Afghan Islamic Press / AP
The biographies of the top Taliban leaders are unclear for one reason: secrecy has often been the key to survival.
Take the one-eyed clergyman who founded the movement, Mullah Mohammad Omar. After a US-led invasion overthrew his government, he was on the run for years, chased relentlessly by US forces. Omar reportedly died in 2013 in either Afghanistan or neighboring Pakistan, but his death was not even publicly confirmed for another two years.
Omar’s successor as Taliban commander-in-chief, Mullah Mohammad Mansour, was killed in a US drone strike in 2016. And Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the movement’s current deputy commander, spent eight years in a Pakistani prison.
Following the Taliban victory over Afghan security forces, which culminated earlier this week in the fall of Kabul, Baradar and Mansour’s successor, Haibatullah Akhundzada, are poised to become the country’s new rulers.
Here’s what we know about them:
Commander-in-Chief Haibatullah Akhundzada
Although Haibatullah’s leadership in the organization is undoubtedly the top Taliban leader, he is unlikely to emerge as the new face of the new government in Kabul. Instead, he is likely to leave the day-to-day management to Baradar and others and remain more or less in the shadows, most experts agree.
“Typically, the Taliban’s top leaders are purposefully evasive,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior assistant for South Asia at the Wilson Center, told NPR. “You rarely hear from them.”
In fact, Haibatullah has not been seen in public for years, leading some to speculate that he may not even be alive.
Haibatullah, believed to be around 60, hails from Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. He is a member of Noorzai, one of Afghanistan’s largest and most influential tribes, according to Patrick Quirk, a foreigner in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, which says his religious credentials reinforce his claim to leadership.
But not everyone expects Haibatullah to take a back seat in government.
Talking with NPR’s all things considered earlier this week, Carter Malkasian, historian and author of The American War in Afghanistan: A Story, said he thinks “that the Taliban would be more likely, given their history, to get Haibatullah to become leader if Haibatullah is really alive.”
Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar
Compared to Haibatullah, Baradar, who most experts assume will be the de facto leader of the Taliban, is much better known.
At the age of 52 or 53, he is the Taliban’s top political leader and has taken a particularly high profile internationally in recent years. He is originally from Uruzgan province, north of Kandahar, and a member of the Sadozai tribe, a clan of the Popalzai tribe, the same as former Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Decades of battlefield experience, first against the Soviet Union after the 1979 invasion and later against American forces, have given him significant status within the organization. “I think it is fair to say that if you have managed to defeat two superpowers, it gives you a lot of confidence,” he notes. Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Director of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech.
Baradar is the co-founder of the Taliban and was very close to Mullah Omar. Rumor has it that he may even be married to Omar’s sister.
In the years that Omar hid, he took refuge in Pakistan and became “in fact just like the movement’s CEO,” Malkasian says. “Baradar was the guy who actually ran things.”
Within and to some extent outside the movement, Baradar is perceived as thoughtful, independent and measured, according to Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Center for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute.
“But we really do not know much about him,” she told NPR in an email.
In 201o, Baradar was arrested by Pakistani officials in the southern port city of Karachi, “apparently because they thought he was secretly trying to negotiate with Hamid Karzai,” Kugelman said.
He remained in prison until 2018, when Trump White House asked Islamabad to release him so he could lead peace talks in Doha.
In the weeks and months leading up to last weekend’s Taliban victory, Baradar led a number of delegations to a number of regional powers, including China, Russia, Iran and Turkey. He sought to drum up support – or at least acceptance – of a new Taliban regime after the movement’s previous reign left it isolated and a virtual pariah state.
“Given the Taliban’s apparent interest in maintaining its legitimacy and recognition within the international community, I think … Baradar is the surest choice to assume a truly senior role in government,” Kugelman said.
Of course, there is always the possibility that neither Bardar nor Haibatullah will remain at the top for long – but through decades of unrest in government and on the battlefield, the Taliban have proved remarkably free of factions and internal divisions.
“While Baradar has been among the most visible of the Taliban leaders in recent years, there are many others. And outsiders, analysts and diplomats do not know much about anyone of them, “Jackson writes.” The next few weeks and months will be a steep learning curve for Western governments and journalists as we begin to understand the men who will rule Afghanistan. “
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