Updated: Feb 14
Image Courtesy: The New Yorker
Afghanistan is rightly called by various names, most prominent among the being, ‘the sick man of Asia’ and ‘the graveyard of Empires’. Historically mentioned in India’s great epic, ‘The Mahabharata’, this is a land-locked bowl of a nation whose contours were defined only in the 19th century during the Great Game 1.0 between Great Britain and Tsarist Russia. Since this region has traditionally been on the crossroads of trade routes, including the Silk Road, it has been subjected to various influences and attempts to conquer and rule it has been incessant. The result has been that Afghanistan is truly an eclectic collection of ethnicities with Pashtuns (~40%), Tajik (~30%), Hazara Shia (~10%), Uzbek (~10%), Baloch, Turkmen, et al.
It came under Islamic influence under the Abbasid Caliphate in the last quarter of the first Millennia. Several dynasties have since ruled this region such as the Ghori Dynasty, the Mughals, and the Abdali (also known as Durrani with Kandahar as the capital). Ever since, the Durranis have been the rulers of Afghanistan, with very few exceptions, and Kandahar continues to occupy a prime place in religious and political dominance over Afghanistan. The Taliban also belong to the Kandahar region. It was in Kandahar that Mullah Mohamed Omar wore the ‘supposed’ cloak of Prophet Muhammad and proclaimed himself as the Caliph in c. 1996 and became the ‘Emir al Momineen’.
Afghanistan is a place too well known for palace intrigues, about-turns in political affiliations, and back-stabbing. The Great Game 2.0 was initiated by the USA under ‘Operation Bear Trap’ to dismantle its existential threat, the USSR, with help from China, West Asian Wahhabi Islamist monarchies, and a Pakistan which wanted to achieve its three ambitions of subduing local Pashtun nationalism, making Afghanistan accept the Durand Line as the international de jure boundary, and gaining a ‘strategic depth’ within a pliant Afghanistan against India, led to great devastation and gave rise to pan-Islamist jihadism worldwide. Later, Pakistan created the Taliban with help from the USA to control the internecine war among various mujahideen factions and install a puppet regime. This proximity and nexus have led to this region being referred to as Af-Pak. As it always happens unerringly, the hand that feeds the snake gets bitten by it. Both the USA and Pakistan came under severe jihadist backlash in the form of 9/11 and the consequent high-decibel terrorism within Pakistan ever since.
With the Taliban once again coming back to power with the blessings and active collaboration of China and Pakistan and an inevitable acceptance of the same from the USA, we need to understand the important Afghan players who are likely to dominate the political and military scenes in Afghanistan in the immediate future. While we might know about Hamid Karzai (immediate past President) and Ashraf Ghani (ousted just now), we may not know about other entrenched and emerging dramatis personae. This is an attempt at knowing them.
Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada – Emir of Taliban. He took over from Mullah Akhtar Mansour who was killed in a drone attack by the CIA on May 21, 2016, in Balochistan. Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mawlawi Muhammad Yaqoub (Mullah Omar’s son) were appointed as Deputy Emirs. It was said that in contention for the Emirship were Taliban’s military commander Abdul Qayum Zakir, Mullah Omar’s son Mawlawi Muhammad Yaqoub Omar, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a brother-in-law of Mullah Omar, co-founder of the Taliban, and the head of the Quetta Shura who had been in a Pakistani prison since c. 2012 and Sirajuddin Haqqani. Finally, the two Deputy Emirs who were chosen were Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mawlawi Muhammad Yaqoub Omar. Some analysts felt that the real powers are with the two Deputy Emirs and that Mawlawi Muhammad Yaqoub was being groomed to take up Emirship eventually.
Sirajuddin Haqqani – Deputy Emir of the Afghan Taliban and son of the legendary mujahideen Jalaluddin Haqqani. The Haqqanis run their own terror outfit called the Haqqani Shura (HQN, Haqqani Network), which the US once dubbed as “the veritable sword arm of the ISI”. Jalaluddin Haqqani was one of the seven mujahideen leaders who were supported with arms and funds by the USA, China and West Asian nations through the ISI of Pakistan in the 1979-1989 Afghan Jihad. The relationship between Haqqani and the ISI goes a long way back and this relationship was utilized to bomb the Indian embassy in Kabul in July 2008. Over 50 were killed including the Indian Defence Attaché and an IFS officer. The US attacked the house of the Haqqanis in Miranshah, North Waziristan on Sep. 8, 2008, though Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani reportedly escaped. Jalaluddin Haqqani was trained in Akhora Khattak, near Peshawar, often dubbed as the “University of Jihad”. The Haqqanis had an overlapping relationship with all the terror outfits operating in Af-Pak, namely the ISI, Al Qaeda, and the TTP. No wonder, Gen. Kiyani COAS of the Pakistani Army, referred to Jalaluddin Haqqani in c. 2009 as a ‘strategic asset’. Since c.2008, Jalaluddin’s son, Sirajuddin began to take over the Emirship of the Haqqani Shura from his ailing father. The ‘Rewards for Justice Program’, United States Department of State, is offering a reward of up to $5 million for information leading directly to the arrest of Sirajuddin Haqqani. The Af-Pak border Afghan provinces of Paktia and Khost, where the Haqqanis wield considerable influence, make them conjoined twins of North and South Waziristan, the hotbed of jihadi terrorism on the Pakistani side. The release of CIA cables in April 2016 reveals how the ISI gave the Haqqanis USD 200,000 to organize a suicide bomb attack on Forward Operating Base (FOB), Chapman, in Khost province of Afghanistan on December 30, 2009 killing eight CIA operatives including the Base Commander. The suicide bombing was executed by a Jordanian with allegiance to Al Qaeda and the TTP planned and executed the operation, thereby proving the Haqqani shura’s cross-network connections. In September 2011, the Haqqani Shura attacked the US Embassy in Kabul at the ordering of the ISI. In June 2017, the HQN launched a truck-borne bomb attack near the Indian Embassy in Kabul killing 90 people.
Abdul Ghani Baradar – Co-founder of the Taliban with his brother-in-law Mullah Omar, second in command after Mullah Omar and later the Head of the Quetta shura. It was Abdul Ghani, who drove Mullah Omar, disguised in a burqa as a woman on the pillion of his motorbike in 2001 to safety in Pakistan when the US troops surrounded his hiding place. He is now tipped to become the President of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. On Feb. 11, 2010, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was arrested by the ISI in Karachi even as he was planning to attend the May 2-3, 2010 Jirga of about 1200 to 1400 people that Karzai had called off the tribal leaders to give a shape to the reconciliation process. Baradar was eventually released by Pakistan on September 21, 2013 but was still kept incommunicado. The ISI officials admitted that Baradar and his aides were by-passing the ISI and hence were arrested. The ISI was quoted as having admitted, “We protect the Taliban. They are dependent on us. We are not going to allow them to make a deal with Karzai and the Indians.” In c. 2013, Pakistan announced that it would release Baradar at an ‘appropriate time’ which it eventually did only in October 2018. It was in January 2019 that the Taliban team led by Baradar reached a broad agreement with the US Special Representative for Af-Pak, Zalmay Khalilzad. It was on February 29, 2020 that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar signed the peace deal at Doha.On July 28, 2021, Baradar led a Taliban team that met the Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi at Tianjin.
Anas Haqqani – Son of Jalaluddin Haqqani and brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani. He is second in command of the Haqqani shura. He was arrested by US Forces in c. 2014 along with another Haqqani shura commander for southeastern Afghanistan, Hafiz Rashid. Anas was involved in fund raising and propaganda activities in West Asian countries and was captured there (in Bahrain) and transferred to Afghanistan. They were swapped in c. 2019 to secure the release of American University of Afghanistan professors Kevin King and Timothy Weeks, who was kidnapped by the Haqqani Network in Kabul in Aug. 2016. Anas Haqqani is currently interfacing with the three-member Afghan Coordination Council to determine the shape of the new government.
Mawlawi Muhammad Yaqoub – Son of the legendary Taliban Emir Mullah Omar. The one-eyed Mullah Omar died in April 2013. But, it was announced only on July 28, 2015. On 29th July 2015, the Quetta Shura, meeting at Kuchlak, a town just outside Quetta, formally elected Akhtar Mansour as the new Emir while Mullah Omar’s son Mawlawi Mohammed Yaqoub and Mullah Omar’s brother Mullah Abdul Manan Hotak walked out of the shura protesting the choice. The shura was held in a madrassah in Quetta. Yaqoub had earlier got the support of Sirajuddin Haqqani but the Pakistani ISI pressurized him to shift his support to Mansour, which he did. A grateful Mansour appointed Sirajuddin Haqqani as his Deputy. In April 2016, Mawlawi Muhammad Yaqoub agreed to be a key commander under Akhtar Mansour.
Zabiullah Mujahid – Chief spokesman of Taliban. After a decade of behind-the-scenes work, he appeared personally before the Press only after Kabul fell.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – an old warhorse from the mujahideen days. Currently, one of the three members of the Coordination Council is to determine the shape of the new government. He is the Emir of Hizb-e-Islami (HeI), the second-largest militant group in Afghanistan. He is strong in the East and North of Afghanistan. A rabid fundamentalist and close to Osama bin Laden, he wanted to ban Sufi orders in Afghanistan and take the fight into the Soviet Union. In the Interim Government formed in c. 1989, Hekmatyar was the Foreign Minister. In the period between c. 1992 and 1996, Hekmatyar reduced Kabul to rubble by shelling and attacking it with rockets for two years, when the Rabbani-Hekmatyar power-sharing arrangement fell apart. When the Taliban then took control of Kabul, Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami training camps in Pakistan (Hekmatyar was until then the blue-eyed boy of the ISI) were taken over by the Taliban and handed down to SSP (Sipah Sahiba-e-Pakistan, a notorious jihadi terrorist Tanzim close to Pakistani Army), even as Hekmatyar fled to Iran and stayed there for the next six years, facilitated by Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). In May 2010, the Maldives government spokesman announced that representatives of Hizb-e-Islami and the Karzai government were holding talks there. In c. 2015, he suddenly announced his support for Islamic State-Khorasan. However, in May 2016, the High Peace Council (HPC) and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami signed a peace agreement to include: Hizb’s promise not to have any links with anti-government armed militants, the Government’s offer of an official pardon to associates of the HeI militant group and its promise to work towards removing the group from the United Nations blacklist; the promise to recognize the Hizb as a political party involved in major political decisions; the legal immunity is given to all Hizb members for all past political and military actions and mandatory the release of all Hizb prisoners within three months. Under the agreement, Hekmatyar was given a consultant role on important political and national decisions.
Abdullah Abdullah – A medical doctor by profession, he is one of the three members of the Coordination Council to determine the shape of the new government along with the Taliban. He belongs to the Northern Alliance. He contested the Presidential elections, both against Hamid Karzai and then Ashraf Ghani and came second on both occasions. He was made Chief Executive Officer of Afghanistan in c. 2014 as a compromise arrangement. He was also the Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation in the Ashraf Ghani government.
Amarullah Saleh – Currently Acting President and earlier Vice President under Pres. Ghani. He had earlier served for six years as the Head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence and security service. He was close to the Lion of Panjshir, Ahmed Shah Massoud and is a member of the Northern Alliance. Just before becoming Vice President, he briefly served as the Interior Minister of Afghanistan. Amarullah Saleh had been a trenchant critic of ISI and Pakistan. The HQN had tried to assassinate him a few times, the latest being in September, 2020. In c. 2010, Pakistan demanded his removal from the NDS before it could facilitate talks with the Taliban with the Karzai government. In order to buy peace with the Taliban through the ISI for the upcoming Presidential elections, Amarullah Saleh resigned from NDS in 2010. He is a worthy successor to the legendary Ahmed Shah Massoud.
Ismail Khan – Pro-Iranian and based in Herat. Originally a Captain in the Afghan National Army and later rose to lead a Corps. Had been part of the Northern Alliance too with Massoud and Dostum. Like Ahmed Shah Massoud being called ‘Lion Of Panjshir’, Ismail Khan is known as ‘Lion of Herat’. He was the only regional commander who could successfully stop the Taliban on its tracks in Herat. The Taliban could never make much inroad in that province which is adjacent to Iran. Has now escaped to Iran.
Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum – Started as Commander of the north-west Afghanistan-based Uzbek militia. Was aligned with Ahmed Shah Massoud under the Northern Alliance. Massoud was a Tajik based in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul. In c. 1992, he became a four-star General in the Afghan army. Later, as chaos enveloped Kabul in the fight between Rabbani and Hekmatyar, Gen. Dostum controlled six Afghan provinces bordering CAR states and called himself “President of Northern Alliance” with Mazar-e-Shareif as its capital. After 9/11, CIA coordinated with him to capture Mazar-e-Sharif and he was later made Deputy Defence Minister in the interim government. He was exiled briefly in Turkey on war crimes but returned to Kabul in c. 2018 to become the First of the three Vice Presidents under Ghani. Gen. Dostum has been mired in several accusations of war crimes. Currently in Uzbekistan.
Khairullah Khairkhwa – Once a Guantanomo detainee, he was released by the USA to take part in Doha talks at the request of President Karzai. Currently a top Taliban leader.
Mawlawi Abdul Salam Hanafi – A cleric and a member of the Taliban team at Doha. An Uzbek. During the Taliban regime, he was Deputy Minister for Education. He was educated at the Jamia Banuria, Karachi which is famous for producing many top-level Islamic jihadists including Mullah Mohammed Omar (Emir, Taliban), Maulana Masood Azhar (JeM), Qari Saifullah Akhtar (Emir, Harkat-ul-Jihadi Islami, HuJI) et al. UNSC indicted him in drug trafficking also.
Mohammed Atta Noor – Ethnic Tajik. Member of the Jamiat-e-Islami, a political party set up by another Tajik fundamentalist and ex-President of Afghanistan under the Mujahideen rule, Prof. Burhanuddin Rabbani. He was a powerful northern commander during the 1979-1989 jihad. He was a member of the Northern Alliance under Ahmed Shah Massoud. Had been Governor of the Balkh Province of Afghanistan bordering Tajikistan. Currently in Uzbekistan. He is a vehement opponent of the Taliban. His defeat of the Taliban in Mazar-e-Sharif (along with Gen. Dostum and Ismail Khan) was the great turning point in Operation Enduring Freedom launched by the US after 9/11 to dislodge the Taliban. Jamiat-e-Islami is heavily influenced by Abu Ala-al-Mawdudi’s teachings. Mawdudi (India/Pakistan), along with Syed Qutb (Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt), are considered as twin pillars of modern-day Islamist jihadists.
Younus Qanooni – Was the third Vice President under Ashraf Ghani. Belongs to the Northern Alliance.
Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai – He was appointed in c. 2015 as the ‘political head’ of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha, Qatar. Currently its ‘Deputy Head, Taliban Political Office, Doha’. Considered close to Pakistan’s ISI. He belongs to the Akhtar Mansour faction within the Taliban. [There was another faction within Taliban leadership which was led by Abdul Qayum Zakir, Taliban’s military commander and former Guantanamo Bay detainee, which was opposed to any peace talks with the Americans or Afghan government]
Motassim Agha Jan – Son-in-law of Mullah Omar and Chief Administrator of the Quetta Shura. He was Finance Minister during the Taliban regime (1996-2001). In 2009, Motasim had taken over as head of Quetta Shura, a position usurped from him by Baradar later. Along with the arrest of Baradar, Motassim was also arrested by the Pakistanis (February, 2010) but was later released in c. 2011 due to intense pressure from the USA. Subsequently, an attempt to assassinate Motassim happened, probably by the Taliban. He was shifted to Turkey for treatment and in July 2012, the UN lifted sanctions on him to enable him to take part in peace negotiations. Motassim has since been discarded by the Taliban. He tried in vain to start peace talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban. His whereabouts currently are unknown.
(Mr. Subramanyam Sridharan is a Computer Scientist by profession and a distinguished member, C3S. His areas of interest include strategic and security studies, analysis of Indian Foreign Policy and has expertise on Pakistan and Afghanistan. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the views of C3S.)