Shadowy Taliban leader dubbed ‘a ghost’ who allowed own son to die in suicide bombing is masterminding Afghan onslaught
A SHADOWY figure dubbed a “ghost” who let his own son die in a suicide bombing is the mastermind behind the Taliban’s path of destruction across Afghanistan.
Haibatullah Akhundzada could become arguably the world’s strongest Islamic militant leader should the terror group regain its control over the country with a population of nearly 40million people.
Yet little is known about the Taliban cleric who prefers to operate in the shadows rather than post bloodthirsty videos.
Even his missives to his followers are said not to be written in his own handwriting.
While Akhundzada may not be a fighter he was quite prepared to let his son, 23, die in a suicide bombing mission on an Afghan base.
In a statement issued last week he claimed he wanted a political settlement to the bloody conflict in Afghanistan, even though his fighters have been conducting fierce fighting with Afghan forces and slaughtering civilians.
His statement said: "In spite of the military gains and advances, the Islamic Emirate strenuously favours a political settlement in the country.”
The message came as Afghan officials and Taliban insurgents met for talks in Qatar, sparking hopes the stalled peace talks could be revived.
Despite Akhundzada’s words his fighters have been rampaging across Afghanistan, capturing around half of the country’s rural areas and laying siege to its cities.
A senior Afghan security official told The Telegraph last week: "If the Taliban want to be part of government, that is acceptable, but if they wish to dominate the Afghan people that is not.
"If they seek monopoly they will just prolong Afghanistan's wars."
Due to Akhundzada being a reclusive figure little is known about him and some have even questioned if he really exists, referring to him as a “ghost”.
He is a ghost and his messages aren't in his handwriting - who is to know if they are even written by him? Is he really in charge, does he really exist?
He only occasionally issues written communiques and avoids public appearances due to fears of being assassinated.
The security official said: "He is a ghost and his messages aren't in his handwriting - who is to know if they are even written by him? Is he really in charge, does he really exist?"
Little is known for certain about the current Taliban leader apart from a few facts.
He was born near the southern city of Kandahar and joined the terror group in 1994, the year it was formed.
But it seems he rose through the ranks not as a fighter but as a religious scholar, upholding the group’s hardline edicts through the feared “vice and virtue” police.
By 2001, when the Taliban was ousted by US forces, he was one of Mullah Omar’s trusted inner circle.
He took over at the head of the Taliban in 2016 after Mullah Akhthar Mansour was killed by a US drone strike.
His position was cemented the following year after he let his own 23-year-old son volunteer for a suicide bombing at an Afghan army base.
His reputation has also taken on an air of mythology after a story emerged about how he is said to have survived an assassination attempt in 2012 by what the Taliban claim was a group of government assassins.
A former associate told the New York Times in 2016: “During one of his lectures, a man stood among the students and pointed a pistol (at Akhundzada) from a close range, but the pistol stuck.”
According to the story, Akhundzada didn’t even flinch.
Questions have also been raised about just how hardline Akhundzada is.
Some claim he is against softening the Taliban’s edicts against music and dancing while others say he is open to women’s education.
Gareth Price, Senior Research Fellow in the Asia Pacific Programme at Chatham House, said: "Everybody in the Taliban is roughly on the same page, but at times they seem willing to modernise, and at times they want to take things straight back to the 1990s.”
Akhundzada though does appear to want to curb the more extreme Taliban brutality, even if it is only a way to prevent resistance to their rule.
He is once said to have told a group of Taliban officials: "Do you know why people support the government militias? It’s because you people cut off their heads for receiving minor help from an aid agency.”
Foreign troops are scheduled to be removed from Afghanistan by September and diplomats are waiting to see if the tentative peace talks can produce a settlement which will bring the Taliban into conventional politics.
Should that happen it could see Akhundzada emerge from the shadows although many still think he will keep a low profile.
He is said to be rarely in contact with the Taliban delegates in Qatar and has little interest in ordinary politics.
With that in mind, the question has been raised would Afghans want to vote for someone who doesn’t even want to appear in public?
"How many Afghans can go to see him and talk to him?" asked the security official. "We don't want an emir chosen by the Taliban - we want leaders that every Afghan has the right to choose."