This “Letter from Kabul” is part of a new offering by New Lines. Our contributors provide their own unique glimpses into life on the ground in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Today’s segment looks at two rare public appearances by the Taliban’s supreme leader. To read them first, sign up to our newsletter.
The students at the Dar-ul-uloom Hakimia madrassa in Kandahar had just gathered for the maghrib sunset prayer one evening this fall when an elderly looking man dressed in white bustled in to join them at the last minute. Surrounded by a small retinue of friends of a similar age, he walked to the front of the mosque and took the position ordinarily reserved for the imam. Most of the students had no idea who this stranger was, but obediently fell into line behind him as he recited the surah al fatiha, calling on God to guide them along the straight path of Islam. Only when the prayer was over and a few of the teachers started to rhythmically chant the Arabic word “emir” – meaning leader or commander – did the students realize the man’s identity. Their mysterious guest was none other than Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada, the head of the Taliban and the supreme leader of its government: the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Until then, Akhundzada had hardly been seen in public for years. He had not even felt the need to show his face to the nation after the Taliban’s stunning victory over the U.S. and its allies in the summer. Why, then, was he making a modest, low-profile and unplanned appearance at a madrassa few people outside Kandahar even knew existed? The meeting happened on October 30, but until now little has been known about its circumstances. A poor quality audio recording of a relatively mundane speech Akhundzada gave to the congregation after leading the prayer soon circulated on social media. In it, he praised Afghans for fighting the “infidels and oppressors” for 20 years but warned that a new test lay ahead for the country. Yet even that recording did not stop speculation that the entire event was faked as part of a Taliban misinformation campaign designed to cover up his death.
Last week I was finally able to verify precisely what happened that October evening thanks to someone who was there. I have chosen to protect my source’s identity, but can reveal that he is a close confidant of Mawlawi Noor Mohammed, who runs the Dar-ul-uloom Hakimia madrassa in the Loy Wiyala neighborhood in the north of Kandahar city. My source told me that Mohammed has known Akhundzada personally since they both served as judges in the first Taliban regime. Aged around 45, Mohammed is several years younger than the Taliban leader but still cuts an imposing figure. Like Akhundzada, he weighs his words carefully and prefers to wear the loosely wound white turban that is the customary attire of many of Afghanistan’s most dedicated Sunni scholars. My source said that Mohammed was almost as surprised as the students to see Akhundzada that evening. For Akhundzada, it seems that going to the madrassa was a chance to catch up on old times and make a rare public appearance in a safe setting to show he was alive and well.
Security protocols were surprisingly lax, however, and when students and teachers realized who had led the prayer they began to call friends and family on their cell phones. After his short speech Akhundzada left the madrassa just as more people were arriving to try and catch a glimpse of him. He again disappeared from public view until earlier this month.
I have been told by a second source that the Taliban leader made another public appearance in mid-December, visiting the governor’s office in Kandahar to meet with officials from across the province. This time, he discussed the devastating humanitarian impact that Western sanctions and asset freezes are having on Afghanistan. Concerned by numerous reports of low and mid-ranking Taliban abusing their positions, he also stressed the need for discipline and prayer within the movement’s ranks.
While talk of deep divisions within the Taliban have been exaggerated by their political opponents and sections of the media, I know that figures in the government are frustrated by the errant behavior of some fighters who have assaulted and intimidated civilians. These frustrations are mostly aired behind closed doors and there is hope that the problems can still be solved. In truth, a solution will have to be found if the government is to ensure that the continued threat of the Islamic State group remains in check. Ever since the 1990s, the Taliban have billed themselves as a force for law and order, and even some of their most ardent enemies would concede that an ability to maintain security in areas under their control is their biggest strength. Any long-term indiscipline therefore has the potential to be hugely damaging.
In October the Taliban announced the creation of a special commission to investigate breaches of internal group protocol. Made up of representatives from the defence and interior ministries, as well as the directorate of intelligence, it is specifically tasked with rooting out unruly elements inside the Taliban who have been raiding houses and pursuing personal vendettas that are against official policy. This is more than just a public relations exercise. There is genuine concern among senior officials that they will lose the support of sympathetic Afghans if the problems continue. While this may seem like welcome news for the U.S. and its allies, the reality is far more complicated. At this stage a divided or wounded Taliban government will only benefit ISIS.
Akhundzada’s background as a judge and his image as a strict disciplinarian was a key reason for his appointment as Taliban leader in May 2016. His predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, was a controversial figure within the movement before he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan, thanks largely to his reputation for corruption. Akhundzada’s apparent obsession with his own privacy may puzzle outsiders, but it is not controversial inside the Taliban. The Taliban’s founding leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was also reclusive and Akhundzada’s supporters regard his asceticism as proof of his piety. Taliban officials in Kabul and elsewhere know they can contact him if they need to and see little point in making his role more public while the new government has so many enemies at home and abroad.