According to media reports, “The whereabouts of the leader of the Taliban, Haibatullah Akhunzada, are not known. He has not been seen or heard from for some time, and there are many rumours that he is dead.”
He is now the most influential person in Afghanistan, and yet he remains a recluse, relegated to the shadows. The images of him circulating the internet appear to be years old. Moreover, his failure to address the public has sparked a fresh wave of conspiracies – even within Taliban circles – that he is no longer alive.
However, the newly-appointed Supreme Leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the official term for the Taliban government – is said to be pulling the strings and meeting with his close confidantes, awaiting the “right moment” to face the curious world.
Akhundzada was not a founding member of the Emirate, yet has amassed a loyal following from the pioneers of the group. In addition, Akundzada has personally taught Islamic studies to scores of Taliban commanders and fighters, garnering an internal cult-like following for his staunch, classical Islamic interpretations and legal knowledge.
Taliban’s view point
One Taliban Commander based within the Spin Boldak police and intelligence unit says to New York Post, he was a student of Akhundzada and saw him a few weeks earlier “among mujahideen” at a mosque in Kandahar, where he brought together his supporters.
“He is capable of leading the whole Muslim world. He was our leader even before he became Amir ul Momineen (Supreme Leader). He would teach Talibs to have mercy on Afghans, don’t oppress them and don’t look down on them,” the Commander, Salim Yar, said. “Whatever help they have provided, be thankful to them. If there is someone for Afghans, he is the one.”
Things changed, he recalls, when Akhundzada became the Deputy to Mullah Mansoor after the death of founder Mullah Omar was publicly acknowledged.
“He would be kept hidden. Bullets would be fired at him. That is why he would not have a public appearance now. Enemies and the whole world were looking for him,” Salim Yar said, highlighting that Akhundzada and Omar were incredibly close. “Mullah Omar had much trust and belief in him. He wouldn’t trust anyone else to be the Supreme Leader. So, everyone is standing by Haibatullah.”Salim Yar
Nonetheless, despite Akhundzada not being much of a mountain guerilla fighter himself, it was under Akhundzada’s Taliban tutelage over the past five years that the insurgent force gained ground before sweeping to full power at dizzying speed last month.
All current – and future – cabinet ministers within the interim government, which has so far failed to include minorities or women, require his consent. Under Akhundzada’s direction, the Taliban took to talks with the United States, inking the controversial Doha agreement in early 2020.
And Akhundzada seemingly has the reins to alter the existing lineup of leaders as necessary.
“The announced cabinet is temporary and not final appointments. They are just there to fill the vacuum for the government. It’s just to keep the work going, and then a decision will be made on the government,” Saeed says. “The Supreme Leader intends to bring changes to the economic situation of Afghanistan. It’s a priority; human beings can’t live without education, food, and health.”
Even in the face of these eyewitness accounts asserting that he has been seen and heard from in recent weeks and months, conspiracies will continue to swirl regarding his status as alive or dead.
Yet Mohammad Sadiq Sabery, a 28-year-old senior Taliban police officer in the Kandahar-Pakistan border town of Spin Boldak, also claims to have met the leader around a month ago at the Presidential Palace in Kabul.
“I reject all the fake news (about his demise),” he continues. “He is compliant to the Islamic rulings and has good conduct. He has a love for the country and its security. He wants to end the war and bring peace, to implement the Islamic regime.”
Akundzada is not a designated terrorist by the US government, nor is he sanctioned by the United Nations, thus leaving the door open to some form of diplomatic relations within the wary international community.
However, his hardline past and failure so far to herald a diverse government – in the face of repeated assurances from the Doha political office to do so – in addition to freezes on girls’ high school education and the abolishment of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs – will likely lead to the Emirate becoming a political pariah without international recognition for at least some time.
“Once Afghanistan has full control of its airspace, and there are no threats against him, Mullah Hibatullah will appear in public very soon,” Mawlawee Noor Ahmad Saeed, 42, the Director of Information and Culture in Kandahar adds.
Recommendation by AISSC on “Who is the Leader and challenges of becoming one?”
A leader by definition is a person who leads a country. Leadership being the most influential element of any government has the greatest impact on the results. For any policy to be successful the choice of a competent leader is important.
Regardless of the issue, many people seem obsessed with the question of what political leaders will do next. Mullah Hibatullah Akundzada expected to make the decisions that will determine the course of millions of Afghans lives. It’s a comforting thought – we want someone to be in control, someone to praise or blame, someone to analyze and psychoanalyze. The world is too vast, impersonal and unknowable to face without the belief that someone – a leader or perhaps in some cases a hidden conspiracy – is causing the events that shape our lives. And politicians seeking power nurture the idea that they are uniquely qualified to guide millions or hundreds of millions to happiness. This model of political power cushions reality but falsifies it as well.
History, like the economy, is the vast unfolding of millions of decisions and events. The idea that one person or group of people is in control of this process is misguided. It is impossible for any political leader to be aware of, let alone control, the myriad events that shape a nation from within and without. Even very powerful leaders could only govern through a political structure that underpins their own authority. They give orders to their subordinates, who then give orders to their subordinates, who then work within the broader society to try to implement the orders.
Leaders govern through apparatuses that have their own interests, and in a world of unintended consequences, where even if their directions are followed to the letter, the outcome can be unexpected. They cannot impose their will on society by force but must align with or create coalitions that allow them to rule. The leader is shaped by the vast undercurrent of minute processes and decisions, and resistance to this process can break them.
According to international community, Taliban, of course, is an extreme example. The group is seen as extremist whose every whim was obeyed. That is true but only because the group understood Afghanistan far better than others and aligned with that reality. Therefore, it shows that even the most extreme tyranny is constrained. Even the power that rests in the hands of dictators is derived from obeisance to reality and from finding ways to manage the chaos and resistance of the state apparatus. But the dictators also faced the same problem. Who would control the controllers? And did anyone really understand the vast number of social, economic and political decisions being made as society proceeded as all societies do?
At the other extreme, in liberal democracies, leadership is even more complex. Leaders must first grasp the needs of the country. They must govern through a bureaucracy that they, for the most part, don’t appoint, don’t know and aren’t feared by. Unlike in tyrannies, there is no pretense that much of private life is controlled by the state, and where the state attempts control, its efforts are undermined by resistance, indifference and incompetence.
For example, in all countries, too much focus is placed on leaders assuming that they can make decisions unilaterally and that those decisions will be implemented. In the United States, Trump was elected because of a deep split in American society over economic interests and moral values. He prioritized one side and now governs as its prisoner. In China, Xi was made president with extraordinary powers because China is caught in a generational economic crisis. Xi is all-powerful, so long as he focuses on this problem and solves it. In Russia, Putin is president of a country crippled by the fall of the Soviet Union and the nature of Russian society. He has promised prosperity and to return Russia to greatness. He is all-powerful so long as he focuses on those things.
Mullah Hibatullah Akundzada – The Invisible Hand in Politics
When it comes to economics, many rely on Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand of the market – the vast economy has its own rhythms independent of anyone’s will, controlled only by the millions of minor decisions made by barely visible individuals. Yet, when it comes to politics, those same people fail to see the same tendencies at play. People who understand the impersonality of economic life tend to personalize political life.
Political life is about power. We do not like to think of leaders like Mullah Hibatullah Akundzada as powerless or trapped. The idea that power is driven by impersonal forces is even more frightening than the idea that wealth is driven that way and that the wealthy are submissive to an underlying reality.
Whether seen as good or evil, political leaders are believed to be above constraints. When people wonder what a leader will do next, they are assuming that the leader can choose his own course. This gives us a degree of comfort that someone is in charge, that he can be persuaded, and that the world is reasonable. Better to be ruled by the devil than by impersonal forces that are beyond anyone’s control.
The world is reasonable, but not persuadable. Geopolitics is rooted in the idea that successful leaders understand the reality they are in and submit to it to gain position, but that power is still embedded in impersonal forces. Geopolitics takes the view that devils and saviors emerge from the soil of necessity. This is not an argument against morality in politics. It simply shifts the moral consideration to a deeper level, where individuals make choices that flow into an irresistible force. That is far more difficult to imagine than the idea of a leader being in charge and carrying a unique moral burden. Trapped as he is, Mullah Hibatullah Akundzada does have the ability to speak and, in speaking, to shape the public discourse. But that discourse cannot be shifted by his leadership alone. The millions of small decisions made before him create a reality and he must follow it.
Written by Hon’ Executive Board Member of AISSC – Syed Shah Fahad Hussain
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