Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada is the emir (leader) of the Taliban, successor to Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. Akhundzada’s appointment to the position was announced by the Taliban’s senior leadership on May 25, 2016, following the death of Mansour in a U.S. drone strike in southwestern Pakistan on May 21, 2016. As the emir of the Taliban, Akhundzada is responsible for overseeing the courts and judges.Abubakar Siddique, “The Quetta Shura: Understanding the Afghan Taliban’s Leadership,” Terrorism Monitor 12, no. 4 (February 21, 2014), http://www.jamestown.org/programs/tm/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=42006&cHash=7af7678306a23ff6734f35e261b15b90#.VTVCgy HBzGc. He also oversees the 11 Taliban commissions, which deal with the military, politics, culture, economics, health, education, outreach and guidance, prisoners, non-governmental organizations, martyrs and disabled persons, and civilian casualties.“Fifth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, submitted pursuant to resolution 2160 (2014) concerning the Taliban and other associated individuals and entities constituting a threat to the peace, stability and security of Afghanistan,” United Nations Security Council, December 11, 2014, http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2014/888. Following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan on August 15, 2021, Akhundzada was named the supreme leader of the movement on September 7, 2021.Matthieu Aikins and Jim Huylebroek, “Taliban Appoint Stalwarts to Top Government Posts,” New York Times, September 7, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/07/world/asia/taliban-women-protest-kabul-afghanistan.html.
Before rising to the position of emir, Akhundzada had served as a deputy leader to Mullah Mansour. He was considered a key cleric and spiritual guide within the Taliban, but reportedly lacks any military experience.Mujib Mashal, “Taliban Name New Leader After Confirming Predecessor Died in U.S. Strike,” New York Times, May 25, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/26/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-new-leader.html. During the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, Akhundzada served as a top judge in the Taliban’s sharia court system, both in Kandahar and in the supreme court in Kabul.Mujib Mashal, “Taliban Name New Leader After Confirming Predecessor Died in U.S. Strike,” New York Times, May 25, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/26/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-new-leader.html. Following the Taliban’s fall from power, Akhundzada reportedly served as the Taliban’s Chief Justice.Masoud Popalzai and Euan McKirdy, “Taliban's new leader described as educated, well-respected,” CNN, May 25, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/25/middleeast/new-taliban-leader-announced.
Little else is publicly known about Akhunzada, other than that he was born in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province and comes from the Noorzai tribe.Mujib Mashal, “Taliban Name New Leader After Confirming Predecessor Died in U.S. Strike,” New York Times, May 25, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/26/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-new-leader.html. According to sources from within the Taliban, Akhundzada is well-educated, well-liked, and may be amenable to entering into peace negotiations with the Afghan government. Akhundzada is believed to have been responsible for negotiating the Taliban’s temporary ceasefire with the Afghan government in early 2016.Masoud Popalzai and Euan McKirdy, “Taliban's new leader described as educated, well-respected,” CNN, May 25, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/25/middleeast/new-taliban-leader-announced.
Akhundzada’s relative anonymity has reportedly served as a factor in the Taliban’s decision to elevate him. Previously, many had assumed that more well-known figures, like Haqqani network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, would succeed Mullah Mansour. Akhundzada, on the other hand, may have been seen by the Taliban leadership as a significantly less public and controversial choice than Haqqani, both major assets as the group seeks to shield its leadership from detection by authorities, as well as retain control over its internal factions.Mujib Mashal, “Taliban Name New Leader After Confirming Predecessor Died in U.S. Strike,” New York Times, May 25, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/26/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-new-leader.html.
On August 6, 2021, the Taliban began an offensive against major Afghan cities with the seizure of Zaranj, capital of Nimruz province.Susannah George and Ezzatullah Mehrdad, “Taliban fighters overrun an Afghan provincial capital for the first time since withdrawal of foreign forces,” Washington Post, August 6, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/08/06/afghanistan-taliban-nimruz/. By August 13, the Taliban controlled 17 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals and more than two-thirds of the country.Rahim Faiez, and Joseph Krauss, “Taliban sweep across Afghanistan’s south; take 4 more cities,” Associated Press, August 13, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-taliban-c6c8d4a41c554f36031a8131538d1402. By August 16, the Taliban laid siege to the presidential palace and took complete control of Kabul, after which the Taliban declared the war in Afghanistan had ended.“Taliban declares ‘war is over’ as president and diplomats flee Kabul,” Reuters, August 15, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/talibans-rapid-advance-across-afghanistan-2021-08-10/. A month after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, on September 7, 2021, the Taliban announced the official appointments within their caretaker government. Akhundzada was named supreme leader of the movement. The government is exclusively male, with many positions filled with veterans from their hardline movement in the early nineties.Matthieu Aikins and Jim Huylebroek, “Taliban Appoint Stalwarts to Top Government Posts,” New York Times, September 7, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/07/world/asia/taliban-women-protest-kabul-afghanistan.html; Kathy Gannon, “Taliban form all-male Afghan government of old guard members,” Associated Press, September 8, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-pakistan-afghanistan-arrests-islamabad-d50b1b490d27d32eb20cc11b77c12c87.