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Who are the Taliban?

President Ashraf Ghani left Afghanistan when insurgents entered the capital after an offensive lasting just ten days and in the face of US withdrawal. Taliban advocate a “peaceful transfer” of power 20 years after they were overthrown by the US.

Almost 20 years after being expelled from Kabul during the US invasion, the Taliban yesterday re-entered the capital of Afghanistan. The fighters were initially ordered to stay outside the city while awaiting a peaceful transfer of power, but later in the day, after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, they were given the green light to enter and “ensure security.” But who are the leaders of the group that brought Kabul down almost unopposed?

The current leader of the Taliban, who was founded in 1994 and was in power between 1996 and 2001, is Haibatullah Akhundzada, who will be in his 60s. He is the ultimate authority on all political, military, and religious affairs of the group. He was elected in May 2016, days after the death of Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in an American drone attack on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

The leader of the Taliban as of May 2016 is Haibatullah Akhundzada.© AFP

The scholar was until then focused on legal issues, has been the main author of the fatwas (decrees under sharia, Islamic law) issued by the Taliban. After being elected, he disappeared from the map, suspecting that he will be in Karachi, Pakistan. Akhundzada took control of the Taliban at a time when they were divided in power struggles after the revelation that they had kept the death of the founder and supreme leader a secret. Mullah Mohammed Omar died of tuberculosis in April 2013, but this did not become public until July 2015, with Mansour, who was his number two, then taking the lead.

Akhundzada managed to re-unite the Taliban, while also having the loyalty of al-Qaeda leader, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. The latter dubbed him the “emir of believers”, allowing him to consolidate his credibility among jihadists. As a leader of the Taliban, he issues messages on the holy days of the Muslim calendar. Less than a month ago, days before Eid al-Adha, he said that “despite military advances and gains [after the start of the US military withdrawal in May], the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is vigorously in favor of an agreement political”.

Ghani left Afghanistan

One of the Taliban’s demands in the Doha negotiations has always been the resignation of the Afghan president – seen as a US “puppet”. Something he refused. Yesterday, with the insurgents at the gates of Kabul after having conquered in just ten days 30 of the country’s 34 provincial capitals, Ghani would eventually leave the country. He was joined by the first lady, Rula, a Lebanese woman from a Maronite Christian family, who made her name in defense of the rights of women who will be especially affected by the return of the Taliban to power after 20 years of greater freedom.

“The former president has left Afghanistan, leaving this situation to the people,” Abdullah Abdullah, the government’s official responsible for the Afghan peace process and Ghani’s main rival, said in a video. Elected in 2014 and re-elected in 2019 (in both elections Abdullah also claimed victory, and negotiations were necessary between them), the former technocrat promised to rebuild the country and put an end to corruption. In his curriculum, the US-trained academic had a decade of World Bank experience, having returned to Afghanistan only after the fall of the Taliban and serving as finance minister.

But the 72-year-old Ghani struggled with that task, his weakness becoming visible as he stayed out of talks between the Taliban and the US, which culminated in the US withdrawal agreement. In addition, he was forced to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners to conclude a peace agreement that never materialized. It wasn’t clear yesterday where Ghani-Tajikistan and Uzbekistan went were hypotheses-but in a Facebook message he said he went out to avoid a “bloodbath” in the face of the Taliban’s “victory”.

Negotiators team

Negotiations in Qatar, which began quietly in 2018 with the North Americans as interlocutors, counted on the side of the Taliban with the group’s co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. The current Taliban political leader in Afghanistan was one of the top commanders of Mullah Omar. He was detained in 2010 in Karachi, being released only in 2018, under US pressure.

The negotiating team also included Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the group’s political head in Qatar, but since September 2020 they both reported to Abdul Hakim Haqqani, a former judge and current leader of the council of ulema (religious), seen as a man of Akhundzada’s trust.

But the negotiations, in addition to the agreement signed with the US for the withdrawal, have not borne fruit in relation to a possible agreement with the Afghan government. It was the military offensive that ended up opening the way for the Taliban to enter Kabul, albeit with almost no armed opposition. The person in charge of the group’s military operations is Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the eldest son of Mullah Omar, often named as a possible successor to the leadership of the Taliban. In his thirties, however, it was considered that he would not have enough experience, with some saying that his appointment to the post of the military chief was symbolic.

The group’s leadership is concluded with Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is the son of another important Taliban (Jalaluddin Haqqani) and is responsible for financial matters. He is wanted by the US for several attacks in Afghanistan, including a January 2008 attack on a hotel in Kabul that killed six people (one of them American).

Future

After the conquest of Kabul, the Taliban said they wanted a “peaceful transfer” of power “in the coming days”. In an interview with the BBC, Suhail Shaheen, one of the spokespersons and negotiators in Doha, said the Taliban’s goal was to have “an inclusive Islamic government” where “all Afghans” would have a place. He also said that there was no danger for employees of foreign embassies, who yesterday accelerated their withdrawal, arguing that they should remain in the country. And he claimed that there would be no “revenge policy”.

But that was before Ghani left the country, which led the fighters to settle yesterday in the presidential palace – from where they are expected to return to declare the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Still, talks were underway yesterday with representatives of the Afghan government regarding a “transition administration”, with rumors that it could be led by Ali Ahmad Jalali. Interior Minister between 2003 and 2005, the 81-year-old former colonel would be on his way to Kabul, having in recent years lived in Washington where he was a university professor (he will even have dual nationality).

After initially staying at the gates of the city, the Taliban entered to “ensure safety”, with many people trying to flee. Former President Hamid Karzai (2001-2014) said in a video on Facebook that he will stay with his family in Kabul, waiting for a “peaceful” solution.

 

Source: with Agencies

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