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Hibatullah can hide his face. But not the emerging struggle within Taliban leadership

Mullah Umar’s elusive successor, Hibatullah Akhundzada, delivered his Eid message this week. There hasn’t been any explanation though why he doesn't show his face in public.

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Folded away with infinite care, the rough camel-wool cloak had lain for decades inside a case wrought from the finest silver, nestled inside two iron boxes, and the massive, padlocked doors guarding the Kherka-ye Sharif shrine’s inner sanctum. The Prophet Muhammad, the pious believed, had worn the cloak as he rode the winged horse, Buraq, on the night of Mi’raj, ascending to the heavens. Legend held the cloak’s mere presence had restored the sight of the blind; the mute walked away speaking.

Then, in 1994, the one-eyed cleric Mullah Mohammad Umar took the cloak from inside the shrine, and waved it before the thousands who had assembled to witness the birth of the war to build the Islamic Emirate. Ecstatic crowds fought to touch the relic, journalist Norimitsu Onishi has recorded; some of the more frenzied collapsed.

Earlier this week, Mullah Umar’s elusive successor, Hibatullah Akhundzada delivered his own, anticlimactic version of that historic speech. In his Eid message—delivered, bizarrely, with his back turned to the audience, and cameras kept well away—Hibatullah congratulated Afghanistan’s people for their “victory, freedom and success.”

Last year, Islamic Emirate authorities released audiotape of a speech Hibatullah had delivered at the Hakimia seminary; cameras, however, were not allowed. A student at the seminary said he was so overjoyed by Hibatullah’s visit that he “forgot to look at his face.”

The curious circumstances have many asking if the Islamic Emirate’s emir-ul-momineen, self-proclaimed commander of all pious Muslims across the world, is actually alive—and even whether his leadership is just a fiction, invented to veil deep internal dissensions.

Also read: The forever war in Afghanistan is nowhere near its end. Now IS indulging in ethnic warfare

The Taliban’s elusive emir

Few biographical details have emerged on the man claimed to have led the Taliban through the five critical years leading up to its defeat of the United States, and establishment of the second Islamic Emirate. Born in 1960 or 1961 to Mohammad Hasan Akhund, a cleric from the village of Safid Rawan in Kandahar’s Panjwai plateau, Hibatullah migrated with the family across the border to Quetta after the Soviet invasion.

Through the 1980s, Hibatullah is thought to have attended seminaries run for Afghan refugees in Quetta. It has been claimed that he fought with the Hezb-e-Islami of jihadist warlord Mohammad Yunus Khalis against the Soviet Union.

For a time, some accounts suggest, Hibatullah served the Taliban, working as an enforcer of hijab and beard norms in the province of Farah, with the notorious Amr bil Maroof wa Nahi anil Munkar, the ministry for the enforcement of virtue and suppression of vice. Later, he is said to have worked as a religious-studies instructor at a Taliban-run seminary in Kandahar.

Then, after the destruction of the Islamic Emirate in the wake of 9/11, Hibatullah fled back to Pakistan. He served, according to credible Afghan accounts, at the al-Haj mosque in Balochistan, located at Kuchlak, near Quetta. The setting up of the mosque is reported to have been funded by Alam Muhammad Hasni, a businessman with interests in the transport sector.

Al-Haj seminary is thought to have recruited cadre for the Taliban, but contemporary research did not flag Hibatullah as a leader of significance in the jihadist group’s Quettaz-based council or other governing bodies.

Then, in the summer of 2015, the Taliban finally admitted Mullah Umar had died two years earlier—making clear multiple statements it had issued in his name, including one calling for peace talks, were fabrications. Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the powerful military commander who succeeded him, was killed less than a year later, in a US drone strike.

Fourteen months after his father became Taliban emir, Hibatullah’s son, Abdur Rehman, was reported to have died when he drove an explosives-laden truck into an Afghan military base in Gereshk. “Family members of previous supreme leaders had conducted suicide bombings but Sheikh Hibatullah has become the first supreme leader whose son sacrificed his life,” a senior Taliban member claimed. Later, in 2019, Hibatullah’s brother, Ahmadullah, was assassinated in a bombing.

Also read: Visa trouble, baby on the way: Indian-Afghan couple fights to flee Taliban, build life in India

An ineffective ideologue

There’s little to show Hibatullah himself participated in military operations of any kind, though, even after becoming the insurgent group’s leader. Even though several accounts claim he made contributions as a theologian and ideologue, there’s little evidence for that proposition. The scholar Alex Strick van Linschoten’s authoritative compilation of Taliban literature, for example, contains just a single contribution by Hibatullah, a 122-page text on the religious education of Taliban insurgents.

In the book, Hibatullah reiterates well-established Islamist dogma, asserting that the practice of Islam is only possible “through an Islamic government having a caliph or ruler who implements Allah’s transmitted law through his government.”

There is also a small corpus of Taliban official statements issued in Hibatullah’s name. “We instruct officials of the Islamic Emirate, in accordance with Islamic shari’a, to avoid second, third, and fourth marriage if there is no need,” a written message issued in January 2021 reads.

It is possible the declaration was issued in response to the growing practice of Taliban officials with rural backgrounds taking educated brides, in addition to the often-illiterate women they had been married to.

Events show his Eid call in 2021, for an “Afghan-inclusive Islamic system in which all people shall feel a sense of representation,” was ignored by the Taliban itself. The fall of Kabul later that year was followed by a division of power between the southern Afghanistan clerics who held power in the First Emirate, and the eastern Afghanistan jihadists led by Sirajuddin Haqqani.

Few of Hibatullah’s ministers, mostly picked from the ranks of First Emirate notables, enjoy real authority within the Taliban. Prime Minister Hasan Akhund was described in a now-declassified United States intelligence assessment as “one of the most ineffective and unreasonable Taliban leaders.”

The clerics around Hibatullah, like chief justice Abdul Hakim, and minister for religious affairs Nur Muhammad Saqeb, have secured victories on theological questions like education for girls and hijab—but have no on-ground power.

Also read: School ban for Afghan girls, but Taliban leaders’ daughters play football, study medicine abroad

The simulacrum of power

Following his appointment, Hibatullah institutionalised the central fissure in the Taliban, dividing military control between Haqqani and Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of slain First Emirate patriarch Mullah Muhammad Umar. Led by Yaqoob, military commanders from southern Afghanistan seized control of the Taliban’s finances, as well as revenue-rich regions like the opium-producing hub of Helmand. Haqqani, in turn, began waging a war of subversion against the southern Taliban, allowing the Islamic State to operate from his strongholds in the Loya Paktia region.

That struggle for power is intensifying, exposing fissures the symbol of Hibatullah can no longer conceal. In March, Haqqani—the target of a $10 million US bounty—publicly revealed his face for the first time, a barb clearly directed at Hibatullah and the southern leadership he represents.

Economic meltdown, and swirling tensions with Pakistan over cross-border attacks by jihadists, have further eroded the tenuous hold of Hibtullah’s Emirate. There have also been local skirmishes, with battles breaking out for control of revenues from trade, trucking and mines.

For months before the Taliban captured Kabul, rumours swirled that Hibatullah had become a victim of the Covid-19 pandemic, dying at a hospital in Pakistan. Though proof for this claim hasn’t emerged, the Taliban’s deceit over Mullah Umar’s demise makes it plausible. There hasn’t, notably, been any explanation of why Hibatullah feels reluctant to show his face in public.

Likely, Hibatullah was always intended to represent only a simulacrum of power, not the real thing. The warlords behind his throne are now preparing themselves for the real struggle to come.

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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