KABUL — Just days after a U.S. drone strike killed the leader of the Taliban, the insurgent group named his successor Wednesday in a move that appeared to signal a blow to peace efforts
by Afghanistan’s Western-allied government.
Haibatullah Akhundzada, a cleric and once the Taliban’s top judge, was a deputy under Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was killed in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province on Saturday.
Akhundzada’s appointment could strengthen the group by easing infighting among Taliban factions, but it appeared to undercut Afghan and U.S. hopes that a new leader could be more receptive to peace negotiations to end the group’s nearly 15-year-long insurgency.
In an audio recording released Wednesday by the Taliban, Akhundzada vowed never to “bow down” to the group’s enemies and said Mansour’s loss will inspire the insurgency to fight even harder.
Hours earlier, a Taliban suicide bomber struck in a suburb of the capital, Kabul, killing 11 government employees on their way to work.
Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said the attack was “vengeance” for the hanging of six Taliban prisoners outside Kabul this month.
Akhundzada had earlier served as the Taliban’s military chief in several Afghan provinces, where he and fellow top deputy Sirajuddin Haqqani orchestrated attacks against government troops and rival Taliban factions that have killed scores in recent months.
Haqqani and Mohammad Yaqoob — the eldest son of Taliban founding leader Mohammad Omar — will serve as Akhundzada’s top deputies, the group said in a statement that also announced a three-day period of mourning for Mansour.
Akhundzada, who has been described by those who know him as quiet and humble, is considered a centrist and may be able to woo back the breakaway factions that have roiled the insurgency since Omar’s death was made public last year.
Under Mansour, a largely absent leader in recent months, the Taliban splintered into factions that warred against one another in Afghanistan’s southwestern provinces nearly as much as they fought against government and U.S. forces.
Some analysts think Akhundzada, who had close ties to Omar, can bring those factions back into the fold and strengthen the movement. Akhundzada also may offer
a counterbalance to Haqqani — an increasingly dominant presence in the Taliban who is thought to be behind a spate of suicide bombings, including one in Kabul last month that killed at least 64 people.
Akhundzada “is someone who does not make hasty decisions,” said Mohammad Qalamuddin, a former Taliban minister based in Kabul.
Akhundzada served as a senior judicial official during the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule of Afghanistan, fleeing to Pakistan after the Taliban regime fell.
He spent most of his time teaching in madrassas, Islamic religious schools, in Baluchistan until Mansour — then the group’s newly anointed leader — named him a top deputy last year.
Afghan officials responded to the news of Akhundzada’s appointment by repeating an invitation to reopen peace negotiations — and making a thinly veiled threat.
“We invite Mullah Haibatullah to peace,” Javid Faisal, a spokesman for Afghan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, said on Twitter. “Political settlement is the only option for Taliban or new leadership will face the fate of Mansour.”
Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul, said that although Akhundzada is known to be a hard-line cleric, he eventually may be more willing to reopen peace talks — an idea that Mansour had opposed.
“At the same time, the Taliban may feel it needs to project strength” after the drone strike that killed Mansour, Ruttig said.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst in Islamabad, Pakistan, said Akhundzada’s rise may be viewed as acceptable by Taliban leaders because it could be construed as a transitional arrangement until Yaqoob is old enough to take over.
Yaqoob, 24, recently graduated from a madrassa and has not been deeply involved in his father’s movement.
“The foremost challenge for the new Taliban leader would be to consolidate his position and power,” Rizvi said, noting that Mansour had a tough time, immediately facing division in the ranks when he took over last year.
“All his attention would be on that objective, and he should be least bothered or interested in peace talks, et cetera,” Rizvi said.
Atiqullah Amarkhel, a Kabul-based military analyst, predicted that Akhundzada — guided by Haqqani — will step up attacks in the coming weeks to prove his mettle.
“But Afghan security forces should not let the new Taliban leader show he is a strong leader from the beginning,” he said.
The fatal drone strike, meanwhile, has stirred resentment in Pakistan, where Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said it will have “very serious implications for Pakistan-U.S. relations.”
“No country can allow that its sovereignty be violated in such a way,” Khan said during a news conference Tuesday night in Islamabad, adding that U.S. officials notified Pakistani officials about the strike seven hours after it happened.
Sayed Salahuddin and Mohammad Sharif in Kabul and Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.