Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada.
The Taliban in Afghanistan have confirmed the death of their former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in a US drone strike last week and appointed his successor.
Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, a prominent religious scholar and deputy to the killed leader, will head the militant movement, which has been in disarray since its founder, Mullah Omar, was proclaimed dead last summer.
The swift selection of a new chief follows a series of meetings in recent days among the core leadership in Quetta, Pakistan, and can be seen as an attempt to prevent further rifts in the ranks.
Many commanders had regarded the selection last summer of Mansoor – a heavy-handed and divisive figure – as a coup, leading to violent clashes between factions. Since then, there has been unrest and unprecedented infighting.
Largely unknown outside the movement, Haibatullah is a former Taliban chief justice and heads their religious Ulema council.
Compared with Mansoor, he has strong religious credentials, and has been responsible for issuing fatwas to justify military and terrorist operations.
Reportedly from the Panjwai district of Kandahar, Haibatullah is part of the Noorzai tribe and comes from the Taliban’s spiritual heartland, which gives him clout over southern commanders and could potentially help him unify discontented factions.
Haibatullah will be watched closely by the Afghan government and its international partners, who hope he will be amenable to joining the peace process. His predecessor was targeted, according to the Pentagon, because he was “an obstacle to peace”.
“Haibatullah Akhundzada has been appointed as the new leader of the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) after a unanimous agreement in the shura (supreme council), and all the members of shura pledged allegiance to him,” the group said in a statement.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of a network blamed for many high-profile bombs attacks in Kabul in recent years, and Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of former leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, will serve as deputies, Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s main spokesman, said in the statement.
Pakistan’s military broke its silence on the matter with a press statement on Wednesday. It said that in a meeting with the US ambassador, army chief Raheel Sharif expressed “serious concern” over the drone strike.
“Such acts of sovereignty violations are detrimental to relations between both countries and are counter-productive for ongoing peace process for regional stability,” Sharif said.
The US and Afghan governments said Mansoor had been an obstacle to a peace process that had ground to a halt when he refused to participate in talks earlier this year. Instead, he intensified the war in Afghanistan, now in its 15th year.
Pakistani authorities are believed to support Taliban leaders in cities over the Afghan border. The insurgents have been fighting to overthrow the Kabul government since 2001.