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Taliban Name Lesser-Known Cleric as Their New Leader

Faced with a choice between two obvious candidates to take over the Taliban — one the young son of the insurgency's founder, the other chief of the Haqqani terrorist network — a small slice of the group's leadership instead chose "none of the above" on Wednesday.

Breaking four days of silence after their previous leader was killed by an American drone strike, the Taliban announced that a lesser-known deputy of the group, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a conservative cleric in his 50s, would take over and continue the group's war against the Afghan government.

Despite a lack of military credentials, Mawlawi Haibatullah became seen during a hasty series of leadership meetings as a throwback to core religious values and a possible figure to unify around after months of leadership struggle and violent schisms, according to insurgent commanders who were briefed on the selection process.

For Afghan officials and their American allies who are struggling to hold back an aggressive Taliban offensive this year, that is unlikely to offer any immediate comfort. Any idea of joining peace talks is a deeply divisive one within the Taliban ranks, and the statement announcing Mawlawi Haibatullah's selection emphasized victory and omitted concession.

Described by the Taliban spokesman as "quiet, deeply patient, and a listener," Mawlawi Haibatullah served as a judicial leader during the days of the Taliban government in Afghanistan and is seen as a consensus builder. Still, his announcement early Wednesday came as surprise to many Taliban commanders.

The two men seen as the chief rivals for the leadership — Sirajuddin Haqqani, the insurgency's day-to-day operations leader; and Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub, in his 20s and the son of the group's founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar — were named as deputies on Wednesday, according to a statement from the Taliban's core leadership council in Quetta, Pakistan.

The announcement on Wednesday was also the Taliban's first public confirmation that their leader for the past year, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, had in fact been killed in a drone strike in Pakistan's Baluchistan Province, for years a seemingly inviolable haven for the insurgency's leadership.

The Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid on Wednesday said Mullah Mansour had been buried two days ago in an undisclosed location inside Afghanistan.

Although Mullah Mansour presided over one of the most dramatic years of Taliban battlefield gains since the group was ousted from Kabul in 2001, he also deeply alienated some of the group's most influential commanders, including some who questioned his religious authority.

After the revelation last summer that the group's revered founder, Mullah Omar, had been dead for at least two years — and that Mullah Mansour had been issuing leadership decrees in his name while hiding the fact of his death — Mullah Mansour worked quickly to try to head off challengers to his ascent.

But the leadership change, and the subsequent battles as Mullah Mansour put down rebel commanders who would not be brought into line, was an unparalleled airing of the Taliban's inner personality disputes, after years of maneuvering that had been cloaked by fear and mystery. And reports of Mullah Mansour's extensive personal wealth and frequent travel abroad were at odds with official Taliban accounts that portrayed him as a modest leader who lived conservatively.

After that, Mawlawi Haibatullah, a village preacher's son who grew up in Kandahar Province and showed no signs of flash in his personal background, may have been especially attractive to a tight inner circle bent on rebuilding a more unified Taliban.

Still, some commanders expressed surprise over his selection on Wednesday, saying most of the group's top leaders had felt strongly about choosing either Mullah Yaqoub or Mr. Haqqani.

"Mawlawi Haibatullah is not very well known among the Taliban here," said Qair Fasihuddin, the Taliban shadow governor of Badakhshan Province. "But obviously, we are obedient to the leadership and we fully accept their decisions."

Both those candidates, however, had factors that may have worked against them.

Mullah Yaqoub is believed to be less than 25 years old, and lacked experience. He was only recently made a member of the leadership council, and was given nominal military authority in 15 Afghan provinces.

Mr. Haqqani, who leads the feared Haqqani militant wing of the Taliban, was named the second deputy to Mullah Mansour last year. In recent months, he is said to have mostly taken over the Taliban's military operations. But he is considered by some commanders to be uncomfortably close to Pakistan's military establishment.

In the end, the decision on Mawlawi Haibatullah was made by a small group of about 24 permanent members of the leadership council and about a dozen other influential clerics late on Tuesday, according to Mr. Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman.

Analysts with insight into the Taliban movement suggested the change in leadership would do little to shift the group's policy away from fighting and toward talking peace.

Mullah Abdul Sallam Zaeef, a former Taliban member close to its founding leader, said Mullah Haibatullah was widely respected within the insurgency as a religious scholar.

"The unity of the Taliban is critical, whether for the Taliban as a movement or for hopes of peace," Mullah Zaeef said. Noting that there was still a standing religious fatwa to fight any foreign troop presence in Afghanistan, he added: "The insistence on fighting is not the solution in Afghanistan. But at the same time, the reason for the fighting needs to be done away with. As long as there remains a motive for the fatwa, any leader going against that will find itself in isolation."

Hailing from Panjwai district of Kandahar Province, Mawlawi Haibatullah belongs to the Noorzai tribe. His family moved to Pakistan after the Soviet invasion, and Mawlawi Haibatullah has spent a good part of his life in Pakistan, largely in Quetta — first as a refugee, then as a longtime religious student, and over the past 14 years as a Taliban figure in exile.

He rose to prominence as a judge during the Taliban government in the 90s, holding a variety of roles across military and civilian courts. Mullah Omar was said to have valued his religious opinions and kept him at his side in the movement's judiciary commission after the insurgency's leadership moved to Pakistan.

Before he became a deputy to Mullah Mansour last summer, Mawlawi Haibatullah was an influential figure among clergy running the madrasas in Pakistan that produce a large number of Taliban fighters.

"One of the reasons that the Taliban chose Haibatullah as leader is that as a religious scholar, he can reunite different factions of the Taliban and prevent disintegration," said Habibullah Fawzi, a former Taliban diplomat.

Some of the leaders of a breakaway Taliban faction that revolted against Mullah Mansour are also from the Noorzai tribe, and Mawlawi Haibatullah is believed to have been involved in trying to mediate their return.

But a spokesman for the breakaway faction, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, said on Wednesday that the choice of Mawlawi Haibatullah was unacceptable. He said that members of the faction — mostly crushed by Mullah Mansour, with their leader reportedly in Pakistani detention — had not been consulted.

His swift selection, along with the promotion of the "powerless" Mullah Yaqoub, was intended to create a situation in which Mr. Haqqani holds the real power, Mullah Niazi said.

"Sheikh Haibatullah is not the right choice for us," Mullah Niazi said, using the term for an elder scholar. "He has been selected quite similarly to Mansour with no consensus of all mujahedeen — it will never be acceptable to us."

[Source: By Mujib Mashal, Taimoor Shah and Zahra Nader, The New York Times, Kabul, 25May16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 27May16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.