Since taking power in Afghanistan on Aug. 15, many Taliban leaders have appeared in public in Kabul, but the fundamentalist movement’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, has yet to make an appearance.
Mullah specializing in religious and judicial matters, Akhundzada’s name began to be heard in May 2016, when he replaced Mullah Mansur, who died in an American drone strike in Pakistan, in charge of the Taliban group.
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His first goal was to unite the fundamentalist movement, which was divided by internal struggles. Just before he took over, its founder, Mullah Omar, was discovered to have died, and the news of his death was hidden for years.
Little is known about the role of Haibatullah Akhundzada, who manifests himself only during Islamic holidays. For many analysts, its role is more symbolic than operational.
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No one knows where he is, and Akhundzada has never made public appearances. The Taliban have released only one photo of him to date.
The son of a theologian, a native of Kandahar, Pashtun territory and birthplace of the Taliban, Akhundzada had before his appointment a great influence on the movement. He came to command the group’s judicial system.
Since regaining power in Afghanistan, 20 years after being expelled by a state-led international coalition, the Taliban did not reveal their movements and activities.
“God willing, you will see him soon,” top Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters this week.
Leaders from different Taliban factions have appeared in public in Kabul in recent days.
Traditionally, the Taliban have left their supreme leader in the shadows. The group’s founder, Mullah Omar, had an ascetic life and was barely seen in Kabul during the previous period of fundamentalist rule, between 1996 and 2001.
Omar lived in hiding at his residence in Kandahar and was very reluctant to receive other leaders at home. But his word was considered sacred, a respect none of his successors achieved.
For Laurel Miller, who runs the International Crisis Group’s Asia program, Haibatullah Akhundzada “seems to have adopted a hermit-like way of life.”
Discretion can also be motivated by security, to avoid an end similar to that of his predecessor, Mansur, says the expert.
“He may appear soon to quell rumors of his death, but it is possible that he will withdraw again to exercise his authority in isolation, as Mullah Omar did,” he adds.
Keeping the balance between factions
The Taliban movement is made up of various factions from different parts of Afghanistan. Representatives of the group’s internal currents have different aspirations. This created a major split in 2015, when news of Mullah Omar’s death broke.
After 20 years of guerrilla warfare, fundamentalists will have to maintain a balance between different factions, from interesting to conflicting ones, in their return to power.
The power vacuum would threaten to destabilize a movement that, under the leadership of Haibatullah Akhundzada, managed to maintain cohesion despite the war, the death of thousands of fighters, the assassination or the sending to Guantanamo prison of some of its main leaders.
For other analysts, the Taliban leader is only awaiting the final withdrawal of the Americans, on August 31, to appear in public.
“The Taliban feel they are in jihad while foreign forces remain in Afghan territory,” said Imtiaz Gul, a Pakistani security analyst. “For this reason, their supreme leader does not allow himself to be seen.”