Akhundzada vs Haqqani, who will win the battle to lead the Taliban?

By Kazim Ehsan

In December 2022, the Taliban caused international uproar after banning women from working as aid workers, which forced major aid agencies to suspend operations in the country in protest, just when the country needed them most.

With more than 28 million people in Afghanistan requiring aid to survive, and 6 million on the brink of famine, the UN, government officials, and NGO leaders have called on the Taliban to lift the ban and allow aid agencies to deliver aid to the people of Afghanistan as the deadly winter intensifies its grip on the country. The Taliban refused to budge. The ban, the group said, was to “protect our women’s dignity and honour.” International condemnations and pressures did nothing to make the Taliban leadership change course.

For some, the reason nothing worked was because the group’s supreme leader, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, was unwilling to row back the restrictions he had imposed on women, especially under pressure from foreigners, particularly the West. 

After days of intense lobbying in Kabul in mid-January, Jan Egeland, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), left Kabul disappointed and blamed the group’s supreme leader for restricting women’s right to work. Following her visit to Kabul, the UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, also told the BBC that some Taliban leaders were “open to women’s rights“. Zalmay Khalilzad, who, as the head of the US negotiating team during the Doha talks, got to know Taliban leaders on a personal level, told France 24 that the banning of women from working for NGOs was a “minority view” within the Taliban’s leadership ranks. In other words, they argued that it was the group’s supreme leader and those close to him who were responsible for the group’s anti-women decisions.

It is now evident that senior Taliban figures, expressing unease about the group’s direction, have been unable to influence decisions made by Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada and those close to him. This demonstrates a significant shift in power towards their supreme leader. As a result, Kandahar has become the centre of power in the Taliban’s government and its power structure. And this means that power gained by the supreme leader results in power lost for others, particularly the group’s interior minister and the head of the Haqqani Network, Sirajuddin Haqqani. He was the first to go public with a speech on 11 February at a gathering in Khost province, which was seen as a direct challenge against the supreme leader, warning against the monopolisation of power within the group. 

Haqqani is not alone in being frustrated by his leader. 

According to the Brookings Institution, “With nearly absolute power, Habibullah has repeatedly dismissed input from other Taliban factions, particularly more pragmatic, internationally-oriented Taliban leaders.” The Taliban shura selected Haibatullah in 2016 due to his religious qualifications and perceived lack of decisiveness. However, he has since governed with an uncompromising approach.

Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada’s power grab in recent months has permeated every level of the Taliban’s governing structure. A source within the group told KabulNow that new offices have been created in every government agency in Kabul and other provinces, overseeing operations, including the appointment and dismissal of officials, and reporting directly to Kandahar. “The Emir has established his dominance over every government agency. No mid or high-level appointment can be made without his approval,” the source said.

Taliban factions are becoming increasingly irritated and are demonstrating it publicly. Mullah Hibatullah and his “Kandahar-based clique” see no bound in their quest for total control of the group, it seems. They want to control not just the group, but the drug trade, the sale and trafficking of military equipment’s left behind the US, relationships with the outside world and the interpretation and implementation Sharia law. 

Sirajuddin Haqqani has been seen the man who can challenge Kandahar, and, in his speech, he didn’t hold back. The situation, he said, was “not tolerable”. Akhundazda loyalists didn’t hold back either. The group’s minister of justice warned that “Be it the Emir, a minister or an agent, moves against the system will not be forgiven.” And the group’s longtime spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, advised Haqqani any criticism of the Emir should be aired privately, otherwise it will be an insult.” And the governor of Kandahar province, Haji Yousuf Wafa, who like Mullah Hibatullah, hails from the Noorzai sub-tribe, in an apparent warning to Haqqani, told a gathering that they had pledged allegiance to the Emir, which required giving sacrifices. 

Haji Yousuf Wafa, left, meeting Sirajuddin Haqqani, right, defended Akhundzada.

Mullah Yaqoob, the son of group’s founder, Mullah Omar, and defence minister, who has also been affected by Mullah Hibatullah’s power grab, appeared to side with Haqqani. Speaking at an event marking the 34th anniversary of the Soviets withdrawal from Afghanistan, he said: “We have no option except to protect this system at any cost… We should not be arrogant. We should always try to respond to the legitimate demands of the nation.” And two weeks later, speaking at another event, he said that “God has blessed us with wisdom and reasoning ability. We are obliged to think and decide carefully. So, we should not obey anyone with blind eyes.”

It seems, the Taliban has been divided into two camps. The first led by Mullah Hibatullah and his ultra-conservative Kandahir ideologues with control over financial resources. The second led by Mullah Yaqoob and Sirajuddin Haqqani, with control over the group’s military and intelligence apparatus. 

On 2 March 2023, Hibatullah Akhundzada summoned Mallah Yaqoob and Sirjuddin Haqqani to Kandahar in a bid to address their grievances in person. But no further details came out of the meeting, except a short press notice by Zabihullah Mujahid, in which he said the supreme leader had implored ministers and clerics present to promote and implement the Sharia.

Who eventually wins the battle of the Emir and Haqqani remains to be seen.