Taleban in Transition: How Mansur’s death and Haibatullah’s ascension may affect the war (and peace)

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Author: Borhan Osman
Date: 27 May 2016

The killing of Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur in an American drone strike has deprived the Taleban of their official, and before that, de facto leader of six years. Mansur had shaped the movement profoundly – leaving it stronger militarily, but with more internal dissension. His successor, Mullah Haibatullah, is an austere, pious man with higher religious credentials than either of his two predecessors, but also a legalist theologian who has no military or leadership experience. AAN’s Borhan Osman assesses Mansur’s legacy and what we might expect from the new man in charge.

How Mansur was killed

According to Taleban sources in Pakistan, Mansur had been very much restricting his visibility and movement since mid-December 2015. Before going off the radar, he had met some of the Rahbari Shura members closest to him and delegated authority for day-to-day operations to his deputy and to the shura. He had already empowered the Rahbari Shura to play a larger role in decision-making and ordered it to convene more regularly than it used to. He told friends he would no longer be available, as he had used to be in Pakistan and spoke of the need for finding alternative bases for senior members of the movement. The sources are not consistent as to where, from Quetta, he shifted his base to, but all agree on his decreased visibility after December. Concerns about his security may have been triggered by the reported attempt on his life on 4 December 2015, but that is not certain.

According to the same sources, on 21 May 2016, Mansur wanted to meet some of his closest friends and senior members of the Taleban in a border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan to discuss some urgent and important issues in person. He had been communicating with the Rahbari Shura through other channels during the previous five months. On 21 May 2016, however, he drove back into Balochistan again to see comrades in person. He was targeted by a US drone within hours of his entry into Pakistan. Suspicions are running high among a number of Taleban cadres about Pakistan’s hand in the provision of intelligence to the Americans. Why Pakistan would have wanted to get rid of Mansur and why now is not obvious, but the mere fact that (parts of) the Taleban suspect Pakistan underlines the degree of mutual mistrust that has been brewing. The Taleban statement announcing Mansur’s death and the appointment of his successor hinted at the possible pressures Islamabad had put him under to enter peace talks. “He did not accept anyone’s offers of imposed and fraudulent processes; neither was he scared by threats; his determination remained unshaken by internal and external conspiracies and pressures.” [AAN translation]

Mansur’s legacy

Mansur has left behind a Taleban movement that he has shaped profoundly, an organisation, which is largely a product of his six years of de facto and official leadership. (Mullah Omar stepped back from the effective running of the insurgency in 2008, did not even see close comrades after 2010, died in 2013 and had his death revealed in 2015; Mansur went from the position of Kandahar ‘governor’ during the early years of the insurgency to deputy leader in 2007, de facto leader in 2010 and announced leader in 2015.)

Under Mansur, the Taleban went through a ‘modernisation’, which saw the transformation of the insurgents from a loose, rag-tag army to a relatively well-organised movement. The transformation had started with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in 2008 who had stepped into the day-to-day running of the organisation because of Omar’s need to stay hidden; Baradar’s vision culminated in the Taleban’s code of conduct or Layha of 2010 (also see the AAN paper on this topic here), the year he was arrested by Pakistan. Mansur followed, implemented and expanded that vision. At the core of this process was the establishment of an elaborate, hierarchical command and control system that involved shifting a patronage-based military structure to a rationalised army-like structure. This might have not been effectively implemented everywhere, but has anyway radically changed the way Taleban fighters operate. Like Baradar, Mansur was a strategist and further streamlined the movement’s overall structure into a quasi-state with 13 commissions and administrative bodies modelled on Afghanistan’s ministries and agencies. This relatively sophisticated administration brought about a level of centralisation that the movement had always lacked since it emerged in 1994 (apart from its years as the state 1996-2001). Mansur’s organisational skills were remarkable even before he moved into the leadership circle. His comrades from 2006-2007 when he was in charge of fighting in Kandahar say his units were highly organised, in contrast with other groups.

A divisive leader

Before looking in more detail at Mansur’s effective leadership, it is worth bearing in mind that he was not without doubters, even from among Taleban ranks. He was accused (including by fellow Taleban) of deep involvement in the drugs trade and of having non-drug-related businesses ‘on the side’. The allegation that Mansur was involved in narcotics, not only for funding the movement, but also for ‘personal financing’ has haunted his reputation ever since he was Taleban minister of aviation in the 1990s. Mansur was also accused of being worldly, of leading a rich life and travelling extensively and mysteriously. This set him in sharp contrast to Mullah Omar and many other Taleban leaders as well as the rank and file.

Mansur was also accused by critics within the movement of manipulating his authority to promote his fellow Ishaqzais, as well as non-Ishaqzai loyalists, while marginalising personal rivals within the movement. Mansur has probably stepped on the toes of many Taleban in his jockeying for power since he started serving in the leading positions eight years ago. The most prominent of those deeply discontent about what they believed was his nepotism were the two senior-most commanders of the movement, Abdul Rauf Khadem and Abdul Qayum Zaker, respectively the deputy and head of the military commission in 2010 (Zaker had recently reconciled with Mansur and Khadem was also killed in an air strike in February 2015).

Additionally, Mansur had a history of close relations with Pakistan, albeit one that seemed to have soured in recent months. His closeness with Pakistan seems to have been acknowledged even from the outset of the insurgency by the Taleban leaders, something they then used as an asset. When the Taleban’s first post-collapse leadership council was formed in summer 2003, Mansur was appointed as the man ‘in charge of liaison with Pakistan’, a covert role occupied ever since by Taleban members loyal to Pakistan.

Funding and fighting

Mansur, during his years of de-facto and official leadership, turned out to be not only discipline-savvy, but also business-minded (bearing in mind the caveats about personal finances just made). He centralised the collection of Taleban revenues, expanded ‘taxation’ and established a virtual monopoly over external fund-raising. He did so by appointing one of the most trusted of his people, Haji Gul Agha, a fellow Ishaqzai from Helmand to the position of head of the financial commission, after purging it of people he did not trust and sending official letters to the external ‘donors’ to pay only the people officially introduced by the financial commission.

He fired commanders who did not send revenues to the central command and appointed close confidantes to take charge of finances. In order to keep a semi-monopoly on insurgency activities on the battlefield, he also took measures to curb dissidents and stop the emergence of rival groups. He used co-optation and reconciliation and, if neither worked, resorted to brutally fighting the dissidents. For example, he tried hard to not enter into an open confrontation with the most staunch of his rivals, Abdul Qayum Zaker, by paying his expenses and constantly using go-betweens to try to reduce the tension. Similarly, when foreign militants moved into Afghanistan from North Waziristan in the summer/autumn of 2014, they were followed and closely kept in check by Taleban fighters along the way and at their final destination. In one case, when the foreign fighters, together with dissident commander Mansur Dadullah, openly went into opposition last autumn, Mansur sent the most brutal of his commanders to fight the dissidents in Zabul. When the biggest threat to his monopoly on the insurgency emerged in the form of an Islamic State (IS) franchise in early 2015, he first tried hard to stop it by talking to ‘IS Central’ in Syria through personal channels and then sent an open letter trying to dissuade the group from opening a new front in Afghanistan. When he failed to change the Islamic State’s stance, he actively fought its local franchise, sending the best of his forces.

Mansur also reshuffled the Rahbari Shura last year, bringing in a Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek, who, together with the two existing Tajik members brought the number of non-Pashtuns in the movement’s highest decision-making body to one fifth (an all time high). Unlike the Taleban era in the 1990s, the Taleban now has a northern front, which is run and made up of local commanders and this has made it more sustainable. The active expansion of the insurgency in the north had started in 2008, and within three years, the Taleban were present in substantial parts of five northern provinces. However, under Mansur’s leadership the insurgency has expanded far more widely in the north, including to non-Pashtun or Pashtun-minority provinces. The capture of Kunduz city for two weeks last September and the escalation of fighting in Badakhshan underlined how consolidated the northern front has become, partly due to the leadership of commanders from local ethnic groups, an initiative which Taleban cadres credit Mansur with.

Mansur also tried to upgrade Taleban military training and infrastructure. In spring 2015, he established an elite force that was tasked to intervene in critical military situations and crush dissidents, called the qita-e montazira (literally: reserve force). It has been the most effective and well-equipped unit as shown (and reported on by AAN) in its fights last year. Additionally, the overall training exercises for Taleban became more diverse and were professionalised over the past three years.

Mansur presided over a period (when de facto leader, but even more so during his official leadership), which saw a record-level escalation in insurgent violence, with the Taleban responsible for the bulk of the civilian casualties. He took the war into urban centres, which caused massive suffering and casualties for the population. The Shah Shaheed bombing in Kabul, the overrunning of Kunduz and the Pul-e Mahmood Khan bombing in Kabul all happened during his 10-months reign as the official leader of the Taleban. Long before these bombings, the escalation of fighting had continued steadily in the wake of the drawdown of international troops in 2014. Many had wondered if Mansur (then the de facto leader of the Taleban) might use the drawdown as an opportunity to switch to a political settlement with the Afghan government and save the country from violence, which is now almost entirely Afghan on Afghan. However, he displayed no strong desire for doing so, and might well have wasted a reasonable opportunity for ending the war in Afghanistan. Of course, his failure to make peace a serious option was equally matched by the Afghan government (and US) mishandling of a desired peace process.

Diplomatic outreach

On a par with his ‘upgrading’ of military and administrative structures, Mansur also revolutionised the movement’s external relations. He was instrumental in opening the Qatar office in 2013, after he had persuaded Mullah Omar to agree to it in late 2011. Although the Doha-based political office never entered into formal talks with the Afghan government, it did engage in a series of track-II talks with various political actors, which helped the Taleban boost their image within some of the most influential political groups in Afghanistan, such as the mainly Tajik Jamiat-e Islami and the two Hazara Hezb-e Wahdats. In addition to Qatar, the Taleban under Mansur initiated or strengthened its relations with Russia, China and Iran, among others. Utilising the fears of these countries of a spillover of militancy from Afghanistan and a US long-term presence in the country, Mansur’s representatives regularly met with senior officials in recent years. The meetings aimed at gaining support of these countries in return for the Taleban’s assurance that the foreign jihadists operating in Afghanistan-Pakistan with an intention of attacking the above mentioned countries would be stopped from doing so. The visits, at times, involved Taleban envoys travelling outside their Afghanistan-Pakistan axis. These developing relations were a source of increasing Pakistani discomfort with Mansur, even though he had enjoyed a friendly relationship before taking over the leadership. Mansur seems to have successfully shifted the perceptions of the Taleban in China, Russia and some Central Asian republics from being a threat to a potential bulwark against the threat of ‘extremists’.

During his reign as the official leader of the Taleban after the announcement of the death of Mullah Omar in late July 2015, Mansur shrewdly navigated the power crisis. He used extensive negotiations to bring many of the senior Taleban members who opposed his leadership or the way he was appointed back into the fold. Where negotiations did not work and critics went into public opposition, he used extreme force to eliminate them, despite the risk of a blowback. In the 10 months of his official leadership, he managed to neutralise practically all of his critics and dislodge those who went into open dissent. His death came at a time when he had pretty well consolidated the movement around himself. (Part of that consolidation involved the integration of the so-called Haqqani network into the mainstream by elevating its de facto leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, to the position of his deputy and by reshuffling the Rahbari Shura.)

Haibatullah, pious and austere

Four days after Mansur’s death, the Taleban announced, on 25 May 2016, that Mansur’s deputy, Haibatullah (1) had been appointed as the new amir ul-mumenin and that Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqub, and Sirajuddin Haqqani would be his deputies, the latter retaining his old position.

Haibatullah is a very different man from Mansur with different life experiences. As briefly profiled in an earlier AAN piece, his main credentials are that he is a respected religious cleric (alem) who is also known as a sheikh ul-hadith, ie a specialist in interpreting the sayings of the Prophet. For many years, he has taught Hadith and Quran to thousands of Taleban fighters during the winter lull in Quetta, including the sons and grandsons of the leaders of the movement and thus became the spiritual leader of a younger fighter generation (see also here). He is one of the few religious scholars whom the Taleban have embraced as their spiritual guide and was among the few ulama, who gained Mullah Omar’s esteem and trust.

The 47 year old was born in Sperwan area of Panjwayi district in Kandahar to a family locally known as mullahs since his father and uncle were both renowned preachers in the area. Haibatullah himself has spent all of his adult life outside Panjwayi. His family fled around 1979 to Balochistan and settled in a refugee camp near Quetta, where he was taught religious studies by Afghan ulama. He reportedly fought with the anti-Soviet mujahedin under a commander who initially belonged to Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islami, led by Mawlawi Muhammad Nabi, and then switched to Hezb-e Islami of Yunus Khales. This seems to be in the years between 1988 and 1992. During the early years of Taleban rule, he ran a small madrasa in the Rabat area of Spin Boldak (1995-1997). Then, he briefly assumed his first official job with the Taleban at the Kandahar provincial court, where he was reportedly introduced to Mullah Omar as a knowledgeable young mullah. Later, he headed the military court in Nangarhar for two years (possibly from 1998 to early 2000), and then served as head of the military court in Kabul until the fall of the regime. After 2001, he taught Hadith and Quran to religious students and Taleban in the Kuchlak area of Quetta. It is here that he gained the title of Sheikh ul-Hadith and Sheikh ut-Tafsir. He was appointed (year not known, but probably 2008) by Mullah Omar as the chief justice of the Taleban’s shadow bureaucracy. Around 2012, he became a member of the Rahbari Shura, and in 2015, was appointed as deputy to Mansur.

Hailing from the same district as Mullah Omar and coming from a family well known in Panjwayi, during the Taleban’s years in power, Haibatullah made it easily into the circle that Mullah Omar was personally in touch with. According to an audio recording from Haibatullah, he was entrusted by Mullah Omar (as head of the Kabul military court) with keeping a strict eye on violators of Sharia within the ranks of the Taleban and to have no care about the position of those accused of violations. During the insurgency too, the Taleban’s first leader would turn to him for advice on potentially sensitive edicts and disciplining unruly commanders.

Haibatullah is widely seen as a pious alem, who, like Mullah Omar prefers austerity in his personal life, and is extremely strict in following Sharia. Some independent interlocutors describe him as a calm person and a good listener. His speeches also suggest his calmness. He is more articulate and obviously much more knowledgeable in Islamic studies than his two predecessors, placing him above them in religious credibility.

The succession

Based on his status as a highly respected Taleban scholar and given the trust both Mullah Omar and Mansur put on him, Haibatullah has been appointed for being one of the least controversial candidates. His active engagement in internal reconciliation efforts during the initial six months of his job as deputy to Mansur has further enhanced his status as a unifier.

Consultations about the succession started immediately after the killing of Mansur, which the Taleban did not confirm until the appointment of the successor was finalised. According to Taleban sources, the consultations were led by the Rahbari Shura plus the heads of the commissions and quasi-ministerial bodies. The Taleban in its announcement of the successor called this assembly (about 35 people) as the ahl al-hal wa’l-aqd shura, literally, those who solve problems and make contracts. Ahl al-hal wa’l-aqd are religious scholars and influential and pious members of the community who, according to some Islamic political theories in medieval times, were qualified to choose the best person as leader. The Taleban had previously used the same term for Mansur’s selection in July 2015. The shura reached out to other key personalities in the movement (military and political) to take their views into consideration. It has possibly consulted a much broader pool of opinions than was the case with Mansur’s selection, so as to avoid a power struggle that would undermine the new leadership.

Taleban sources in Quetta and Peshawar say the first obvious name, which came up was Haibatullah, who had already been chosen by Mansur as one of his two deputies. There were other candidates as well, most prominently Mullah Omar’s son, Yaqub. However, the shura, initially as the view of the majority, and later as a consensus candidate, went for Haibatullah, with Yaqub as a new deputy and Sirajuddin Haqqani retaining his position as another deputy (both enjoy equal status, according to a Taleban spokesman). Most of the consultations with commanders and those not in the shura were carried out after the shura had agreed on the three names. Taleban sources say that, unlike the selection of Mansur, which was done by a shura of less than half of the current membership, this shura was attended by all Rahbari Shura members and heads of the commissions. Given that Mansur had already purged the Rahbari Shura and commissions of those whom he did not trust, there did not seem to have been huge differences of opinions complicating the election process. In the wake of Mansur’s appointment, one third of the then 18-member Rahbari Shura opposed his succession, some of them publicly talking against Mansur in the media the same day he was picked. However, Haibatullah’s succession has not been followed by such opposition so far, although the true width of the consultations beyond the so-called ahl al-hal wa’l-aqd shura is not clear yet, and the emergence of objections may take time.

The succession process was swifter than many expected, without having any blowback so far. At this very early stage, there do not seem to be any prospects of a huge anti-Haibatullah faction on the horizon. That Haibatullah can prove to be a more unifying person than Mansur is grounded mainly in the hugely different characters of the two and in the different historic baggage the two carry.

Haibatullah compared to Mansur

Generally, Haibatullah seems a weaker leader than Mansur, but he also may be a much less controversial figure. Mansur was a strong and decisive leader, willing to destroy dissent if he felt it necessary, but also with hands-on skills of administrative and military management. None of these qualities are obviously present in Haibatullah. However, he equally lacks the major liabilities attached with Mansur, which made him divisive.

Unlike Mansur who was accused of running drugs trade and personal businesses, Haibatullah is seen as clean of that. Whereas Mansur was accused of being worldly and leading a wealthy life, Haibatullah is characterised as leading a relatively austere life and has little personal property or businesses. Similarly, in contrast with Mansur who was criticised for manipulating his authority to build up a clique of loyalists, Haibatullah has no such record of (alleged or actual) nepotism; neither is he seen as having tried to build his own personal power. In terms of tribal affiliation, Haibatullah is a Nurzai, some members of which have complained about underrepresentation. The largest dissident faction, who fought against Mansur under Mullah Rassul was made up mainly of Nurzais and accused Mansur of tribal nepotism. Like Mullah Omar, Haibatullah appears to be ‘tribe-neutral’. In his village in Sperwan, residents do not see him or his family as particularly identifying with the tribe, but rather see them as tribe-neutral clerics. Finally, Haibatullah’s record of relations with Pakistan or any other government is also not strained, as was the case with Mansur. So far, he is not known to have built any relationships with his host country’s government, perhaps not surprising given the non-political and non-leadership positions he has held for most of his life. It is the very distance of Haibatullah from prominent public roles and his apolitical past that arguably makes him more a unifying figure than many other presumed candidates who were part of Mansur’s clique.

The absence in Haibatullah of the liabilities that plagued Mansur’s leadership, plus his reputation as a scholarly person who taught many Taleban members in the ranks and files greatly reduces the chances of the aggressive opposition which Mansur faced upon assuming the leadership.

Mansur had consolidated the movement by the time of his death and set it on a consistent and somehow predictable course. Haibatullah is going to be closely watched to see whether he can manage the large-sized movement, given his lack of relevant experience and whether he keeps with the previously defined path in war and peace.

Haibatullah, inexperienced and a disciplinarian

It will take time to understand the new Taleban head’s leadership skills and style. He obviously has a deficit in political and military know-how. However, the institutionalisation of the bureaucracy may mean it is not so crucial to have a former commander at the head of the insurgency. Its operations may continue to run as before and stay uninterrupted by leadership changes. The chain of command, on paper at least, is clear for the fighters on ground. So are the rules and policies for members. Continuation of the same operational model tends to remain the norm, with interruption an aberrance. This is manifested by the hitherto lack of interruption to military operation or intensity of fighting on the battlefields since the announcement of Mansur’s death. Unless Haibatullah wanted to change the modus operandi and break with his predecessor’s habit of delegating authority, he may be able to avoid facing major difficulties in running the movement in the short term. However, circumstances will arise at some point that will require major decision-making on military matters.

Haibatullah may have a different personal vision for his movement, as he brings a different set of experiences from the Taleban judiciary and his teaching. How much room Haibatullah is likely have to brand any personal vision he might have on the movement will be discussed at greater length in an upcoming piece. At the moment, however, it is possible to look at what marks his personal views and preferences out in contrast to his predecessor’s.

1. A man favouring military discipline

Haibatullah appears to be passionate about Islamic justice, viewing it as the core of an Islamic political order (Islamic government). He clearly says this in speeches heard by AAN. This can play out in two ways. First, he might come down hard on his own fighters and commanders who breach the Taleban’s codes and Layha, as he did during the Emirate era. By doing so, he risks stepping on many of the powerful commanders’ toes. In the meantime, harder disciplining can serve as a tool to exert authority over his subordinates.

Secondly, better discipline could boost the Taleban’s image if he was successful in reining in the misbehaviour of fighters towards the population. Haibatullah has long been vocal on the issue of civilian casualties (although note the narrow definition of civilian here, which sees many non-combatants as ‘legitimate’ targets.) He was instrumental in getting Omar to sign a decree in the 1990s for qisas (execution as punishment for murder) of those who beat prisoners to death. According to Taleban sources interviewed in 2014, Haibatullah was also instrumental in recent years in establishing an internal code for reducing civilian casualties, which targets fighters who do not take enough precaution to protect civilians, especially while setting up IEDs. The decline in the use of inherently indiscriminate pressure plate bombs in 2013 (see AAN reporting) also reportedly happened because of Haibatullah pressing for it. Taleban sources said death sentences had been handed out in a few cases to commanders ‘breaking the rules’.

2. A strict advocate of a strict version of Sharia

People in the Taleban who know Haibatullah personally say he favours enforcing Islamic injunctions as robustly as possible. They describe him as a mutasharri’a (absolutely conforming to Sharia in his own life). In his speech to a gathering in the wake of the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death last year, he frequently commended Omar’s lack of compromise on Sharia and the fact that he had paid particular attention to the amr bil-maruf wa nahya an al-munkar (commanding what is right, and forbidding what is wrong, a moral norm originating from the Quran central to the Taleban’s interpretation of Islam – and used as the name for its ‘religious police’ between 1996 and 2001). This may favour his chances of consolidating his status as a ‘jihadi leader’, but bodes ill for the relative moderation the Taleban have displayed on certain issues, such as giving up puritanical stances on music, beards, imagery and education. However, (as will be discussed in an upcoming piece), his role in reversing the Taleban’s progress in ‘moderation’ – if that is what he decides to do – will depend on how far can he get along with the other highest religious authorities in the movement, who might have different opinions.

One trait of his character described by different sources who know him is that he listens to other opinions, especially in group discussions and does not impose his personal views. There is also an anecdote suggesting this. He reportedly endorsed the Taleban’s code for education in 2012 which, for the first time explicitly allowed girls education, although under some conditions. Since he had been one of the religious authorities whose endorsement was needed for all possibly sensitive edicts, the Rahbari Shura sought his stamp on the code, which reportedly he gave after hearing the views of the Shura members. Additionally, his assuming of the leadership position itself may force him to give up some of his strictures and adopt some pragmatism, given the varied situations he will be facing. Leading an insurgent movement is not the same as being a judge or teacher.

Possible implications for peace

The killing of Mansur was celebrated by the US, NATO and the Afghan government leaders as a boost to the prospects of peace, and as an opener of a new opportunity for peace. US President Barack Obama said Mansur’s death marked an “important milestone” in the longstanding effort to bring peace to Afghanistan and that “Mansur rejected efforts by the Afghan government to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that has taken lives.” The NATO Secretary General’s statement justified Mansur’s killing on the grounds that he “stood in the way of talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, blocking the prospects for progress towards peace and reconciliation for Afghanistan.” The statement also said: “We support an Afghan-led and owned process for peace and reconciliation, and welcome all efforts in this regard. This is the time for Afghans to talk to Afghans, so that Afghanistan can develop in peace and security.” Afghan President Ghani tweeted in the wake of initial reports about Mansur’s death that: “The Government of Afghanistan once again asks all Taliban to welcome the call for peace of the people & government of Afghanistan…They can return to the country from the foreigners’ land and join the Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process. …In the event of Mullah Mansour’s killing, a new opportunity presents itself to those Taliban who are willing to end war & bloodshed.” It may be, of course, that talking about improved prospects for peace sounds better than celebrating Mansur’s death as useful for the war.

However, with the US killing Akhtar Mansur, it is unlikely the Taleban will be set on anything but revenge for now, as can be understood from the movement’s political psychology. This is also understood from the initial reactions of individual Taleban on its own media and social media. There is no reason to believe the fighting will de-escalate with the new leadership. If there is any conclusion to be drawn from the comparison of the backgrounds of Haibatullah and Mansur, there is nothing in Haibatullah’s record to deem him as more pro-peace than Mansur. On the contrary, there are clues in Haibatullah’s background and views, that he would push for a military victory, if he were to lead by his personal views. He is seen as a more dedicated ‘mujahid’ than many other Taleban leaders, including Mansur. According to a well-grounded Taleban source, Haibatullah has a son registered as a suicide bomber and living away from the family in ‘suicide bombing training camp’. Two days into his leadership, AAN was told by people in touch with Taleban military cadres in Pakistan that the desire for intensifying the ‘jihad’ has notably elevated among many fighters with Haibatullah’s ascension. Haibatullah can thus be expected to show a determination to fight and not be intimidated by Mansur’s killing. His first priority will be internal unity, as Mansur’s was when he officially took over in 2015, and fighting is better than peace-making at maintaining the coherence of the movement. A softening of positions on peace with the Afghan government cannot be expected.

Meanwhile, the US government has confirmed that Haibatullah is not on their terrorist list.

The US role becomes more prominent

The decision to kill Mansur has brought the US forcefully back into the debate on war and peace in Afghanistan. The deeper the US engages in war, the more the party against which it fights will expect it to play a central role in peace talks. The Taleban have consistently considered the US as their main opponent in the conflict and refused to take Afghan government offers of talks seriously because of this. However, the US has tried to play more of a background role in peace efforts, as an observer, and has insisted on direct talks between the Taleban and Kabul. The Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US – the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) – platform is a prominent example. The US rather wants to portray itself as a partner of the government in Kabul and is not willing to assume responsibility for political negotiations. It has pushed for an ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process’. However, with the US engaged in such a high-level attack, it is difficult for the Taleban not to believe Washington is not really in the driving seat

Even in the case of a division of the Taleban into factions over the succession of Mansur, prospects for the emerging factions to opt for peace are still mostly dim. At least in the short run, the different factions are likely to compete in fighting hard against the government (or each other), rather than moving towards a political settlement. The largest blowback from the last succession struggle emerged in the form of the dissident Rasul faction, which left an extremely unsavoury record, as far as future possible dissenters might be concerned. According to widely-held beliefs in Taleban ranks, it has now been virtually co-opted by the Afghan intelligence service (also as reported here and here). Not surprisingly, the Rasul faction has been the only voice speaking out against Haibatullah’s appointment. However, it is now considered beyond the pale (for serving as a cover for NDS plots) by the rest of the Taleban, and therefore the Rasul faction seems to not have been consulted in the leadership transition, at all.

A follow-up to this piece will look at who, apart from the leader, may call the shots in Taleban decision-making, and who might have the greatest impact on Haibatullah in determining the future course of the movement. 


(1) Haibatullah is the colloquial pronunciation of the name, and also the spelling used in English-language statements of the Taleban. However, the new Taleban leader’s name might actually be Hibatullah – derived from the Arabic for Hibat (gift), as opposed to being derived from the Arabic word Haibat (fear, awe).

Tagged with: Akhtar Mansur, Haibatullah Akhundzada, Serajuddin Haqqani, successor, Taleban
Thematic Category: War & Peace