Taliban Appoint New Chief After Leader Killed by U.S. Drone

  • Akhundzada seen as compromise figure; no clear view on talks
  • Obama had hailed Mansour’s death as an ‘important milestone’

The Afghan Taliban confirmed the death of its former leader in a U.S. drone strike and named one of his deputies as its third official chief in less than a year.

Maulavi Haibatullah Akhundzada, who headed the judiciary during Taliban rule in the 1990s, will take over as leader of the insurgent group, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said in a statement on Wednesday. It confirmed for the first time that Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour died near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Haibatullah Akhundzada
Haibatullah Akhundzada
Source: Afghan Islamic Press via AP Photos

“All the council members pledged allegiance to him," the statement said of Akhundzada. “The Taliban calls on all Taliban field commanders to pledge allegiance to the newly-appointed leader."

The show of unity indicates that the group will avoid a protracted succession battle like the one last year after Afghanistan announced that Taliban founder Mullah Omar had died in 2013. It’s unclear if Akhundzada will be anymore open to talks with the U.S. than Mansour, who was seen as an obstacle to a peace deal to end the 15-year conflict.

Compromise Figure

Akhundzada is a compromise figure who doesn’t have a strong position for or against joining peace talks, according to Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistan-based author who wrote a book on the Taliban.

“He is for the first time in such an overt political role," Rashid said. “It’s too early to say there would be progress on talks under his command."

For an analysis on the obstacles to a peace deal with the Taliban, click here.

Minutes after the Taliban’s announcement, a suicide blast in Kabul served as a reminder of an insurgency that has become more deadly as U.S. troops hand over combat operations. At least 10 people were killed in a vehicle carrying Afghan prosecutors, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Seddiqi. The Taliban claimed responsibility.

Mansour’s death on Saturday was the most significant targeted assassination since U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. U.S. President Barack Obama this week called it “an important milestone" and urged Taliban members to join a reconciliation process.

‘Status Quo’

The U.S., China, Afghanistan and Pakistan had failed to make headway on peace talks with the Taliban since Mansour took control of the group last year, forcing Obama to alter plans for removing most American troops from Afghanistan by the end of his term. The conflict has cost the U.S. almost $700 billion and killed more than 2,200 American troops.

The Taliban leadership council comprising religious, political and military leaders appointed Akhundzada as leader, the statement said. Maulavi Mohammad Yaqub, the son of deceased founder Mullah Omar, will join Sirajuddin Haqqani as a deputy chief.

Akhundzada was born in Kandahar, a region of southern Afghanistan, and is now in his mid-50s, according to Rahimullah Yousafzai, a veteran Pakistan journalist who has covered the Taliban since its formation in the 1990s. One of the Taliban’s initial leaders, Akhundzada served as a special judge who heard internal complaints and was very close to previous leaders Mullah Omar and Mansour, Yousafzai said.

“For me, it is status quo because Mansour made him his deputy," Yousafzai said.

(An earlier version corrected the day the statement was released in the second paragraph.)

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