To the wider world, it is a ragtag assortment of Islamist fighters who seemingly lack any organisation and are free to act as they like, obeying no authority and respecting no boundaries. But the Taliban do have a chain of command that apparently exercises strong control over its rank even as local commanders are given a lot of say in running their operations. After the days of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the founder and undisputed leader of the movement, there may no longer be a single personality at control, but the diffused structure the group maintains now makes its leadership that much harder to pin down.
Who Is The Top Leader Of The Taliban?
His name is Haibatullah Akhundzada and he is a cleric, or Maulavi, who has the title of Amir al-Mu’minin, or ‘commander of the faithful’. Akhundzada is the third supreme leader of the Taliban after Mullah Omar, who founded the Taliban in the early 90s as the country found itself in disarray following the withdrawal of Soviet invasionary forces. Omar was at the helm as the Taliban — made up predominantly of the ethnic majority Pashtuns of Afghanistan — seized power in Afghanistan in 1996 and controlled its affairs till 2001, when US troops landed to flush out al Qaeda terrorists following the September 11 attacks on American soil.
The US invasion saw Omar and the top Taliban leadership cross over in to Pakistan, taking shelter in the rugged Balochistan province. It was in Pakistan that Omar died some time in 2013 although the top leadership kept the news of his death from the Taliban rank and file. Omar had been succeeded by Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour and, after he was reportedely killed in a 2016 US drone attack in Pakistan, the Taliban’s top council elected Akhundzada — who belongs to the same Noorzai tribe as Mullah Omar — as the supreme leader.
Akhundzada is said to be not a military commander unlike his two predecessors and reports at the time of his elevation to the Taliban top rung mentioned that he was in his 50s, hails from the southern Afghan province of Kandahar from where most of the group’s leadership comes, and was a religious scholar and a military court judge for the Taliban.
How Are Decisions Taken By The Taliban?
As the Taliban numero uno, Akhundzada is also the leader of its shura, or council, which is also known as the Rahbari, or Quetta, shura, after the city in Pakistan’s Balochistan where it came to be based following the US invasion of Afghanistan. The UN says that this shura is responsible for taking decisions on all political and military affairs of the Taliban.
The members of the Quetta shura are said to be “veterans of the Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s". Most of them are Islamic clerics. So, while Akhundzada may lead the Taliban, he does not act unilaterally and the shura, as the top policy body of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — the name under which the Taliban ruled Afghanistan — clears all decisions.
The Quetta shura runs an elaborate ‘shadow’ government complete with commissions, or panels, that are arranged like ministries that cover everthing from education, health, finance, etc. The US-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) says “the military commission appoints shadow governors and battlefield commanders for each of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces. The political commission… led negotiations with the US and is based in Doha, Qatar".
Who Is The Top General Of The Taliban’s Fighting Forces?
Akhundzada has under him three deputies who are in charge of the most important aspects of Taliban’s operations. There is Mullah Muhammad Yaqub, who is the son of Mullah Omar, who “manages ideological and religious affairs", Then there is Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the US-designated terror group Haqqani Network that is notorious for carrying out high-profile suicide attacks, who “oversees the insurgency". Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a Taliban co-founder, is in charge of the political commission and leads peace talks.
CFR says that the Haqqani Network was a “relatively small, tribal-based jihadi network" that now “exerts unprecedented influence in the Afghan insurgency" thanks to the role of Sirajuddin Haqqani as “the Afghan Taliban’s second-in-command since 2015, leading all military operations for the overall insurgency". It is said to have ties with al-Qaeda and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
A report by the Combating Terrorism Centre at the US military’s West Point academy earlier this year said the Taliban “exhibit a high degree of control over their fighters and the communities in the areas they control and a high degree of organisational autonomy via their regional" structures. The Taliban “is characterised by strong cohesion, reflected in strong staying power and strong battlefield performance".
A UN report in June 2021 said that in May 2020, Mullah Yaqub was appointed to lead the Taliban Military Commission. “Mullah Yaqub ranks second in line after first deputy Sirajuddin Haqqani to… Akhundzada. Yaqub is… reported to harbour ambitions to become the group’s leader," the report said, adding that the “group has remained outwardly unified despite some reports of internal tensions or divisions".
The UN report also spoke about a Peshawar shura of the Taliban that “controls 19 provinces" as against the Quetta shura that “controls Taliban affairs in 11 provinces" of Afghanistan.
On the ground, it is regional and local commanders who drive Taliban operations and are said to be responsible for recruiting and keeping their troops supplied with war necessities. But the UN said that “the independent operations and power wielded by Taliban field commanders have reportedly been a growing concern to the Leadership Council".
It said that “tensions between the political leadership and some military commanders… reflect ongoing internal rivalries, tribal divisions and disagreements over Taliban revenue distribution" but noted that the “Taliban leadership has consistently maintained an outward facing image of unity, while obscuring internal dissent and tensions".
How Does Taliban Carry Out Political Negotiations?
Mullah Baradar, who led the Taliban’s peace dialogue with the Afghan government headed by Ashraf Ghani, is said to be one of the frontrunners for becoming Afghanistan’s new ruler. A co-founder of the Taliban, Baradar was arrested near Karachi in Pakistan in 2010 and held in custody until 2018. He was moved to Qatar and, after his release, was named to lead the Taliban’s diplomatic office in Doha.
As the Taliban continued with the dialogue process on the one hand even as its fighters kept up their unyielding campaign against Afghan government forces, experts expressed doubts over whether the group would be able to impose a ceasefire if one could be agreed by the two sides. The suggestion was that the Taliban has no control over its local commanders and fighters and lacks any political nous.
However, in the run up to its total capture of Afghanistan, Baradar has been courted by the US and also the Chinese and was the face of the Taliban at diplomatic meetings. The Taliban had assured that any decision or agreement drawn up at the the talks table would be respected on the ground and the group is seen as having avoided attacks on US troops as part of the deal with Washington for the US to clear out of the country.
Thus, despite suggestions of fragmentation and lack of unity, the Taliban have been able to project a picture of cohesiveness as they withstood pressure from US troops for two decades. The West Point report says that the “recent detailed studies of the Taliban’s structure, history, and evolution… have concluded that the Taliban are today a relatively cohesive group".