Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada: You’ve been elected by the central Shura of the Taliban as the movement’s new Emir, just the third since it was founded.
Here’s what you can expect in the job:
The United States will try to kill you
As a long-standing member of the Taliban’s leadership and one of its most influential religious figures, you are a prime candidate for targeting by those ubiquitous drones that drift across the skies along the Afghan-Pakistan border. And not only are they surveying the tribal territories of North and South Waziristan; your predecessor’s demise was in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.
Expect your freedom of movement and your ability to communicate to be curtailed, but remember they got Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour even after he had taken measures to stay out of sight. On the plus-side, your almost invisible profile over the past decade may help. And they may give you a few months to see if you have any interest in peace negotiations.
You’ll have your hands full
You’ll need to invest plenty of time holding the movement together. Yes, you were unanimously elected, but so was Mansour – and his election was followed by plenty of dissent and Mullah Muhammad Rasool’s establishment of a splinter group, for example.
You were the Taliban’s chief justice. You’ll need all your expertise as a conciliator and mediator. It helps that you were involved in arranging a truce with Rasool at the beginning of the year, and the fact that you are both of the Noorzai tribe in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan may also give you leverage. But the first indications from Sheikh Rasool’s people are not encouraging: they don’t see the election process as legitimate. There’s work to be done on bringing them back into the fold.
Your two deputies, of course, are Mullah Mohammad Omar’s son, Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub, and Sarajuddin Haqqani. That will keep your hands full, as Yaqoub is from the Taliban heartland in Kandahar, while Haqqani is from the east. Nor are they “old guard,” with Yaqoub in his mid-20s and something of a firebrand. Haqqani is one of the most effective military operators in the region, and his Haqqani Network has money as well as influence within Pakistani circles. That gives him more independence than your average deputy. And you need the Haqqanis to launch effective attacks in Kabul.
You need to keep the momentum going
Mullah Mansour kicked the military campaign into high gear with the frontal attack on (and the brief seizure of) the city of Kunduz last fall, the first time the Taliban has taken an urban center since 2001. The annual spring offensive is underway. Result: The Taliban probably has control of or influence in more provinces now than at any time since being overthrown.
But you’re a religious man best known for interpreting the sayings of the Prophet, not really a military commander. The challenge will be keeping up the momentum on the battlefield, as the US tries to protect the Kabul government.
One advantage is that the U.S. military presence is gradually being drawn down, and in the words of one analyst: “The Afghan state in its present shape may not survive if its internal and external supporters do not address the problem of pervasive corruption and chronic insecurity.”
It helps to have an inept enemy. And the good poppy harvest this year in Helmand has helped fill the coffers.
You’ll still have Pakistan to answer to
Then there’s Pakistan. Islamabad always likes to have a big say in what the Taliban does. Its intelligence service is said to have a direct line to many senior members, and given that your own base has been the Pakistani city of Quetta, you won’t be able to ignore their views.
So the challenge will be to accommodate the Pakistani-based peace talks that stutter along, while maintaining the leverage provided by success on the battlefield. Some rumors have it that Mansour had become dispensable to the Pakistanis precisely because he’d not played ball on the peace track – and we all know what happened to him.
You need Al Qaeda on-side…
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri is not exactly Mr. Personality, but he’s proven loyal to the Taliban. He pledged allegiance to Mullahs Omar and Mansour and you can expect him to pledge allegiance to you as Emir and leader of the faithful, hopefully sooner rather than later. With the declaration of al Qaeda in the Islamic Subcontinent, this region is clearly still very important to Zawahiri and Co.
… because you also have ISIS to worry about
You need to stick together in the face of the ambitions of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS, who declared their province of Khorasan right in the middle of the Taliban’s heartland. They’ve already won over important groups operating in this region, like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Right now, ISIS appears to be more of a threat in eastern Afghan provinces like Nangarhar, where it has claimed suicide attacks in its capital, Jalalabad, as well as multiple attacks on Afghan security forces. In the long run, ISIS Khorasan could evolve into a serious threat. Remember, ISIS went about beheading Taliban fighters and their leader, Hafiz Saeed Khan, claimed the Taliban leadership was a tool of Pakistani military intelligence. But then, the Americans probably say they got him too in that strike last July.
Altogether, there are plenty of challenges ahead – and you’ll need all your experience to survive them.