The Taliban’s Leaders: Worldly and ‘Inclusive’ or Ruthless Ideologues?


He “believed in martyrdom and suicide bombing,” Mr. Malkasian wrote.

A former judge in the Taliban regime’s military court, Mr. Akhundzada later issued many of the fatwas, or religious orders, blessing suicide bombers. “He is someone who is really a spiritual guide and ideologue,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defending Democracies and senior editor of the group’s Long War Journal.

He was chosen as a compromise candidate by the Taliban’s leadership after his predecessor, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2016.

“They needed somebody more consensual, somebody more able to keep the different factions together,” Mr. Giustozzi said. “He became a kind of prime minister. He is more leaning towards the pragmatic end.”

Most recently, he overruled the group’s political leaders and gave the go-ahead to the military wing to step up attacks on Afghan cities, Mr. Giustozzi said, in what turned out to be a winning bet.

Mr. Akhundzada’s deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of a legendary mujahedeen figure and the head of the Haqqani network in Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, has led much of the recent military efforts.

Mr. Haqqani, 48, widely known as Khalifa, oversees a sprawling web of fighters, religious schools and businesses with strong links to Gulf Arab countries from a base in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Known for its close ties to the Pakistani intelligence service, the Haqqani network became the most dogged opponent of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, responsible for hostage taking of Americans, complex suicide attacks and targeted assassinations.


Mr. Haqqani and his network also have some of the strongest and longest running ties to Al Qaeda. From their stronghold on the Pakistani border, they helped the Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, escape from his headquarters in Tora Bora after the American invasion in 2001.

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