Influential Taliban commander pledges to new emir

Anwar ul Haq Mujahid, the commander of the Tora Bora Military Front and son of an influential Taliban leader who was instrumental in welcoming Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan after al Qaeda was ejected from Sudan in 1996, has sworn allegiance to the Taliban’s new emir.

Anwar ul Haq’s pledge was announced on Aug. 21 by Zabihullah Mujahid, an official spokesman of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the official name of the Taliban.

“Son of Khalis Baba (RA), respected Mawlawi Anwarul Haq Mujahid declares allegiance to Amir ul Mumineen,” the Taliban spokesman wrote on his official Twitter feed.

“Khalis Baba” is a reference to Maulvi Mohammed Yunis Khalis, Anwar ul Haq’s father, who led a faction of Hizb-i-Islami before his death in 2006. Khalis was close to Jalaluddin Haqqani, allied with al Qaeda, and advocated jihad outside of Afghanistan. In 1991, Khalis wrote “An Appeal to Support the Holy War in Sudan,” a letter that urged “Muslims to fight in Sudan,” according to evidence submitted by the US government in a conspiracy case against the director of an al Qaeda charitable front organization.

The Amir ul Mumineen, or the Commander of the Faithful – a title usually reserved for the Muslim caliph – is Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the group’s new leader. The Taliban spokesman also published a handwritten letter attributed to Anwar ul Haq.

Anwar ul Haq rose to prominence in the wake of his father’s death in 2006 and established the Tora Bora Military Front. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate is said to have detained him in Peshawar in June 2009, but it was rumored that he was released sometime in 2010. US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal at the time said that Anwar ul Haq had not been imprisoned but merely placed into protective custody.

Anwar ul Haq reemerged in February 2011 when he spoke at the funeral of Awal Gul, who was detained by US forces in 2002 and died at Guantanamo Bay earlier that month. Gul was a Taliban commander in Nangarhar province who had allegedly been entrusted by Osama bin Laden with $100,000 to aid al Qaeda operatives fleeing Afghanistan to Pakistan in late 2001. Gul also “associated with” bin Laden on three occasions, according to declassified documents produced at Guantanamo. [See LWJ reports, Former Taliban commander dies at Gitmo and Tora Bora Military Front commander speaks at funeral of former Gitmo detainee].

It is unclear why Anwar ul Haq has waited nearly three months after the death of Mullah Mansour, the previous emir who was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan on May 21, to pledge to Haibatullah. According to the Taliban, the “Tora Bora Jihadist Front of Shinwar District in Nangarhar Province” offered condolences for Mansour’s death and allegiance to Haibatullah on May 26. One day later, “Close Friends of Mawlawi Mohammad Younus Khalis” did the same. And on May 29, the Taliban released a statement claiming the “family, companions and Mujahideen of late Mawlawi Younus Khalis Baba” had pledged to Haibtullah.

No matter the delay, Anwar ul Haq’s pledge to Haibatullah will aid in the ongoing reunification with wayward leaders as well as the consolidation of its forces in Nangarhar province, where the Taliban have been facing a challenge from the Islamic State.

The Taliban have made a concerted effort to reunite with commanders who parted with the group in the wake of the death of its founder and first emir, Mullah Omar. Some leaders and commanders were unhappy that Mullah Omar’s death in April 2013 was hidden from them and how Mullah Mansour, who secretly led the group until Omar’s death was disclosed in July 2015, was selected to replace him. Influential leaders and commanders such as Mullah Omar’s brother, Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund, and son, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoub, were rewarded for reconciling by being given top leadership positions within the Taliban. And just last week, the Mullah Dadullah Front, a dangerous Taliban faction, returned to the Taliban fold.

Anwar ul Haq’s return may also help the Taliban’s position in Nangarhar, which has descended into chaos over the past two years since the US military scaled back forces there. Afghan forces, backed by US troops, have been struggling to contain both the Taliban and the Islamic State in the eastern province. The Islamic State’s Khorasan province has a foothold in Nangarhar and is said to control three districts there, however the Afghan military has recently made a push to retake the ground from the jihadist group. The US military said it killed the emir for Khorasan province while supporting Afghan forces in July.

Despite setbacks due to the emergence of the Islamic State in Nangarhar, the Taliban remains a potent force in the province, where it has a presence in all districts and uses this base to launch attacks in Jalalabad and Kabul. The Taliban claimed it took control of Hisarak district in Nangarhar over the weekend, but this was denied by Afghan officials.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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