ISLAMABAD - The Taliban’s new chief, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, has a reputation as a respected religious scholar with the title "sheikh-ul-hadith," a specialist in interpreting the words of Mohammad, the prophet of Islam.
He enjoyed the esteem and trust of the Taliban’s founding leader, Mullah Omar, who turned to him for a final say on important and potentially sensitive edicts and fatwas, according to Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
Haibatullah also comes from a very strong tribal background. By electing him and his deputies, the Taliban has managed to accommodate all racial, tribal, ethnic and subtribal actors that needed to be pacified, said professor Adeel J. Khan, a regional security and defense analyst who teaches in European and Pakistan universities.
“This is the [most] ideal set up that the Taliban could get,” Khan said.
Haibatullah's Noorzai tribe is one of the three big Durrani dynasty tribes. Founded in 1747 by Ahmad Shah Durrani, the Durrani empire once extended beyond present-day Afghanistan to northeastern Iran, eastern Turkmenistan, most of Pakistan and northwestern India.
The other two Durrani tribes are Popalzai, the tribe of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Ishaqzai, the tribe of former Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansoor and his military rival, Mullah Rasool.
Khan predicted that Haibatullah's election would take care of Rasool’s faction.
“In normal Pashtun circumstances, if Noorzais and Ishaqzais have joined each other, Rasool has to toe the line now or he will be eliminated,” he said.
Nazar Mohammad Mutmaeen, a pro-Taliban analyst based in Kabul, said the Noorzai tribe also commands support within large swaths of the Taliban. At the start of the current war in 2001, he said, most members of the Noorzai tribe supported the Taliban while members of the Achakzai tribe supported the Afghan government.
The Taliban shura, or council, has also elected two deputies for Haibatullah. One of them, Sirajuddin Haqqani, was also a deputy to the recently killed Mansoor. He is the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the Haqqani network, one of the most lethal groups in Afghanistan.
The United States has offered a reward of $10 million for information leading to the capture of Sirajuddin Haqqani.
The other deputy, Mullah Yaqoob, is a son of Mullah Omar and currently heads the Taliban military commission for 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
This setup means that “for all religious, political and diplomatic matters, Akhundzada (Haibatullah) will matter, but for the military matters it will be the Haqqanis who will call the shots,” according to Khan.
Although the Haqqanis will not have ultimate control, he said, they would operate through two Taliban commanders who lead important military units in the Taliban structure — the Quetta military commission in the south and the Peshawar military commission in the north.
The names of the commissions, Khan said, do not imply that the members live in these Pakistani cities. Rather, they are based on geographical affinity to the region under the control of the relevant commander.
The Peshawar commander usually travels between Parwan, Kapisa and Nangarhar, while the Quetta commander is mostly in Nimroz, Zabul, Helmand and Kandahar.
According to Khan, the Quetta commission, which controls the south and west of Afghanistan, has four additional zonal commanders, while the Peshawar commission has six additional zonal commanders controlling the north and east of the country. The zonal commanders are quite independent and belong to different tribes.
Pakistan's influence wanes
The new setup is likely to decrease Pakistan’s influence on Taliban military and logistical affairs.
“The leadership is divided among these three people who are dependent on 12 military commanders, so Pakistan now has to talk to some 15 or 16 odd people coming from God knows how many tribes and how many ideas,” Khan said.
While Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani has warned the Taliban to renounce violence or face the same fate as their late leader, chances of reduction in violence are now less than before.
“Contrary to the public perception, Mansoor was never against talks. So this was a guy who was for talks, and we see his fate,” Khan said, adding that it would now be difficult to persuade the Taliban to accept any talks.
Plus, by eliminating the rifts that arose with the election of Mansoor, the Taliban may have also solidified its position on the battlefield.
Haibatullah was born in the Sperwan area in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar province in Afghanistan, in 1966 or 1967. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, he lived as a refugee in Pakistan’s Balochistan province and studied in local madrassahs, or Islamic seminaries.
He also fought against the Soviet forces and their Afghan partners. Taliban sources claim he mostly lived in Kandahar during that time and was part of the Hezb-e-Islami faction headed by jihadi commander Maulvi Khalis.
When the Taliban came to power, he worked in its court system as one of the senior judges.
After the United States and its allies attacked Afghanistan in 2001, Haibatullah escaped across the border to Baluchistan province in Pakistan.
Taliban sources claim he played a central role in regrouping the Taliban after the group was ousted from power by U.S.-led forces.
Once the Taliban regained some strength and established a shadow government against the regime in Kabul, Haibatullah was given the responsibility of looking after the judicial affairs, according to Taliban sources. Other local sources say he ran a court based in Kuchlak, a town 20 kilometers from Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan province. People brought their land disputes as well as any complaints against the Taliban to him.
Roles in mosque, madrassah
Four years ago, an Afghan Baloch in Kuchlak area called Mohammad Alam Mohammad Hassni, from the Mohammad Hassni tribe — who was famous for his transport business and well-known locally as al-Haj, a title used for someone who has performed multiple Hajj or pilgrimages to Mecca — set up a mosque and a madrassah in the area.
He made Haibatullah the imam of the mosque and put him in charge of the madrassah called Khairul Madaris, where he also lectured senior students. Many of those students became Taliban cadre.
Gul Mohammad Kakar, a Kuchlak local, said the new Taliban chief was famous for his religious knowledge and oratory skills. When he spoke, Kakar said, people listened. He was also known for his good manners. He performed those duties until he was elected a deputy of late Taliban chief Mansoor in August 2015.
Sources close to the Taliban claim that Haibatullah stayed in the area until an attack on Mansoor last December. After the attack, he left, and his whereabouts since then have been uncertain.