After two decades of near-constant warfare and destruction, the Taliban now face the need to figure out how to govern the underdeveloped and impoverished nation they have just recaptured. Some insight into how that may progress can be gleaned from a closer look at the group’s leadership and organizational structure, as well as the parallel shadow government they established to prepare themselves for the challenges ahead.
The reestablishment of the Taliban leadership council after 9/11
As quickly as the Taliban seized power in recent weeks, their defeat at the hands of an international coalition and allied Afghan forces in 2001 was just as swift. The U.S.-led invasion destroyed the Taliban’s organizational command and scattered their leadership. Their fighters merged into the populace or fled with refugees to neighboring Pakistan. According to a book written by a Taliban senior member, Abdul Hai Mutmain, in 2016, it was not until May 2002 that their supreme leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, was able to gather a few senior aides and set up a leadership council to direct resistance against the United States and its allies.
The members of that council comprised Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Usmani, Mullah Abdul Lateef Mansur, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, Mullah Dadullah Khund, Mullah Jalaluddin Haqqani, Mullah Abdul Kabeer, Mullah Hamdullah Nani, Mullah Muhammad Hassan Rahmani, Mashar Mullah Muhammad Hassan Akhund, and Mullah Ameer Khan Mutaqi. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Mullah Obaidullah Akhund were appointed its first and second emirs. The leadership council serves much like a government Cabinet running all the group’s affairs subject to the approval of the supreme leader.
Obaidullah Akhund was arrested by Pakistani intelligence agencies in February 2007 and was succeeded by Akhtar Muhammad Mansur as a deputy to Mullah Baradar. Pakistani intelligence arrested Baradar three years later, and Mansur succeeded him both as deputy supreme leader and head of the leadership council.
After the Taliban announced Mullah Omar’s death in 2015, Mansur became the Taliban supreme leader and appointed two deputies — Shaikh Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban current emir, and Mullah Sirajuddin Haqqani — head of the Haqqani network.
After Mansur died in a U.S. drone strike in May 2016 in Pakistan, Shaikh Akhundzada succeeded him and appointed Mullah Yaqoob Omari, son of its founding emir, Mullah Umar — to serve as a deputy alongside Haqqani. When Baradar was released from a Pakistani prison in 2018, Akhundzada made him a third deputy with responsibility for political affairs. This leadership structure remains in place, with Shaikh Hibatullah Akhundzada serving as supreme leader, aided by the three deputies — Mulawi Yaqoob Umari, Shaikh Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mulawi Abdul Ghani Baradar.
The Taliban bureaucracy
Muhammad Ahsas, a well-informed authority on the Taliban, told VOA that the Taliban have divided Afghanistan’s 34 provinces administratively into two branches, south and southeast. The south comprises 14 provinces and falls under the authority of Umari. The southeast comprises the remaining 20 provinces and is administered by Haqqani. Each province is divided into eight zones, which in turn are divided into districts similar to those that already exist. Mutmain writes in his book that the Taliban appointed its shadow provincial and district governors in 2005.
According to Ahsas, the Taliban leadership has established 18 commissions which function like ministries, dealing with military, political, economic, media and culture, public works, intelligence, and other matters. Eleven of these commissions are categorized as large and seven as small. Each has representatives at the zonal, provincial and district levels.
The Taliban-appointed governor for Kunar, Haji Usman Turabi, announced to a large public gathering last month that these commissions were now responsible for running the province. Citizens were told they should contact the appropriate commission to ask for any service they might need.
According to Mutmain, the first three Taliban commissions were military, economic, and cultural, established in 2004.
Afghan researcher Fazelminallah Qazizai says that the biggest and most significant Taliban commission is its military commission. The Taliban deputy chief, Mullah Yaqoob Umari, heads that commission with three deputies — Maulawi Sadar Ibrahim, Maulawi Abul Qayum Zakir, and Qari Fasihuddin. All three are prominent military commanders. Fasihuddin is the senior commander for nine northern provinces and is of Tajik ethnicity.
Qazizai says the next most important commission is the economic commission which, like the military commission, deals with drug smuggling, a significant source of income for the Taliban. The intelligence commission is smaller but also considered to be significant. It deals with drone technology and other modern weaponry.
According to Ahsas, the media and culture commission lacks the big budget of the intelligence commission or the vast organizational structure of the military commission but is also considered vital. The political commission, meanwhile, is the most prominent currently, due to its daily interaction with the international media. It operates under Baradar and has several senior leaders including Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, Suhail Shaheen and Shaikh Shahabuddin Dalawar.
Qazizai says the 18 commission heads serve on the Taliban leadership council along with several other senior military commanders and prominent religious scholars. According to a confidential Taliban source, the leadership council currently has around 30 members, although most meetings are attended by only 18 to 20 of them, mainly the commission heads.
Qazizai says the most influential Taliban figure after the supreme leader is Shaikh Abdul Hakeem, a religious scholar who has served as a teacher and mentor to all Taliban leaders since the group’s founding in 1994 — including Mullah Omar, his son Yaqoob and his successor Akhtar Muhammad Mansur. Hakeem designs the Taliban’s most important religious verdicts, which drive its policies. He also drafted the Taliban verdict against the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State group or Daesh. His seminary in the Kuchlak area of Pakistan’s Baluchistan province was targeted by a suicide attack in January 2020. Hakeem survived but lost a son. There were several other casualties as well.
Also wielding influence is a group of powerful special forces commanders, known as the Sara Qitaa, or Red Unit. This group has battalions across the country and became prominent in the Taliban’s largely successful fight against Daesh. Its most prominent commanders include Peer Agha, the Taliban current governor for Kunar, Haji Usman Turabi, Bilal Fatih Zadran in Paktika, Umar Yasir in Laghman and its two recently killed commanders — Naik Muhammad Rahbar from Nangarhar and Abu Idrees Yousaf from Ghazni. Rahbar played an instrumental role in driving Daesh from its strongholds in Nangarhar before the group assassinated him in April.
Several other important military figures are still playing central roles on the ground but have been kept away from the international media. Among these is Bilal Zadran, who emerged from the Haqqani network and is considered a top commander despite his low public profile in the last couple of years.
Abdul Sayed is a security specialist and researcher on radical militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan based in Lund, Sweden. Twitter: @abdsayedd