KABUL: Religious scholar Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, named Wednesday as the Afghan Taliban’s new leader, was a senior judge during the insurgent group’s five-year rule over Afghanistan and issued many of its harsh verdicts.
Believed to be aged in his fifties, he hails from Afghanistan’s southern province of Kandahar like both his former boss — Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was killed in a US drone strike on Saturday — and Taliban founder Mullah Omar, who died in 2013.
Akhundzada went on to become the group’s “chief justice” after a US-led invasion toppled the Taliban government in 2001. He was a close ally of Mansour and was one of his two deputies.
Akhundzada is not known for his prowess on the battlefield, having preferred a life of religious and legal study. He is said to have issued many of the group’s rulings on how Muslims should comply with the Taliban’s extreme interpretation of Islam.
According to Rahimullah Yousafzai, considered the region’s foremost expert on the Taliban, Akhundzada was away in Pakistan during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — unlike Omar and Mansour, who earned reputations as fighters as part of the US-backed mujahideen.
It is unclear whether he will follow Mansour in shunning peace negotiations with the Afghan government. Analysts believe he will be more heavily reliant on his shura (council) than Omar and Mansour and will need to rule by consensus.
In terms of age and seniority, he was second only to Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, whom many sources had believed was in contention for the leadership despite his reported detention by Pakistani authorities.
“Akhundzada was chosen to avoid further conflict and consultation,” said Islamabad-based analyst Amir Rana.
Yousafzai, however, projected a rocky road ahead for the new leader.
“I think some other sections were not consulted, there is no unification of the movement yet, and I don’t see how it can unify under Haibatullah (Akhundzada),” he said.