By Harihar Swarup
Mullah Hassan Akhund is the Prime Minister of war-ravaged Afghanistan. He is the chief of the Taliban’s powerful decision-making body ‘Rehbari Shura’. He has served as foreign minister under Taliban’s old regime, and is said to be close to Taliban’s spiritual leader Akhundzada. Known to be more of a religious than military leader, he is on UN blacklist. He is from Kandahar, the birth place of Taliban and believed to have sanctioned the destruction of Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001. He is believed to be highly respected within the movement.
Mullah Akhund is a fascinating but relatively enigmatic figure in the Taliban. He has been an influential figure in Afghanistan since inception of the militant group in 1990s.
But unlike other Taliban leaders from that period, he was not involved in the in the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s. While Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar and his deputies fought with the Mujahedenn—a loose network of anti-Soviet Afghan fighters—Akhund did not.
Instead, Akhund is seen much more as a religious influence in the Taliban. He served on the Taliban’s Shura councils, the tradition decision making body made up of religious scholars and Mullas—an honorific given to those trained in Islamic theology.
Akhund is probably best known as one architects of the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the giant cliff statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
Initially, Omar had no intention of destroying the statues. But the Taliban founder was angered at seeing conservation money being made to UNESCO world heritage site while failing to secure humanitarian aid from the United Nations for Afghanistan. As such, Omar sought the advice of his Shura, and Akhund was part of the Council that ordered the destruction of the sixth century statues.
Akhund held a political role in the Taliban government of the 1990s, serving as foreign minister; however, his importance lies more in the development of the group’s religious identity. He, like Mullah Omar, was schooled in a brand of strict Islamist ideology, known Deobandism.
After the Taliban was ousted from Afghanistan in 2001, Akhund remained an influential presence, operating mostly from exile in Pakistan. From there he gave spiritual and religious guidance to the Taliban throughout the 2000s and 2010s. In this role, he provided the ideological justification for the ongoing insurgency against the United States and the US backed Afghan government.
Today, there are broadly two faction in the Taliban—a military wing that carries out day-to-day campaigns and a conservative religious elite grounded in Deobandism that acts as its political wing. Mullah Akhund aligns very much with the religious faction of Taliban.
There appears to be power struggle behind Akhund’s appointment. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who served as deputy to Omar during the early years of the Taliban before assuming the position of de facto leader after Omar’s death, had been seen by many experts on Afghanistan as potential head of the state. But there is political tension between Baradar and the powerful Haqqani network—a family based Islamist group that has become the Taliban’s de facto diplomatic arm in recent years and has been successful in gaining support for the group among other local groups.
Ahund was born in Southern Afghanistan. According to UN Security Council data, he was born in Pashmul, which was then in Paniwavi district and is now Zhari district in Kandhar province. The UN has two estimate for his birth year, being approximately 1945—1950 and approximately 1955-1958. He studied in various Islamic Seminaries in Afghanistan. (IPA Service)