Taliban supreme leader, Hebatullah Akhundzada, has been absent from meetings for some weeks. His place was taken by Sirajuddin Haqqani, his deputy and scion of the brutal Haqqani network, which has links with al Qaeda, said Antonio Giustozzi, a leading expert on the Taliban at the Royal United Services Institute in London, FP reported.
But Haqqani has now contracted the coronavirus and is also absent from the leadership mix, Giustozzi said. “When Sirajuddin got sick he probably infected everyone else as he was deputizing at meetings for Haibatullah,” he said.
An identified Afghan intelligence official was quoted as saying that members of Taliban leadership had contracted the coronavirus, but it was unclear if Akhundzada had been among them.
A Taliban commander confirmed that Mullah Omar’s son had assumed the role of “chief of operations.”
“Our hero, the son of our great leader, Mullah Yaqoob, is running the entire Taliban operation in Haibatullah’s absence,” an influential senior Taliban commander, Maulama Muhammad Ali Jan Ahmad, told Foreign Policy.
The illness of senior Taliban leaders and their absence from decision-making come at a critical time for Afghanistan as a peace process is underway. Any hint of disunity at the top of the Taliban—and the possibility that it could spill into a violent rivalry—could affect the next phase direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, Foreign Policy said.
Mullah Yaqoob has been consolidating his power since losing a bid to succeed his father when Mullah Omar’s death, kept secret by a coterie of close aids for more than two years, was revealed in July 2015.
He was appointed to lead the Taliban’s military commission for 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. In recent weeks, he has extended his military control to 28 provinces.
“Yaqoob is popular among the battlefield commanders and so they are willing to accept his leadership,” an unnamed Taliban official in Quetta was quoted as saying.
Mullah Yaqoob is known to have links to Saudi Arabia, which supports the peace deal, Giustozzi said.
Riyadh is believed to be funneling money to him to help him consolidate power.
He also has close connections with the Afghan government and intelligence service— seen as useful in ensuring the peace deal is not derailed, he said.