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Mullah Haibatullah …From Courts to Leadership | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A photo circulated by the Taliban of new leader Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada.

Kabul-Taliban announced in the last week of May the appointment of Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada to succeed its former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was killed by an American air raid.

The new leader was born in a small village in Kandahar province, in southern Afghanistan, known as the capital of the political decision-making in the country. Haibatullah belongs to the Pashtuns group, same as the former Taliban leaders Mullah Mohammad Omar and Mullah Akhtar Mansour.

Being the son of a scholar, Akhunzada received his education at an early age in religious schools in Kandahar. He later moved to Pakistan, where he pursued his religious studies.

* Era of Soviet invasion

During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Mullah Haibatullah fought alongside the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet forces, particularly alongside the troops of the former Taliban Leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour before being appointed as Taliban’s leader. Haibatullah Akhunzada belonged to the party of Sheikh Mawlawi Mohammad Yunus Khalis, one of the seven mujahideen who were killed while fighting the Soviets in the Afghani eastern provinces.

Then, Taliban appointed Akhunzada to chair the department of military judiciary in its government, following the overthrow of the movement by the American troops and the NATO forces after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The Mullah was appointed again as head of the Taliban courts in regions under its control in Afghanistan, and then was appointed as the movement leader following the assassination of Mullah Akhtar Mansour in Quetta.

It is worth mentioning, that the appointment of Akhunzada as a new leader raised many arguments amidst few information available about him. Yet, when announcing the appointment on social media websites, the spokesman of the group Zabihallah Mujahid said that Haibatullah Akhunzada is 55 years old, and belongs to the Noorzai tribe. He described the new leader as the senior judge of Taliban.

*Religious position

Some called the new leader “al-Mawlawi” and “Sheikh of Hadith”. Two deputies were also appointed with Akhunzada: Sirajuddin Hakani and Mullah Mohammad Yaacoub (Son of Mullah Mohammad Omar). Sources said that Mullah Haibatullah was close to his precedent Mullah Akhtar Mansour, yet he was more experienced in religion than on military issues. He enjoyed remarkable power in the organization, and ruled its religious system. Yet, some analysts see that his appointment for the movement’s presidency is a symbolic decision, more than a practical one.

The new leader remained a mysterious figure and stood far from battles. Thomas Ruttig, analyst in one of the Afghan research centers, said that Haibatullah was close to Mullah Omar, and that the latter used to consult him in religious matters.

*Circumstances of his appointment

Expert Emir Rana said: “Everyone in the Taliban movement respects Mullah Haibatullah for the fatwas he issued conforming with the activities of the organization in Afghanistan.”

Ruttig stresses that the new leader worked hard on maintaining Taliban’s unity, which witnessed many schisms following the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death.

Expert Yussef Zay sees that the new leader will maintain the same political path of Mullah Mansour and will refuse negotiations. However, Rana sees that Mullah Haibatullah is a supporter of negotiations, but he remains unable to take any step without the consensus of the Shura Council. Many suggest that the new leader will be responsible for the religious affairs of the organization, and that the military decisions will be left for his new assistants and particularly for Mullah Yaacoub, son of the late Mullah Omar.

Abdul Rahman Zahed, deputy minister of foreign affairs of Taliban stated in many local and international interviews that Mullah Mansour was a more flexible and experienced leader, and more open to peace talks. Mullah Haibatullah, however, doesn’t accept dialogue and still holds onto tribal positions, which will prolong the process of launching any political operation.