The Afghan Taliban appointed Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the group’s top judicial officer, as its new emir after confirming Mullah Mansour was killed by the US. Siraj Haqqani, the Taliban’s military commander, remains one of the Taliban’s top two deputies, and Mullah Mohammad Yaqoub, Mullah Omar’s eldest son, has been elevated to serve as a deputy to Haibatullah.
Haibatullah replaces Mansour, who was killed by the US in a drone strike in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province on May 21.
“With heavy heart, but full belief in Allah’s will, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan announces that the Commander of the Faithful Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was martyred in an American invading and evil forces’ drone strike on Saturday,” the Taliban said in a statement released by its spokesmen on social media.
Haibatullah was named to lead the Taliban after senior commanders and members of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s executive leadership making council, met in Pakistan shortly after Mullah Mansour was killed.
“All the members of the leadership council [Quetta Shura] pledged allegiance to the newly appointed leader,” the statement continued.
Haibatullah has a long history with the Taliban. He served as a religious scholar and judge when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, and previously headed the Taliban’s judiciary branch, an important position within the group. As the top judicial figure, he issued fatwas, or religious decrees, that justified all aspect the Taliban’s operation, including suicide attacks.
After the Taliban admitted in July 2015 that Mullah Omar, the group’s founder and first emir, died in 2013, it appointed Mullah Mansour as its emir and Haibatullah and Siraj Haqqani as his two senior deputies. Haibatullah managed legal and religious affairs, while Siraj managed the military. Under this leadership, the Taliban made its greatest gains in Afghanistan since the US invaded in 2001. The Taliban are thought to control more territory today than at any point in time since 2001.
President Obama and the US government hope that the unprecedented airstrike in Baluchistan that killed Mansour will bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. However, under the leadership of Mansour, with Haibatullah and Siraj as his deputies, the Taliban went on the offensive and rejected peace talks. There is no indication that Haibatullah, with Siraj and Yaqoub as his deputies, will alter the Taliban’s current strategy.
Haibatullah may serve as a uniting force within the Taliban movement. Mansour’s appointment caused discord within the Taliban, with some mid-level commanders defecting to the Islamic State, and a significant faction led by Mullah Rasul forming a parallel branch. But with Mullah Yaqoub and Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund, a brother of Mullah Omar, returning to the fold and receiving senior positions with the group two months ago, there are indications that the rift with the Rasul faction may be mending.
Haibatullah is considered to be widely respected within the Taliban, and his previous position as top sharia official gives him the religious and legal credentials to lead the group.