Taleban in Transition 2: Who is in charge now?

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Author: Borhan Osman
Date: 22 June 2016

The new Taleban leader, Mullah Haibatullah, is being closely scrutinised to see if he will try to shape the goals and methods of the insurgency. The question is not just whether he wants to, but if he can. Gone are the days when the amir of the Taleban, by mere virtue of his position, had absolute power. In this second dispatch on the new Taleban leadership, AAN’s Borhan Osman looks at the strength of other members of the leadership, the increasing role of the Rahbari Shura, and assesses Pakistan’s role in decision-making. He argues that Haibatullah will not find it easy to change policy on major issues without the backing of other key players.

The Taleban are mourning their second leader in a year. Any hope that the loss of first Mullah Omar (his death was revealed in July 2015) and now Mullah Mansur (killed in an American drone strike in May 2016), would bring any let up in the fighting have proved vain. So also, has the prediction that a new person in place, intimidated by Mansur’s killing, would embrace the idea of peace talks. Neither has happened, at least, so far. The lack of any obvious substantial impact on the movement of the loss of the second leader invites the question: who is in charge of the Taleban? According to the most popular theory in Kabul, Islamabad is at the helm of the Taleban.

Is Pakistan in charge?

In assessing Pakistan’s role in Taleban decision-making, it is useful to bear in mind that ‘Pakistan’, in this context, may be understood more accurately to refer to the ISI and associated politicians who think the Taleban insurgency is beneficial to their nation. It is questionable whether Pakistan’s actual national interests are served by encouraging war in Afghanistan. That caveat aside, ‘Pakistan’ undoubtedly influences the Taleban in a number of complex ways, and vice versa, and the interests of the two converge in a number of respects. However, as far as Pakistan’s role in Taleban agenda-setting is concerned, examples from the interactions involving Islamabad’s attempts to get the Taleban to talks in recent years show that there are also important ways in which their goals diverge. This has resulted, at times, in tension or even outright animosity.

The Taleban have been using Pakistan as their rear base, supply hub and training and recruitment ‘camp’, with the knowledge of the Pakistani government and its active support for years. While the drivers that triggered the insurgency were essentially internal, (in the form of a violent crackdown on Taleban commanders who had given up fighting and on villagers accused of links with the movement – for detail see here), Pakistan’s backing has been crucial to nurturing it. It would have been virtually impossible for the Taleban to mount an insurgency if they had not had Pakistan to retreat to and resupply in. Islamabad’s thinking, it seems, after 2001, was that it had to offset India’s strengthening role in a country it considers its backyard. The warm relations between the Indian and the Karzai Afghan government and its active involvement in reconstruction alarmed Pakistan, as did the dominance – as Islamabad saw it – of non-Pashtun northerners in the administration.

The Taleban need Pakistan for shelter. Pakistan hopes to use the Taleban as a tool of influence. Yet, this is not just a quid pro quo relationship. There is also an overlap of ideologies in some aspects. The idea of jihad that is so deeply ingrained in the Pakistani state and establishment entailed that a group claiming to be engaged in a holy war against Western ‘occupation’ readily finds a supportive hand from many Pakistani security officials and politicians. This was seen, for example, in the off-the-record comments of a former military official in Islamabad to AAN in January 2014, who likened the Taleban’s fight against United States and NATO forces to the Palestinians’ struggle for liberation against Israel. The Taleban’s desire to fight and Pakistan’s to support its military efforts coincide. However, in other aspects of policy interests and goals can diverge. In the movement’s military aims, there seems little disagreement from Islamabad.

Ups and downs

Although the relationship between Pakistan and the Taleban has largely been symbiotic, it has not always been smooth. During the past 12 years, the Taleban has lost (in the form of death or protracted confinement) 12 of its key leaders and senior members for what is understood to have been not toeing Pakistan’s line. Pakistan has effectively killed two deputy leaders who, consecutively, presided over the re-emergence of the Taleban as an insurgency after 2003, when Mullah Omar was forced by security to give up any day-to-day running of the movement. The former defence minister, Mullah Obaidullah, died in Pakistani detention in 2007, while his successor, Mullah Baradar, has been lingering in detention since 2010, his mental ability and physical health reported as being hugely impaired. Both become victims of what a Taleban official told this author as entertaining “too much [of an] independent and Afghan-centric” vision for the insurgency. Both men were understood to be involved in secret talks with Afghan officials, without Pakistani endorsement or sanction.

The Taleban, since the movement’s beginning, has included diverse elements: those loyal to Pakistan, those who keep close relations with Islamabad for reasons of political pragmatism, and those hostile to Islamabad. Pakistan’s actions against some leaders (in the post-2001 era) and attempts to exert strong and direct influence on the Taleban when in power (before 2001) have added to the number of those hostile to the Pakistani establishment. Depriving the Taleban of some of their leaders has obviously not made Pakistan a better friend in the eyes of the Taleban, but seems to have made its future leaders extremely circumspect about dealing with the country that hosts them. The mistrust of Pakistan among the rank and file seems to have been always on the rise. However, the Taleban are stuck with Pakistan – where else, in the absence of a negotiated settlement to the war – can they go?

Although the Pakistan-Taleban relationship has largely created benefits for both, there have been occasions when Islamabad has tried to force things on the Taleban, which resulted in the latter’s attempts to seek alternatives to its dependence on Pakistan. For example, when it became too difficult for the Taleban to operate a political office free from Pakistani influence on Pakistan’s territory, it decided to open an office in Qatar. Subsequently, it moved many of those involved in its political efforts to Qatar or other Gulf countries along with their families (more on that here). Similarly, when Pakistan started to withhold treatment of wounded Taleban fighters in public hospitals in 2014 partly to decrease very visible signs of caring for the movement, the insurgents shifted their wounded to hospitals inside Afghanistan by creating mobile medical facilities and building their own, in some cases.

In another example, when Pakistan pressured the Taleban to send senior members to the second round of the Murree Process (which ended after the leaking in late July 2015 of the news of Mullah Omar’s death two years previously), Mansur started looking at Iran as a possible temporary base for himself in order to evade Pakistani pressure. Reducing dependence on Pakistan appears to have been one of Mansur’s priorities, especially after he took over as Mullah Omar’s official successor last year. As one measure to achieve more independence, Taleban sources say, he had planned, this year, a concentrated military campaign for capturing larger areas in the south and cutting them off permanently from government control. According to these sources, the military commission had planned to try to capture the remaining parts of Helmand and Uruzgan and put Kandahar under pressure – the latter to deflect attention from the rural areas of the other two provinces. The general aim of this approach would be to relocate senior commanders and training facilities from Pakistan to areas inside Afghanistan.

Perhaps the most intense struggle to control decision-making came with Islamabad’s desire for senior Taleban to show up for ‘peace talks’ with the Afghan government in March/April 2016 held in Pakistan. Whether or not Pakistan wanted real negotiations in good faith is another matter, but they did want the Taleban to show themselves at the table. Mansur did not want this. In late April, a delegation from the Taleban political office in Qatar visited Pakistan on the “urgent request” of Islamabad, according to Taleban sources in Qatar speaking to AAN in early May. The delegates, Jan Muhammad Madani and Shahabuddin Delawar (for bios see here), were told to sit with the Afghan government for direct talks; otherwise, the United States or Pakistani governments would go after the movement’s leaders. In May, this author was also told that the delegates were warned that the US could resort to drone strikes against Taleban leaders if they continued to refuse to talk to the Afghan government.

The Rahbari Shura (the Taleban’s leadership council) apparently treated this warning as just another tactic to put pressure on them, although, of course, Mansur did end up being killed in a US drone attack (on 21 May 2016). One Taleban source from the political office told AAN:

The Pakistanis suggested that we merely meet and talk to the [Afghan] government officials in order to lift the huge pressure Pakistan was undergoing from the internationals [the US]. They said “Go and talk to them, even if you call them names once you sit with them. The important thing is that you sit down with them.” However, the Shura and Mansur wanted to first talk to the Americans and maybe later to the Afghan government.

The Taleban-Pakistan relationship cannot be characterised, then, as just one of puppet and puppeteer. If the Taleban merely took instructions from Islamabad or Rawalpindi, they would have already met more than once with the Afghan government. In other words, theirs is not a linear command-and-control relationship. Instead, the relationship has the appearance of a joint venture or business partnership, from which each party has derived mutual benefit – shelter for the Taleban in return for influence for Pakistan over an armed insurgency on its neighbour’s soil. Each side has depended on the other to a degree, but the cohabitation has also been unequal, uncomfortable and at times downright tense and hostile. On the whole, Taleban and Pakistani interests coincide and Islamabad, as the more powerful player, is able to reduce the Taleban’s room for manoeuvre. On decision-making, however, the Taleban still have some autonomy.

Taleban decision-making then and now: Mullah Omar and his immediate successors

The Taleban have changed a great deal in the two decades of their existence in how they take decisions. A gradual delegation of power has followed their fall from power in 2001, transforming the ‘one-man show’ to a more collective form of leadership.

The movement’s founder, Mullah Omar, led through personal charisma as an absolute spiritual leader. He was given the title of amir ul-muminen (commander of the faithful) in 1994 by an assembly of more than 1000 ulama and clerics in a highly symbolic gathering that involved him putting on the kherqa cloak believed to have belonged to the Prophet Muhammad. Obedience to the amir became a central tenet of Taleban ideology. Omar made decisions singlehandedly and cared little about the wider implications of his decisions so long as he got a green light from those ulama, acting as religious authorities, whom he trusted. He did not listen even to the views of other founding members of the movement once he was convinced his decision conformed with Sharia. A case in point is the blowing up of the Buddha statues in Bamyan in April 2001, where he ignored the advice of several senior leaders and calls from prominent ulama from the Muslim world.

Omar or his office also regularly overruled, sometimes without explanation, the Sarparasta Shura, the cabinet-like council made of ministers and senior officials, who sat in Kabul and was officially the highest decision-making body after Mullah Omar’s office. The decisions the Sarparasta Shura took remained pending until Omar made a final ruling to the extent that members felt their deliberations were an exercise in futility. By contrast, people in Kandahar who obtained Omar’s trust could have a far bigger impact, regardless of whether they had an official position or not. Taleban officials vied for Omar’s trust which was mainly possible through getting direct access to him. Those posted to Kandahar had a greater chance of doing so. Omar’s decisions – which might be subject to casual quiet objections from among the senior members – were seen as wise and righteous by the rank and file.

When the Taleban staged their comeback after 2001, Mullah Omar was forced to change his habit of single-handed rule. He had to start delegating authority more actively to field commanders. The Rahbari Shura, established in 2003, also gradually gained a more prominent role in deciding most issues by itself. After 2001, Mullah Omar’s role was largely confined to the appointment and dismissal of senior members, and sometimes to endorsing potentially controversial decisions, such as his reported giving of a green light to the opening of the political office in Qatar for pursuing peace talks. Still, the spirit of Mullah Omar ruled strongly. While he himself did not actually preside over the insurgency, the people he entrusted as his deputies to run the movement’s day-to-day operations could exercise full authority by invoking his name. Mullah Obaidullah, the former defence minister who initially led the insurgency was the first to do so. When he was arrested by Pakistan in 2007 and, in 2010, died in detention (with the Taleban accusing Pakistan of torturing him to death), Mullah Omar replaced him with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar as deputy leader. He also derived his legitimacy from Mullah Omar. Mullah Akhtar Mansur’s appointment as the sole deputy in 2010 also enjoyed Omar’s blessing. He managed to maintain the fiction of an Omar-derived legitimacy even after Omar died, keeping the death a secret because the idea of a live Omar was so useful.

All three men who effectively led the Taleban after Omar – Obaidullah, Baradar and Mansur – left a deep impact on the way it functions today. Their visions and ways of leadership did not necessarily reflect those of Mullah Omar, but so long as they were seen to have his blessing, their leadership was seen as legitimate. With the news in July 2015 that Mullah Omar was dead and had been for two years, Taleban leaders ceased to be able to invoke absolute obedience merely by virtue of sitting in the position of amir. For the first time, a leader’s actions could be questioned and, for the first time, senior members of the movement went public with their disagreement with the leader of the Taleban, the amir ul-muminen (see here for more).

Institutions and personalities, Mansur and Haibatullah

Mansur (during his tenure as the official amir) and his successor, Haibatullah, neither founding members of the movement, derive(d) their legitimacy, not because they had been chosen by Mullah Omar, but because they had been elected by the Rahbari Shura. Indeed, the crisis over Mansur’s legitimacy was largely a result of how he was selected – namely seen by some to have unfairly by-passed sections of the senior leadership. Before the announcement of Omar’s death, Mansur had already been delegating some power, or at least showing the appearance of doing so. However, he sped up that process when he officially took over as leader in mid-2015. During his 10-month reign, appointments, dismissals, declaration of jihad against rivals and initiation of contacts with external channels all had to carry the endorsement of the relevant Taleban institutions, such as the Rahbari Shura, one of the commissions or the ulama. The empowering of the institutions (generally in the past two to three years), rather than the man in charge himself, was also dictated by the fact that Mansur was consumed mostly with running the movement’s (and his own) foreign and funding affairs.

The new leader, Haibatullah, would seem to have little choice, given his lack of leadership experience, but to rely heavily on Taleban institutions to run the movement. There is speculation among some Taleban circles that, because Haibatullah is a decisive person, he may try to carve out his own style of leadership. However, whether he is able to exert real authority or merely endorse what comes out of the Rahbari Shura remains to be seen. The new leader is seen as a hardliner, but this may not necessarily carry any obvious policy implications. He wholeheartedly endorsed the major policies of Mansur’s era (both when Mansur was the de facto and the official leader), including the approval of sensitive decisions (announcing jihad against a rival or dissident faction and approving, within ‘guidelines’, girls’ education, for example), so it would be strange if he wanted to reverse any of the policy lines he inherited from his predecessor.

Generally, it looks like Haibatullah’s likely dependency on the movement’s bureaucracy will further accelerate the Taleban’s transition into a more institutionalised organisation. The transition to institutional decision-making has also become the only way to maintain what is left of the movement’s unity. Dispersion of authority does carry risks, however. The leader is no longer seen as infallible which makes objection and opposition possible and, if there is open dissent, the leader has no absolute authority to delegitimise the dissidents.

However, the increasing importance of the institutions in the Taleban does not mean the movement is democratising its internal decision-making mechanism. This is not just an issue of the various ranks but even among senior leaders, not all of those who on paper are equal actually enjoy equal authority. Some have more clout than others. Key factors are where they are from, their influence on the ground among fighters and their closeness to previous leaders. Members of the Rahbari Shura (and elsewhere) from Loy Kandahar (greater Kandahar, comprising Kandahar, Zabul, Uruzgan, Helmand and parts of Farah) remain dominant, although this might be changing a little. Mansur brought in some ‘northerners’ into the leadership and Loya Paktian Sirajuddin Haqqani to a deputy position; however, the ‘Kandaharis’ still dominate. Leaders with military experience tend to have more influence and those seen as founding members or as having been close to Mullah Omar still have some cache from that.

The key figures in the movement

This brings us to the final part of the dispatch, which is a list of the ten most powerful people in the Taleban aside from Haibatallah, along with their areas of influence and political and/or military clout. At the top of the list are the two deputies of Haibatullah who have come to leadership positions only recently, Mullah Omar’s son, Yaqub, and Jalaluddin Haqqani’s son, Sirajuddin. Both have become more important at the broader movement level during the past year because of the leadership crisis that plagued Mansur’s succession. He appointed both men to prevent them creating possible (and potentially powerful) breakaway factions. If Sirajuddin Haqqani, the de facto head of the Haqqani network and a member of the Rahbari Shura for the past few years had opposed Mansur’s leadership, this would have been a serious threat to Mansur. Even if Mullah Yaqub, who is almost completely lacking in organisational and military experience, had joined a rival faction, he would have boosted its clout solely on the strength of his (father’s) name.

The other eight in the ‘top ten’ are veterans of the movement and, with one exception, members of the Rahbari Shura. Apart from Mansur, they have had the biggest say in how the Taleban has been run during his years of official and de facto leadership (2010-2016). Ironically, it is Haibatullah, along with Yaqub, who is the least experienced in running the show.

The 10 most powerful men in the Taleban (not in any order of influence)

1. Mullah Omar’s son Mullah Muhammad Yaqub, Deputy Amir. Yaqub was thrown into the spotlight while still in his late 20s, as news of his father’s death spread in July 2015. His name instantly emerged as someone who would help lend legitimacy or lack thereof to Mullah Omar’s successor. After hesitating for one and half months, Yaqub declared his support to Mansur in mid-September 2015, hugely tipping the balance in Taleban support towards Mansur. His pledge of allegiance and turning down of the suggestions to either spearhead or support a splinter group was hailed among senior cadres as a wise course of action for helping reduce Taleban factionalism. Many commanders and fighters in Loy Kandahar (and beyond) want to see him fill a bigger role in the movement without actually knowing anything about him, apart from the fact that he is the son of Mullah Omar. Based on such expectations, Yaqub was put in charge of military operations for the 15 southern and western provinces under the overall chief of the Military Commission (Sadar Ibrahim) in early April 2016. This appointment was also, in part, a response to increasing concerns by commanders in the south and southwestern region about the non-Kandahari, Sirajuddin Haqqani, gaining a prominent role in the military command, as he was acting as a deputy for military affairs. After his elevation to the position of deputy amir, it is not clear if Yaqub is still in charge of the operations for the 15 provinces, a position he was assigned to in early April.

The limited public exposure Yaqub has had so far has left those who have seen him with the impression that he is a man of principle who tries to keep the unity and other key values that defined the Taleban during the leadership of his father. He has also reportedly studied under the tutelage of Haibatullah in Quetta, which would make him particularly obedient and respectful of his ‘teacher-amir’. He is described by people who know him as unassertive and timid. Beyond this, not much is known about his leadership skills nor indeed whether he has any.

Yaqub has spent his entire adult life in Pakistani madrasas and is therefore not actually in touch with the realities of Afghanistan. He is too young and inexperienced to personally exert greater power in the files and ranks or in the decision-making at higher echelons. However, he reportedly has or has had the support, respect, expertise and loyalty of a number of seasoned commanders and leaders with him. Among these are the head of the Taleban’s Financial Commission, Gul Agha, who enjoyed exclusive access to Mullah Omar in his late years and the late Mansur as a private confidant to both, and therefore known as the gatekeeper for the previous leaders, having or sometimes claiming to have exclusive access to Omar and, later, Mansur. Also among those close to Yaqub are Qayum Zaker, one of most respected commanders in the south, and Mawlawi Shirin, who is in charge of the war for the remaining 19 provinces in the east and north. The former justice minister Nuruddin Turabi who has played an important role in intra-Taleban reconciliation, is another veteran in Yaqub’s camp. It is most likely the advice of these people, along with the name of his father, which has empowered Yaqub to gain an outsized influence. Their support is seen by Taleban members as making up for his deficit in experience. However, it is not certain if all of his high-level backers are with him in earnest or if they see in him a cover behind which they can further build their own influence.

2. Sirajuddin Haqqani, Deputy Amir. He is one of the few non-southerners who has come to have a prominent role at the national level within the Taleban, even though he is not completely acceptable to parts of the movement. His elevation received mixed reactions within the Taleban. While obviously welcomed in Loya Paktia (greater Paktia, ie the provinces of Paktia, Paktika, Khost and parts of Logar and Ghazni) as a ‘well-deserved’ appointment, his prominent role in the overall leadership, particularly in the military, has been met with anxiety elsewhere. His ascent has been received with frowning jealousy in Loy Kandahar for being the first non-Kandahari to rise up to the deputy amir position. For many others beyond Loy Kandahar, the widely known affinity of Sirajuddin and his network with the Pakistani military and intelligence service remains a particular source of distrust. This has not normalised even one year into his new position and despite his efforts to care for the movement’s overall good, as shown in his internal reconciliation endeavours. If not for the credentials earned by the Haqqani network on the battlefield – it has carried out some of the largest and most complicated operations during the past decade in southeastern Afghanistan, as well as complex terror attacks in Kabul – it would not have been easy for Sirajuddin to take over as a deputy amir.

Some observers keenly predicted Sirajuddin’s further elevation as Mansur’s successor in the wake of the latter’s death. However, that scenario always looked unlikely given it would have polarised the movement. His appointment could have lead the Taleban towards a fate similar to that of the Tehrik-e Taleban Pakistani (TTP) where an existing power struggle was exacerbated by the appointment of a non-Mehsud/Waziristani. (1) Sirajuddin may tone down his public involvement in running the Taleban military for now. Whether he does or not, however, his role in decision-making on the Rahbari Shura is prominent.

He is described by some Taleban sources as the deputy for military affairs, which is not an official title but describes his role, as having the biggest say among all Taleban in operational planning. This is especially so because of Haibatullah’s lack of military experience. Sirajuddin came to prominence due to his father, Jalaluddin Haqqani’s, long-standing career as a prominent commander first in the anti-Soviet jihad and later as a Taleban figure during the Emirate rule. He has disappeared from the scene in recent years due to illness and old age, leaving the stage to his oldest son, Sirajuddin has proved he can command in his own right.

3. Head of the Cultural Commission, Amir Khan Muttaqi. He runs the Taleban’s media machine and was the Taleban’s information and culture minister and education minister and (a cabinet level post) head of the Edara-ye Umur (Administrative Office). A member of the Rahbari Shura who does not operate very publicly, he is considered a shrewd operator who has strategically positioned himself within the oligarchy. Both his opponents and fans acknowledge that it was he who, very effectively, helped engineer the succession process in favour of Mansur. Critics say he was the kingmaker. Part of Mansur’s success in subsequently consolidating his power lay in Muttaqi’s relentless pro-Mansur campaign in the Taleban media. His team has been doing the same for Haibatullah. He has proved to be an influential figure in the Taleban decision-making in all seasons.

Muttaqi is originally from Paktia, but was born in Helmand and spent most of his time in Pakistan both during the years of anti-Soviet jihad and after the fall of the Taleban. He has no strong footing with either the Loy Kandahar or Loya Paktia Taleban and is mostly seen as someone ‘in the middle’. His area of overall influence lies in shaping the Taleban’s political vision. During the anti-Soviet jihad years, he was a personal assistant to Mawlawi Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi of the Harakat-e Inqilab faction, which provided the core cadre for the emerging Taleban in the mid-1990s, a relationship which played an essential role in his quick elevation in the Taleban.

4. Former communication minister, Mawlawi Hamdullah Nanai. He was one of Mullah Omar’s few confidantes and is widely respected in the movement. During Taleban rule, Nanai served as minister of both communication and public works. He is understood to have been, as one of his recent jobs, as head of the recruitment and outreach commission, which tries to win public support for the Taleban and to persuade government employees and members of the security forces to quit their jobs, or to defect. This commission has, in recent years, become one of the most important bodies as the Taleban movement has increased its efforts to weaken the government side. Nanai has long been engaged in internal reconciliation efforts after rifts among high-level Taleban members began to emerge in 2010. He was instrumental in reconciling Qayum Zaker and Akhtar Mansur around 2013 after the later had refused to give up the position of chief of the military commission. He also actively sought to reconcile the various senior members who were opposed to Mansur’s appointment last year. Hailing from Kandahar, Nanai is mainly influential in security and military areas, rather than in politics.

5. Chief of the Military Commission, Sadar Ibrahim. As head of the powerful Military Commission, Sadar leads the Taleban’s war operations and is the movement’s quasi-defence minister. He was appointed to a similar position first around 2007, but was soon arrested by the Pakistani authorities. He was re-appointed a year and half from his release from Pakistani detention, in spring 2014, after the removal of Mullah Abdul Qayum Zaker from that position (see below). Ibrahim has a career of two decades in the Taleban military. Given the importance of Ibrahim’s position, he remains among the most influential members of the Rahbari Shura. During Taleban rule, he was a front-line commander in Shomali and the northern provinces, with close relations with the then defense minister Mullah Obaidullah Akhund. He is from Helmand.

6. Deputy Chief of the Military Commission, Amir Khan Haqqani. Member of the Mullah Madad Khan (not Jalaluddin Haqqani) family and well-known among Taleban for its contribution to the anti-Soviet jihad and the Taleban military in the 1980s and 1990s, respectively, Amir Khan has gradually risen from the position of front-line commander, to his current post. His traditional area of military power has been among the Zabuli and Kuchi Taleban, but in his role as deputy of the military commission, he has gained wider influence in the Taleban ranks and files. He was one of the first commanders in the south to organise the insurgency in 2003 after the fall of the Taleban. Amir Khan plays an active role in the decision-making of the Rahbari Shura. He possibly gained the Haqqani takhalus name because he was a graduate of the Dar ul Uloom-e Haqqania Madrasa in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan (it has many alumni among Taleban commanders and leaders).

7. Former chief of the Military Commission, Abdul Qayum Zaker. As profiled in an earlier piece, Abdul Qayum Zaker was the head of the Military Commission and leading Taleban forces during the ‘surge’ of American forces from late 2009 to 2012. Zaker was relieved of his job by were plagued by turbulence, but he she till remained within the fold of the Rahbari Shura and kept the loyalty of a sizeable force in his native Helmand province. He is known for cherishing Taleban unity and core values and as a hard-liner on peace talks. Given the wide respect Zaker enjoys among the Taleban fighters and commanders, he has kept considerable lobbying power to influence decision-making in the Taleban, although he had been often absent from the shura meetings during the past few years. He is one of the hawkish and militarist members of the Rahbari Shura and is a former Guantanamo detainee.

8. The former Taleban-era operational chief of the eastern zone, Mawlawi Abdul Kabir. During Taleban rule, Kabir was one of the two deputies of the Sarparasta Shura and also head of the eastern zone and governor of Nangarhar. During the insurgency, he has served as the first head of the political commission and later as chief of operations for the eastern region. He was removed from that position around 2012 for acting independently of Quetta, and virtually relieved of all major responsibilities. It has been more than two years, however, since he came back as a powerful member of the Rahbari Shura. He is now not only active in the eastern zone, but also in decisions taken on a national level. He played a key role in persuading eastern commanders to pledge their allegiance to Mansur, and now to Haibatullah. He is originally a Zadran from Paktia, but grew up in Baghlan where his father had settled before the war. Although not an easterner by birth or tribe, perhaps nobody in the Taleban has kept his regional base of influence as has Kabir in the east and, more recently, parts of the north. He did so thanks to his networking skills and for consistently being posted to that region. He is known for his political savviness and smart management skills. His friends say he is not very satisfied with how the insurgency is run and is reluctant to take major responsibilities, and that it is the insistence of the Rahbari Shura that keeps him involved at the higher level. He has been one of the most politics-oriented leaders in the Taleban. He has been critical of the ruthless killing of Afghan civilians by Taleban fighters.

9. The former minister of health, Mullah Muhammad Abbas Akhund. As profiled in an earlier piece, the former health minister till recently headed the parallel Health Commission which negotiates with international health and humanitarian organisations for access to areas under Taleban control. Aims include making sure children are immunised, Taleban wounded are treated, and any mortal remains of fighters are transported home. He has been one of the diplomatic faces of the Taleban for the international community, especially those working in the humanitarian field.

He has turned from being hostile to Pakistan and its intelligence services to one of its friends, developing cordial relations after being appointed by the Taleban as its main liaison with Islamabad around 2012. Abbas was also one of the three Taleban representatives who participated in the Murree talks last year. Abbas had attempted to become head of the political office in Qatar, a bid plausibly supported by Pakistan to put one of its friends in charge of an office which runs external relations. His last botched attempt was when the former head of the office, Tayyeb Agha, resigned in protest at Mansur’s appointment last year (instead his former deputy minister of health during the Taleban era, Mullah Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai was appointed. Abbas is described by some Taleban sources as a stubborn person who has a tendency to impose his views on others. His power to do this is limited, however: he is the only one in this list who is not a member of the Rahbari Shura. He is from Uruzgan and is mostly involved in political affairs.

10. Gul Agha (aka Hedayatullah). He is the head of the very important Financial Commission. He was one of Omar and Mansur’s most trusted people, who virtually acted as gatekeeper to both. He liaised – or claimed to have liaised – between Mullah Omar and the rest of the Taleban leadership between 2008 and 2012. Given his closeness to Mansur, he remained part of the ruling clique until Mansur’s death, although little is known about his personal skills and networks that might make him keep his influence under Haibatullah. Gul Agha is from Helmand.

A third piece in this assessment of the new Taleban leadership will look into other power centres of the Taleban to assess the degree of centralism in the movement.

Edited by Kate Clark


(1) The wave of fragmentation in the ranks of the TTP has not ceased since the emergence of rifts over the leadership during the last years of Hakimullah Mehsud which were exacerbated by the transition of leadership after he was killed in 2013 to Mullah Fazlullah. Fazlullah does not come from the TTP core of Mehsud tribals.