada circulating in the media. But it has never been officially confirmed as authentic.
This month, Akhundzada, who reportedly resides in Kandahar province, issued an edict banning the distribution and sale of public lands except under his order, effectively undermining the entire state bureaucracy for land management in the capital, Kabul.
From appointing ministers and judges to selecting district administrators, Akhundzada decides everything in the Taliban regime.
If or when the Taliban will allow girls to return to secondary school and women to work are issues that will be resolved only at Akhundzada’s behest.
“First, he is fearful of Allah,” Shahabudin Dilawar, the Taliban’s minister of mines, told an Afghan reporter about the special characteristics of Akhundzada.
“Second, he knows the hadiths. He is [an] interpreter of the Quran. He is a faqih [jurist in Islamic law]. ... In this previous jihad, his own son did [a] martyrdom [suicide] attack while he was emir.”
The identity of Akhundzada’s young son who carried out the attack remains unknown to the public, as is information about the rest of his family. He is said to have two wives and 11 children, though there is no official denial or confirmation of this rumor.
Like his two predecessors, Akhundzada was declared emir by a small, all-male council of Taliban clerics. That occurred in 2016 after Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the second Taliban emir, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan.
The Taliban maintain that the council’s selection of the emir secured his public legitimacy under the Islamic term of bay’ah [pledge of allegiance].
In the past, Muslim jurists said that through bay’ah, an emir or caliph had to seek the approval of his constituency, according to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, an Islamic jurist and president of the Cordoba House in New York.
“Today, many modern jurists consider a democratic election to be an equivalent of a bay’ah,” Rauf told VOA.
In addition to a bay’ah, an emir should meet other conditions.
“He has to be just, and he has to be pious,” said Rauf.
In the absence of a written framework of Taliban governance, it is unclear how long the emir can stay in power, how and whether he can be replaced, and whether he can pick his own successor.
Lacking international recognition, even among majority Muslim countries, Akhundzada’s regime is also defied by Afghans inside and outside the country as authoritarian and illegitimate.
When challenged with the opinion that the regime lacks electoral legitimacy, Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told a BBC reporter this month that not every country holds elections, and Afghanistan is just one among them.
North Korea, Syria and Saudi Arabia are often reported as the most authoritarian regimes in the world, where autocratic leaders rule with unchecked power.
Akhundzada has no less power than the leaders of these three countries, but he has one main distinction: his unique style of operation.
“He is like a ghost,” a lecturer at Kabul University, who did not want to be identified out of concern for his personal security, told VOA. “Why he does not appear in public is a million-dollar question. But something is definitely wrong.”
Invisibility of the emir is exclusive to the Taliban.
By shutting schools and universities for women, suppressing the free press, criminalizing political dissidence and isolating the country from the international arena, Akhundzada is largely mirroring leaders of other authoritarian regimes.
“It is really important for them to keep their own people ignorant of the better lives that people elsewhere may have. And it is also an absolute requirement that they keep their people believing in an external, existential threat,” Peter Harms, a professor of management at the University of Alabama, told VOA.
Under the Taliban, Afghanistan has been plunged deeper into poverty, with more than half of its estimated 38 million people in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Nearly all Afghans rate their lives on a par with suffering, according to a Gallup poll published in December 2022.
Taliban leaders often brag about bringing peace and security to a war-torn Afghanistan. As an armed insurgency, the Taliban were blamed for perpetrating thousands of security incidents — suicide attacks, bomb blasts, targeted killings — annually from 2002 to August 2021, when they regained power.
“Many people seem willing to trade their freedoms for safety,” said Harms, describing the nature of autocratic regimes.
The Taliban’s return to power, after almost two decades of an internationalized democratization in Afghanistan, is not an exceptional case.
Around the world, authoritarian regimes are expanding their grip. Only 20% of the world’s population lives in free societies, while 39% lives in societies where civic and political freedoms are curtailed at varying levels, according to the nonprofit Freedom House in Washington.
“Authoritarian regimes have become more effective at co-opting and circumventing the norms and institutions meant to support basic rights and liberties,” Cathryn Grothe, a research analyst for Middle East and North Africa at Freedom House, told VOA in written answers.
In Akhundzada’s Afghanistan, such institutions — the national human rights commission, electoral bodies and parliament — have already been dissolved indefinitely.