Taliban Appoints Top Religious Scholar as New Leader

Was Former Chief Justice of Religious Courts

by Jason Ditz, May 25, 2016

In a move seen as trying to avoid the massive infighting seen in the last leadership change in August, the Taliban leadership wasted no time in selecting Mullah Maulvi Haibatullah Akhundzada, one of their top religious scholars, as the new leader of the insurgency.

Akhundzada served as the chief justice of Afghanistan’s Sharia Courts from 1996 until the 2001 US occupation. Since then, he has been in Afghanistan, and is believed to run one of the ultra-conservative religious schools in Afghanistan.

Akhundzada has not been reported to be involved in any of the fighting in occupied Afghanistan, leading the US to term him a “lesser known” cleric. He is, however, believed to be behind the bulk of the Taliban’s religious fatwas issued since the occupation began.

Though it is obviously too early to tell the complete reaction of the change, a number of Taliban leaders have reportedly already sworn loyalty to Akhundzada, suggesting he may be the compromise figure the Shura Council had hoped. Since Akhundzada is said to be responsible for teaching many of the younger commanders religious studies, it may be difficult for them to totally turn their backs on him in favor of someone else.

What sort of leader he will ultimately be for the Taliban is unclear, and it is similarly unclear which commanders are likely to emerge as his top aides. Still, unlikely the talked-about alternatives, Akhundzada appears more likely to avoid another round of open warfare within Taliban ranks.

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