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Who are the most influential Taliban leaders?

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For decades the Taliban’s leadership structure has been in the shadows: Even before the US invasion in 2001, little was known about how the group operates beyond the names of a few top leaders.

Now the militants are trying to recast themselves in a more moderate mold: promising amnesty for their enemies, vowing to build an inclusive government with various ethnic groups, keep terrorist groups off Afghan soil and allowing women to work within the bounds of Shariah law. Those are all among conditions for the US and its allies to recognize the group as the legitimate new rulers of Afghanistan.

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The Taliban’s senior leadership includes many Mujahideen fighters who were once trained by the US during the Cold War to battle against the invading Soviet Union forces in the 1980s. The Sunni group’s membership is drawn largely from the majority ethnic Pashtun population most dominant in the southern part of the country.

Here are seven of the most influential men in the organization:

Haibatullah Akhundzada, Supreme Commander

Taliban new leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada is seen in an undated photograph, posted on a Taliban twitter feed on May 25, 2016. (File photo: Reuters)
Taliban new leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada is seen in an undated photograph, posted on a Taliban twitter feed on May 25, 2016. (File photo: Reuters)

Born in 1961, Akhunzada became the Taliban’s third supreme commander – the highest rank in the organization – after the US killed his predecessor in a 2016 drone strike. He is more known as a religious leader than a military commander, and maintains a low profile. Akhunzada hasn’t been seen in public since he became the Taliban’s top leader, and few photos of him are available. His last public statement came in May to mark Eid al-Fitr, a holiday marking the end of Ramadan.

Abdul Ghani Baradar, Deputy Leader

Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, speaks during talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents in Doha, Qatar September 12, 2020.(Reuters)
Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, speaks during talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents in Doha, Qatar September 12, 2020.(Reuters)

The Taliban’s deputy leader is the main public face of the Taliban who will likely head the next government. He was closely associated with Osama bin Laden and co-founded the Taliban along with Mullah Mohammad Omar, the one-eyed cleric who was the group’s first supreme leader. Baradar was captured in the Pakistani port city of Karachi in 2010 in a joint operation with US Intelligence, and Zalmay Khalilzad – the US special envoy for Afghanistan – reportedly helped secure his release in 2018 ahead of peace talks with the Trump administration.

Baradar lived in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban has a political office, until his return on Tuesday to the southern city of Kandahar, the group’s birthplace. As the Taliban’s diplomatic leader, he signed a peace deal with the Trump administration in February 2020 that laid out the roadmap for the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan. He also met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi earlier this month in Tianjin.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, Leader of Designated Terrorist Group

The leader of the Haqqani Network, a US-designated terrorist organization, became the second deputy Taliban leader after the groups merged around 2016. He is believed to move between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and is said to oversee finances and military assets across the two countries. It’s unclear how the US will treat the Haqqani Network as part of ongoing negotiations with the Taliban. His brother, also a key Taliban leader, was captured by US forces in Bahrain in 2014 and transferred to Bagram prison before being released in a prisoner exchange four years later.

Mohammad Yaqoob, Founder’s Son

Yaqoob is the son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, and was once considered a contender for the group’s top job because of his lineage. Few details are known about him. News reports suggest that he was educated in a seminary in neighboring Pakistan and now lives in Afghanistan. He is believed to supervise the group’s military activities along with Sirajuddin Haqqani.

Abdul Hakim Haqqani, Top Negotiator

Believed to be close to Supreme Commander Akhunzada, Haqqani heads the Taliban’s negotiating team in charge of the peace talks with the former US-backed government. He also heads a senior council of religious scholars.

Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, Key Diplomat

Unlike many of the group’s leaders, Stanikzai speaks fluent English and traveled the world extensively as deputy foreign minister when the militants last controlled power in Afghanistan. In 1996, he visited Washington on a failed mission to convince the Clinton administration to acknowledge the Taliban’s government. He has also led delegations to China to meet government officials, according to a Reuters report. Stanikzai is also Abdul Hakim Haqqani’s deputy negotiator on talks with Afghan government officials.

Zabihullah Mujahed, Main Spokesman

Mujahed earlier this week addressed the Taliban’s first press conference in Kabul, and is likely to play a significant role in conveying the group’s message to the international community. During 20 years of war, he communicated with journalists only over the phone or via text messages. The media interaction on Aug. 17 was the first time he was seen in public.

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