On 21 May 2016, Afghan Taliban Chief Mullah Mansour was killed in a US drone strike in Balochistan, Pakistan. On 25 May 2016, the insurgent group’s Rahbari Shura – the central leadership council – declared Mansour’s first deputy Haibatullah Akhundzada as his successor. Two other significant appointments were announced: former Afghan Taliban Chief Mullah Omar’s 26-year old son Mullah Yakoub succeeds Akhundzada as one of the chief’s two deputies; and Sirajuddin Haqqani – Mansour’s other deputy – retains his position. Cumulatively, these bear distinctive signs of a ‘coherent’ strategy – the implementation of which began much before Mansour’s death. Akhundzada’s and related appointments indicate a trend in the Afghan Taliban towards unity, operational consolidation, and continuity, as well as the complicity of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Although Haqqani is now the de facto head of the Afghan Taliban, a formalisation of him as the chief would have meant further splintering within the group. He does not enjoy the support of all commanders – particularly southern. Akhundzada’s selection as chief is more palatable to a major section of the group. A large number of Afghan Taliban fighters regard him as a respectable religious scholar and view him as comparatively less political. He is originally from Kandahar, and belongs to the Noorzai tribe – influential within the Taliban structures. This will help the Taliban stem further splintering and dissensions within the group; and perhaps even to heal factionalism to an extent. The Taliban’s political office in Qatar, which had differences vis-à-vis Mansour’s succession of Omar, has already declared their allegiance to Akhundzada.
Significantly, the Taliban would be less divided on him being leader especially because he was close to Omar, and had over the past months been more actively involved in running the group. Regardless, he will still require further confidence-building on his part with the other commanders in Afghanistan to consolidate his position. Among other reasons, this is because, the decision to choose Akhundzada was taken during a meeting of a relatively smaller group of the Rahbari Shura members as opposed to a large gathering. Also, he is viewed more as a religious leader than as a military commander; but this does not mean much because in many ways, so was the perception regarding Omar.
Consolidation of Operations
Since July 2015 especially, the Haqqani Network via Sirajuddin Haqqani has steadily become the Afghan Taliban’s backbone, a source of its stability, and its actual leadership albeit from behind the scenes. This is not sudden or a coincidence. Haqqani is responsible for gradually uniting the Taliban structure after splintering plaguing the terrorist group escalated over the legitimacy of Mansour’s succession. With Akhundzada as the chief and Haqqani as one of the deputies, the Afghan Taliban now has one Chief Executive Officer (CEO) – Akhundzada – and one Chief Operating Officer (COO) – Haqqani. Importantly, this COO is more powerful than the CEO. This means the chiefs could keep getting changed/eliminated but the operations will continue without interruptions/fluctuations. Also Haqqani as a deputy and not the chief will be a secondary target compared to the chief – thus remaining comparatively more secure.
Akhundzada’s own background, along with the appointment of Omar’s son Yakoub – who had initially disputed Mansour’s succession of Omar – as one of the deputies means the Afghan Taliban is demonstrating to its fighters and commanders a continuity of Omar’s legacy and the group’s original mission and character he symbolised.
The Rahbari Shura, also called the Quetta Shura, gathered in less than two days of Mansour’s killing to deliberate on succession. That the movement of the members of the Shura were able to travel so promptly and hold meetings for three days – however small the participation – and not get targeted only highlights the ISI’s complicity. While there are intensive military operations underway in Afghanistan, it is bizarre that Pakistan’s security agencies were unable to trace the location of the meeting that had been underway at least since 22 May 2016.
Besides, the US has been pressurising Pakistan to target the Haqqani Network. Mansour, although close to the ISI, had increasingly become an unstable ‘asset’ for the latter. Conversely, the Haqqanis have been the ISI’s steady, ‘stable’ and ‘dependable’ ‘asset’, and the latter has expressed no intention of giving them up. Additionally, the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in eastern Afghanistan provides the ISI an opportunity to prop the Haqqani Network as a counter capable of ‘delivering results’ against the IS. Although the IS is not the primary factor that might drive the ISI to do this, it is not difficult to imagine Sirajuddin Haqqani – and by extension, the Haqqani Network – being hawked as a strong, ‘dependable’ asset.
These emerging dynamics will further complicate targeting the Haqqanis, especially in the wake of Afghanistan’s peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, thus enabling the ISI to excuse itself, and perhaps even help prevent others from directly targeting the Haqqanis. Moreover, that Pakistan was informed (albeit later, according to their foreign ministry) about the attack on Mansour, will give Islamabad room to manoeuver and play the ‘ally’ card to try and bargain on the F-16 and other security related deals.
This is not new; and neither has the US-Haqqani Network relationship always been mutually adversarial.