The Hindu Profiles | On Hibatullah Akhundzada, Panjshir and Haqqani Network

Hibatullah Akhundzada | The Mullah who took the reins of Afghanistan

After a blitzkrieg operation to capture cities and towns following the withdrawal of U.S.-led military forces, the Taliban now control most of Afghanistan, including the capital city of Kabul. The only province that stands outside the Taliban’s control Panjshir is in the north-central part of the country. Poised to form a new government, the Taliban are yet to clearly reveal the contours of their regime, but they had already been in power between 1996 and 2001 over vast areas in the country, which was then declared as the ‘Islamic emirate of Afghanistan’, and governed on the basis of a strict interpretation of ‘Sharia law’. While their spokespersons, especially the political leaders based in Doha, Qatar, have evinced that the group has, over time, reformed and refined itself, there seems to be little inclination of any change in its core ideology.

The Taliban as a force are led by their “emir”, Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada and are essentially controlled by the ‘Quetta Shura’, which has provided the ideological leadership for the insurgency as a “leadership council” on the top of a chain of command that extends itself into military groups and operations that now encompasses most of Afghanistan. The Quetta Shura is named so because it was protected and based in Quetta, Balochistan, in west Pakistan and even though only some of its leadership is believed to remain there, the name has stuck.

The Quetta Shura’s leadership council is also known as the ‘Rahbari Shura’ and is further divided into sub-committees. The members of this council are tasked with recruitment, training and planning the insurgency. The council was essentially a shadow government that controlled large parts of the country, especially the ethnic Pashtun dominated southern areas, during the insurgency. It has been helped by the protection provided by the Pakistani deep State and has financed the insurgency by various means such as donations from the Gulf and the opium trade in Afghanistan.

Akhundzada, who formerly headed the Taliban’s ulema council (religious elders), took control of the Taliban after the death of his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was widely seen as a violent and divisive leader, in a U.S. drone attack in 2016. Akhundzada, on the other hand, is revered by the outfit’s rank and file for his religious credentials, having made his mark in deciding over thorny issues such as the insurgent group’s use of suicide attacks, among others. During Akhundzada’s tenure as the emir, the Taliban’s public face to the external world has remained its political office in Doha, Qatar, and represented by his deputy Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a founder-leader who was captured by Pakistan security forces in 2010 at a time of internal discord within the outfit and released later in 2018. Other deputies include Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of Jalaluddin Haqqani who led the dreaded Haqqani Network that backed the Taliban during its tenure between 1996 and 2001 and have engaged in several terror attacks in Kabul and beyond.

Baradar has sought to project the Taliban as an anti-occupation force that was committed to the defeat and withdrawal of the U.S. military forces in Afghanistan but there has been little evidence of any reform in its core ideology.

Secretive movement

Formed in 1994 in the southern province of Kandahar, the Taliban, in their initial years and even after coming to power in Kabul in 1996, were a secretive political movement committed to a radical interpretation of Islamic ideology and jurisprudence. The movement emerged in the detritus of the bitter civil war between different factions of the mujahideen that fought for the spoils of power after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the fall of the communist government in 1992. It was led by former fighters of the mujahideen, who had taken part in the insurgency against the Soviet forces, especially in the Kandahar province.

As journalist Ahmed Rashid pointed out, the mujahideen in the south had coalesced around their Pushtun tribal identities and were led by tribal clan chiefs and their religious scholars (or the ulema). Following the withdrawal of the Soviets, the internecine war among the mujahideen also included battles between the rural tribal fighters and the more organised Islamists, who were funded by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan, besides other external actors such as the U.S.’ secret service, the CIA. After the decimation of what Mr. Rashid calls the “traditionalists” from the tribal networks, the ground was laid for the emergence of the radical Islamists of the Taliban, who were initially student recruits (Talibs) from madrassas professing a version of Deobandi Islamic revivalism in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas. Akhundzada was an early member of the Taliban, tasked with fighting crime, and serving as part of the Taliban Supreme Court, before training recruits in seminaries.

The Taliban in the 1990s were led by Mullah Mohammad Omar, a reclusive leader who sought to gain the support of the people fed up with the war and the corrupt leaders of the Mujahideen, by relying on religious piety and strict observance of Islamic law. The Taliban made rapid military gains after getting support from other fundamentalist groups and the military-driven deep State in Pakistan, which diversified its patrons from the Mujahideen to the new radical Islamists. Once in power, the Taliban, under Mullah Omar, pursued a radical Islamist rule, curbing women’s rights, banning liberal institutions, and adopting medieval values, besides becoming a haven for other radical Islamist and terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. Following the U.S.’s intervention, the Taliban’s leadership were driven away from Afghanistan, but they slowly gained and retained territory, particularly in the south.

No change to the core

The Quetta Shura managed to retain control in parts of rural Afghanistan by instituting a shadow government and even gained limited support beyond its core Pushtun ethnic adherents during the insurgency. However, even during peace and power sharing talks with the representatives of the Afghan government before the American withdrawal, the Taliban showed little inclination to dilute its core ideological tenets of establishing an Islamic emirate ruled predominantly by the emir (the Taliban leader), who would appoint the ulema of Sunni Muslims following the Hanafi sect and who would implement the sharia law.

The Taliban, as political scientist Barnett Rubin pointed out in a recent special report, released a draft Constitution in 2005, but had not published or adopted it. Taken together with other texts endorsed by the group, the Taliban have shown no indication that they will conform themselves in power to a democracy that will be committed to pluralism inherent in the ethnic, sectional and religious diversity of the country or anything other than a theocratic, unitary system of governance.

Akhundzada will seek to preside over an Islamic Emirate after annulling the 2004 Constitution of the Islamic Republic as the group has professed to do, and there is expected to be little difference in its intent from its rule in the 1990s. The Taliban have emerged as a more powerful military force than its 1990s avatar, following the U.S. withdrawal. This time, they have recognised the virtues of public relations exercises, world diplomacy and communication. But they will find it much more difficult to establish a theocratic, medieval regime without resistance in a country, which has seen a significant increase in nominal freedom of expression, participation of women in public life and other civil liberties.

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Printable version | Aug 14, 2022 7:41:42 am |