The Taliban’s supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada — who has never made a public appearance and whose whereabouts have largely remained unknown — is in Afghanistan, the hardline Islamist group confirmed on Sunday.
“He is present in Kandahar. He has been living there from the very beginning,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.
“He will soon appear in public,” added deputy spokesman Bilal Karimi.
The so-called commander of the faithful, Akhundzada has shepherded the Taliban as its chief since 2016 when snatched from relative obscurity to oversee a movement in crisis.
Little is still known about Akhundzada’s day-to-day role, with his public profile largely limited to the release of annual messages during Islamic holidays.
He has yet to issue any kind of statement since the Taliban swept to power and took control of Afghanistan in mid-August.
The Taliban have a long history of keeping their top leader in the shadows.
The group’s enigmatic founder Mullah Mohammad Omar was notorious for his hermit ways and rarely travelled to Kabul when the group was in power in the 1990s. Instead, Omar stayed largely out of sight in his compound in Kandahar, reluctant even to meet visiting delegations.
Kandahar was the birthplace of the militant movement and the epicentre of the Taliban’s iron-fisted Islamist government in the 1990s.
Akhundzada’s absence follows years of rumours about his health, with chatter in Pakistan and Afghanistan suggesting he had contracted Covid or had been killed in a bombing.
There has never been much in the way to prove these rumours, but Akhundzada’s secrecy comes at a sensitive time for the erstwhile insurgency.
There are myriad Taliban factions comprising groups from across Afghanistan, representing a vast array of constituents.
The revelation in 2015 that the Taliban leadership had for years hidden the death of Mullah Omar sparked a brief but bloody power struggle, with at least one major faction splitting from the group.
Reclusive #Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada is said to be personally overseeing consultations on the formation of an inclusive government in #Afghanistan, say Taliban officials privy to the process which is underway in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Islamic moment.
— Ayaz Gul (@AyazGul64) August 29, 2021
As the Taliban transition from fighting to governance, balancing the interests of their numerous factions will be crucial to consolidating power. “The Taliban consider themselves in a state of jihad” as long as foreign troops are on Afghan soil and will likely keep their leader hidden until they leave, said Pakistan-based security analyst Imtiaz Gul.
The Taliban intend to form an interim council led by its Emir Hibatullah Akhunzada.
— وہ کون تھا؟ (@BhittaniKhannnn) August 29, 2021
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© AFP with inputs from GVS