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A Taliban statement on 25 May said that Haibatullah was appointed after the ‘unanimous agreement’ of a meeting of Taliban leaders, while a picture purporting to be of Akhundzada Haibatullah was posted on the Taliban’s official Twitter account. Serajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani network, widely believed to be an arm of Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, and Mullah Yaqoob (son of Mullah Omar) were announced as his deputies. The appointment was quicker than some had anticipated – coming before Pakistan had even acknowledged the death of Mullah Mansour - and reflects the Taliban’s desire to prevent conflict and further fragmentation among the movement. The mounting evidence of Mansour’s death, would have made it difficult to deny the need for a swift leadership succession, while any cover-up would have been risky, given the widespread anger observed among the Taliban in the wake of attempts to conceal the death of Mullah Omar. It is also possible that a plan for succession was already in place, thereby easing Haibatullah’s progress towards the position of Emir.
Haibatullah is perhaps less well-known than other Taliban figures. He began his rise to the top of the Taliban hierarchy when Mansour appointed him as his first deputy. Interestingly, Thomas Ruttig from the Afghan Analysts Network, an independent policy analysis and research organisation, singled Haibatullah out as Mansour’s most likely successor as early as February; basing his conclusion on his long-standing ties with the Taliban, as well as the need for stability and consistency within the movement. Haibatullah also has religious authority and is known for issuing decrees on the Taliban’s behalf. Furthermore, he is believed to have been head of the Taliban’s council of ulama (Islamic scholars) during the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Though his military credentials remain unclear, Haibatullah’s religious background sustains and reasserts the Taliban’s self-proclaimed identity as a religious movement. According to Taliban sources, Haibatullah is from the Sperwan area in Panjwayi District in Kandahar, the birthplace of the movement . His tribal links could also prove useful – Haibatullah is a Noorzai, the same tribe as Mullah Rasool, leader of the breakaway Taliban faction. Haibatullah negotiated a ceasefire between the mainstream Taliban and Mullah Rasool’s dissident faction in late December and early January this year.
For the time being, the Taliban appears to be unified behind their choice of Emir. ‘All the shura members have pledged allegiance to Sheikh Haibatullah’ the Taliban’s statement said. ‘All people are required to obey the new Emir-al-Momineen (Commander of the Faithful).’ Like his predecessor, Mullah Haibatullah may face a leadership challenge from Mullah Yuqoob, although the latter’s position has perhaps been undermined by his previous power struggle with the late Mullah Mansour.
The other potential challenger, Serajuddin Haqqani, has strong credentials as a battlefield leader, but he is more controversial: Unlike previous senior figures, including Haibatullah, he does not have a significant connection to Kandahar. Haqqani also struggles to overcome reputational damage caused by claims that he has closes links with ISI, links which are believed to run even deeper than his connections with the Taliban and which could make Haqqani an even harder ‘sell’ to the wider Taliban movement.
Haibatullah will still have to gain the support of the important sub-networks’ military leaders, in both his own Kandahari region and elsewhere, much as his predecessor, Mansour had to. His connection to the insurgent movement’s heartlands could potentially help him bring together local Taliban commanders and ordinary fighters who, if left to their own devices, might otherwise trigger fresh turmoil. Obtaining their support to bolster the new leader’s legitimacy will be vital. Therefore, while little is known of his perspectives on negotiations, it is safe to conclude that the new Taliban leader is unlikely to disrupt the ‘status quo’, and that the Taliban’s rejectionist stance on the peace process is unlikely to change under Haibatullah. As we argued in a previous commentary, the next Taliban leader would in any case be under the same pressure as Mansour to prove his credentials through military success.
Within an hour of the announcement of the leadership succession, a Taliban suicide bomber attacked a shuttle bus carrying court employees west of Kabul, killing as many as 11 people and wounding several others, including children. Perhaps this is an indication of what lies ahead.