By Frud Bezhan
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
September 7, 2021
The Taliban has formed a new, theocratic government in Afghanistan, weeks after the August 15 collapse of the internationally recognized administration in Kabul and within days of international troops’ departure.
Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, a hard-line cleric and former chief justice, has been named supreme leader. He will have the ultimate say in political, religious, and military affairs in the country under a system reminiscent of the clerically led establishment in neighboring Iran since 1979.
Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, a founding member of the group in the early 1990s who also served as foreign minister and a deputy prime minister during the Taliban’s regime from 1996-2001, has been named head of government and will oversee day-to-day affairs.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban who previously served as one of Akhunzada’s three deputies, will be Akhund’s first deputy.
Mawlawi Hanafi, a senior Taliban figure who served on the negotiating team at the peace talks in Qatar, has been named as Akhund’s second deputy.
Other key positions have been filled by two other deputies: Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of the late Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, was named defense minister.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network, a powerful Taliban faction, will serve as interior minister.
Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, a key Taliban political leader who has worked as a key diplomatic envoy, has been named deputy foreign minister.
One of the Taliban government’s first tasks will be trying to open diplomatic and economic channels while seeking recognition from foreign governments, some of whom in the West have already signaled policies of “engagement” without such recognition.
All positions were named as being in an “acting” capacity.
Mullah Hassan Akhund
Akhund is one of the Taliban’s most senior figures. He was a founding member of the group in the early 1990s and a deputy prime minister during the Taliban’s regime from 1996-2001. He also served as foreign minister and a provincial governor during that time.
Akhund, who hails from Kandahar, considered the birthplace of the Taliban, was believed to have been a close associate of late spiritual leader Mullah Omar.
During the Taliban’s insurgency, Akhund was a senior military commander. He also headed the Taliban’s leadership council, the group’s highest decision-making body, which is based in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta.
Akhund has been on the United Nations terror list since 2001, when the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban from power. The UN has described him as one of the “most effective Taliban commanders.” It says he was born between 1955 and 1958.
Ibraheem Bahiss, an independent Afghan research analyst, says that considering Akhund’s seniority and status it is not a “huge surprise” that he was appointed as the new head of government.
Abdul Ghani Baradar, a veteran Taliban leader, is the most public face of the three-decade-old militant Islamist group.
The 53-year-old Baradar served as the Taliban’s second-in-command under Mullah Omar and coordinated the group’s military operations in Afghanistan before his arrest in neighboring Pakistan in 2010.
Baradar was jailed by Pakistani authorities after he reportedly facilitated talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban command without the approval of Pakistan, the group’s main foreign sponsor.
Baradar spent eight years in prison in Pakistan, where many Taliban leaders fled following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 that toppled their brutal regime.
He was released in 2018 at the behest of the United States following the launch of direct talks between the militants and Washington, becoming the head of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar and chief negotiator. Baradar signed the February 2020 agreement with U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in a ceremony in Doha.
“Baradar has been a key figure in Taliban leadership and diplomacy,” said Graeme Smith, an author on Afghanistan and a consultant for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank.
But he says it would be a mistake to focus exclusively on any single Taliban leader. “The Taliban leadership is much more collective than the top-down hierarchies of other organizations,” Smith said. “They consult widely, not just among the leadership, but also a number of councils within the group.”
Hailing from the southern province of Uruzgan, Baradar is a Durrani Pashtun from the Popalzai tribe. Southern Pashtuns make up the bulk of the Taliban’s leadership. His close relationship with the late Mullah Omar earned him the nom de guerre “Baradar,” or “brother.”
Mullah Yaqoob was virtually unknown until 2015, when the Taliban acknowledged the death of his father, Mullah Omar, who had died more than two years earlier in Pakistan.
Since then, the ambitious Yaqoob has soared through the Taliban’s ranks. He consolidated power after his failed bid to succeed his father that year, first becoming deputy leader before being named as a military chief.
Yaqoob, believed to be in his 30s, oversaw military operations in 13 southern and western provinces despite his lack of battlefield experience. Yaqoob was a graduate of several hard-line Islamic seminaries in Pakistan.
Experts say the prestige of being Mullah Omar’s eldest son elevated Yaqoob’s standing among the Taliban’s field commanders and its rank and file.
“Mullah Omar was a charismatic leader and there remains huge respect for him, his family, and even his close associates, many of whom have been promoted to influential positions over the years,” said Obaid Ali, an expert on the insurgency at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul.
Sirajuddin Haqqani is a deputy Taliban leader and a military chief who oversaw operations in 21 eastern and northern provinces. He is also the leader of the Haqqani network, the most lethal and powerful faction of the Taliban. The network is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States.
Experts say the network has close links with Al-Qaeda and Pakistan’s military establishment, which has long been accused of providing safe haven and material support to the Taliban.
The network — based in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan — has been blamed for some of the deadliest attacks against civilians and Afghan and foreign security forces, gaining notoriety for its use of suicide bombers in complex, urban attacks.
Haqqani, who has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, is the son of the late radical Islamist leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, who was a key resistance commander in the war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai
Stanekzai was Baradar’s deputy at the Taliban’s political office in Qatar.
Stanekzai trained at and graduated from prestigious military schools in India in the 1980s before he joined the mujahedin, the U.S.-backed Islamist guerrillas who fought Soviet forces during their decade-long occupation of Afghanistan.
When the Taliban seized most of Afghanistan in 1996, following a devastating four-year civil war, Stanekzai was appointed deputy foreign minister.
A fluent English speaker, he is a key leader in the Taliban’s political wing and has been one of the group’s key envoys to foreign diplomats and media.