The Taliban has a new leader. Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada was appointed as the new Taliban chief after Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a US drone strike last week. Their new leader, who is a religious scholar and the Taliban chief justice, was one of Mansour's two deputies.
Akhundzada's two new deputies have also been appointed. According to AP, one of them is Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was also one of Mansour's deputies and who leads the notorious Haqqani Network — the faction behind some of the most ferocious attacks in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001 and the other is the son of Mullah Omar, Mullah Yaqoub, who controls the Taliban military commissions for 15 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.
Who is Haibatullah Akhundzada?
The new Taliban chief is a member of the Noorzai tribe. He heads close to 10 madrassas across Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan province and his known to be a powerful orator. It is also believed that Mullah Omar consulted Akhundzada on religious matters.
A hard-liner, he is known to advocate their war against the Afghan government and the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. Sami Yousafzai, an Afghan expert told Al Jazeera that Akhundzada in known to be "a Stone Age mullah" and could affect the peacekeeping process in Afghanistan.
A former foreign minister under the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Ghous, told AP that the choice of Akhundzada was "a very wise decision" and could be a unifying force for the fractured movement. It won't be surprising if he follows the aggressive footsteps of his predecessor.
According to The Telegraph UK, those who were opposed to Akhundzada's appointment, have extended their support to him and have taken an oath of allegiance, to continue waging war against the US.
Akhundzada was a top-ranking judge, who regularly issued fatwas advocating suicide bombings, as per Foreign Policy. The article said that although he has never led a military operation, his background as a religious scholar might help in unifying the splintering factions. It added that first task ahead of him will be to avenge the death of Mansour.
Not just commanding obedience from the Talibans, Akhundzada has to focus on their relationship with Pakistan, reported CNN. The report added that over the past six months, Mansour has consistently ignored Pakistan's insistence on initiating talks with the Afghan government or face the consequences. Now, it is up to the new leader whether to follow Mansour's policies or reassess their relations with Pakistan. Akhundzada also has to decide if the Taliban will continue with Mansour's anti-Islamic State policy and maintain its alignment with Al-Qaeda, the report added.
What happens to peace process?
US President Barack Obama's hopes of initiating talks between the Taliban and the Ashraf Ghani government might take a hit if the new Taliban chief follows Mansour's hardline policies. According to Reuters, Akhundzada is likely to pursue aggressive attacks throughout the summer, intensifying the pressure on Obama to reconsider his plan to withdraw US military troops and special forces.
"Prospects for the Afghan peace process remain poor. The Taliban leadership, including the new commander, Mullah Akhundzada, believe military victory is only a matter of time," said Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution expert and former CIA officer who headed Obama's first Afghanistan policy review told Reuters.
"We would hope that the new Taliban leader would seize the opportunity," State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner told reporters at his daily news conference on Wednesday.
"He (Akhundzada) does have an opportunity in front of him to choose peace and to work towards a negotiated solution. We hope that he makes that choice now. I'm not going to predict who we might target in the national security interest of the US," Toner said in response to a question.
Meanwhile, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter hoped that better sense would prevail on the new Taliban leadership headed by Akhundzada.
"We'll have to see what new Taliban leadership concludes. Obviously, the conclusion that they should draw is that they can not win," Carter told reporters travelling with him at Newport in Rhode Island.
Carter said that the Afghan Security Forces, aided by the US, are going to be stronger than them. "Therefore, the alternative to coming across and making peace with the government is their certain defeat on the battlefield. That's the environment in which we intend to put them in," Carter said.
He added the plan to reduce the overall footprint of US forces in Afghanistan remains unchanged.
Last year, Obama had announced he would keep 9,800 US military personnel in Afghanistan through most of 2016 and US troops would be drawn down to 5,500 by 2017. Obama has made extracting the United States from its 15-year war in Afghanistan a top priority.
With inputs from agencies
Updated Date: May 26, 2016 12:30 PM