The Taliban announced on Tuesday that Mullah Hassan Akhund has been appointed as the interim prime minister of Afghanistan. The Taliban has also assigned key roles to high-profile members of the insurgent group, including a specially designated global terrorist of the dreaded Haqqani network, as interior minister. Mullah Hassan, the head of the Taliban’s powerful decision-making body ‘Rahbari Shura’, will be the caretaker prime minister, while Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar will be his deputy in the “new Islamic government”, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said at a news conference. in Kabul.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, a specially designated global terrorist and son of renowned anti-Soviet warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani who founded the Haqqani Network, is the new acting interior minister in the 33-member cabinet, which has no women members.
The Taliban had promised an “inclusive” government that represents Afghanistan’s complex ethnic makeup, but the cabinet has no Hazara members.
The announcement of the interim government comes days after Pakistan’s intelligence agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) director general Lt Gen Hameed razed Kabul on an unannounced visit last week.
It was previously reported that the new government in Kabul would be on the lines of the Iranian leadership, with the group’s top religious leader Mullah Hebatullah as Afghanistan’s supreme authority. However, it is not yet clear what role Mullah Hebatullah will play in the new government.
Who is Mulla Hassan Akhund?
Mullah Akhund is a fascinating but relatively enigmatic figure in the Taliban. He has been an influential figure in Afghanistan since the founding of the terrorist group in the 1990s. But unlike other Taliban leaders of that period, he was not involved in the Soviet–Afghan War of the 1980s. While Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and his representatives fought alongside the Mujahideen – a loose network of anti-Soviet Afghan fighters – Akhund did not.
Instead, he is seen more as a religious influence in the Taliban. He served on the Taliban’s shura councils, the traditional decision-making body made up of religious scholars and mullahs – respected people trained in Islamic theology.
Akhund is perhaps best known as one of the architects of the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the colossal rock sculptures destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
In the beginning, Umar had no intention of destroying the idols. But the founders of the Taliban were angry at the UNESCO World Heritage Site being provided protection money while failing to receive humanitarian aid from the United Nations for Afghanistan.
As such, Umar sought the advice of his shura, and Akhund was part of the council that ordered the destruction of sixth-century statues.
Akhund played a political role in the Taliban government of the 1990s, serving as foreign minister; However, their importance is greater in the development of the group’s religious identity. He, like Mullah Omar, was educated in a brand of strict Islamic ideology known as Deobandism.
After the Taliban was ousted from Afghanistan in 2001, Akhund remained an influential presence, operating mostly from exile in Pakistan.
From there he would provide spiritual and religious guidance to the Taliban in the 2000s and 2010s. In this role, he provided the ideological justification for the ongoing rebellion against the United States and the US-backed Afghan government.
Today, the Taliban largely consists of two factions – a military wing that conducts day-to-day operations, and a conservative religious elite based on Deobandism that serves as its political wing. Mullah Akhund is largely aligned with the Taliban’s religious faction.
What does his appointment tell us about the Taliban?
There appears to be a power struggle behind Akhund’s appointment. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who served as Omar’s deputy during the Taliban’s early years before assuming the position of de facto leader following Omar’s death, was seen by many Afghanistan experts as a potential head of state. But there are political tensions between Baradar and the powerful Haqqani network – a family-based Islamist group that has become the de facto diplomatic arm of the Taliban in recent years and has managed to garner support for the group, among other local groups.
The Haqqanis are one of the Taliban’s most extremist groups. And the language of Baradar’s recent reconciliation on issues such as women’s rights, working with the international community and apologies to former government members is in stark contrast to the Haqqani network’s ideology.
There appears to be a compromise candidate between Akhund Baradar and supporters of the Haqqani Network.
The delay in his appointment – the Taliban has repeatedly avoided announcing – could be an indicator of internal divisions in the Taliban.
When the announcement was made, news came with him that Baradar would be his deputy, while two members of the Haqqani network would also serve in the Afghan government.
Whether this arrangement is permanent or temporary remains to be seen, but the agreement could be a test of the Taliban’s waters – to see how effective Akhund is as a unified figure for the group.
What does Akhund’s appointment mean for Afghanistan?
Akhund is a conservative, religious scholar whose beliefs include the banning of women and the denial of civil rights to moral and religious minorities. His orders, adopted by the Taliban in the 1990s, included banning women’s education, implementing gender segregation and adopting strict religious clothing. All this may be a sign of what is to come.
Despite the Taliban’s friendly language of late, I believe it is likely that we can trace some of the rules back to when the Taliban was first in power, including a ban on women’s education.
We have already seen on 5 September that the Taliban ordered female university students to wear abayas. The abaya is similar to the burqa, but differs in that the veils are almost always black. The abaya is not Afghan, but is a style of dress more common in the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar.
In the 1990s, the Taliban was an insular, nationalist group aiming to bring their brand of Islamic rule to Afghanistan.
Now, Akhund wants to put the Taliban up with international partners – an ambition that can also be seen in the Taliban’s recent diplomatic outreach with the governments of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan.
(with inputs from PTI)