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Where are the missing Taliban leaders? Rumors swirl about the fate of two top officials

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(CNN) – Taliban leaders are rarely seen at public events and do not give interviews or hold press conferences. Many of them move in the shadows, their whereabouts are unknown, inevitably generating rumors about their health and possible internal disagreements.

Those rumors gained so much traction in recent days that Taliban spokesmen have been forced to reject questions about whether one of the group’s most prominent figures, Mullah Baradar, was injured or even killed in a dispute in Kabul last week against the powerful Haqqani network, which holds key positions in the interim government.

Similarly, Taliban officials have repeatedly said that the movement’s supreme leader and commander-in-chief, Haibatullah Akhundzada, would soon make a public appearance. But he hasn’t, fueling rumors that he’s sick or even dead.

In other countries, a politician subjected to such speculation would call a press conference or make a television appearance to set the record straight. In Baradar’s case, a modest-quality 39-second audio recording was released on Monday, along with a handwritten note from his assistant. No videos or images were published. Baradar was last seen in a fleeting appearance at a Kabul hotel in the first week of September.

Mullah Baradar, one of the deputy prime ministers, has not been seen in public in days.

In the audio clip, Baradar allegedly says: “There are some conversations in the media. I had been traveling these days. I had gone somewhere and thank God we are all fine. Some of these media networks do this kind of propaganda and they tell very shameful lies. Refuse those rumors with courage. No problems, thank God. I assure you 100%. “

Baradar is the head of the Taliban political bureau and led the Doha negotiations with the previous government and the United States. Some expected him to be appointed prime minister, but after lengthy negotiations on the form of the new government, Baradar was named deputy prime minister.

Rumors of internal disagreements were fueled by Baradar’s absence from the delegation that met with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani in Kabul on Sunday. Taliban officials explained that he was not in Kabul, but had gone to Kandahar, where Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada is said to be based.

Who is Mullah Baradar, the international face of the Taliban? 2:23

The invisible Taliban leaders

The invisibility of the Taliban leaders is not a new phenomenon. This is not a group that feels the need to communicate with the outside world. In many ways, the Taliban’s public relations effort has become much more sophisticated in recent years, with multi-lingual social media accounts and spokesmen like Zabihullah Mujahid giving press conferences. The Taliban produced a prodigious volume of videos when their fighters stormed across the country in August.

But that more assertive communication strategy does not extend to leaders who have spent much of their lives fighting guerrilla warfare and, in some cases, years in prison. The Taliban remain a secret organization.

Azaz Syed, a Pakistani journalist who has reported on the Taliban for years, told CNN: “Most of the key Taliban leaders, particularly the Haqqani family, avoid public exposure or appearances as they are convinced that their identity would help the enemy to target them. ” Old habits, it seems, are hard to die.

There is no better example of the Taliban’s attitude towards publicity and transparency than the circumstances of the death from tuberculosis of its co-founder and first leader, Mullah Omar. He died in 2013, but the group did not reveal the fact until two years later. That in itself was an indication of the deep divisions within the group, especially over the peace negotiations, which many of the Taliban’s military commanders resisted. So serious were the divisions that some commanders left the group to join the emerging ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan.

The current Taliban government

Authorities have repeatedly said that the top Taliban leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, would soon make a public appearance. He hasn’t done it yet.

The current supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, was elected in 2016 at a contentious meeting of the leadership council, or shura, in the Pakistani city of Quetta, the headquarters of the Taliban-in-exile. He has not made a public appearance in the five years since. For much of 2020, not a single statement emerged on his behalf. A senior Taliban official, Moulawi Muhammad Ali Jan Ahmed, told Foreign Policy last year that Akhundzada had been affected by the coronavirus, which affected many senior Taliban officials.

“Our leader is sick, but he is recovering”, Ahmed told Foreign Policy in an interview in June 2020. Other Taliban sources told Foreign Policy that they thought Akhundzada had died of COVID-19.

In the month since the Taliban took power in Kabul, only one statement was issued on behalf of Akhundzada, in which he said: “I assure all compatriots that the figures [ministros del gobierno talibán] they will work hard to uphold Islamic rules and Sharia law in the country. “

If there are serious divisions within the Taliban leadership today, they may be rooted in that 2016 shura. A compromise was reached to hold the group together, with two designated sub-leaders: Mullah Yaqoob, son of the first Taliban leader. , Mullah Omar; and Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani network.

Both are in the new government, as Ministers of Defense and Interior, respectively. Little has been seen of either of them despite their importance in holding portfolios of key stocks.

However, Sirajuddin’s uncle Khalil, appointed minister for refugees, has been more visible, addressing tribal gatherings and even giving interviews to selected foreign journalists. Azaz Syed of GeoNews met him in Kabul last month.

“Among the Haqqani, Khalil Haqqani is actually more visible in social gatherings,” Syed said. “However, he is also very careful about his safety: every time he moves in the city, a car transport and security guards from Special Brigade 313 provide security.” The protection is perhaps not surprising, as he has a $ 5 million bounty on his head, “courtesy” of the US government, while his nephew Sirajuddin has a $ 10 million bounty.

In this feverish atmosphere, anything that arises about a dispute or clash between rival elements will be in carefully worded unofficial whispers. The internal machinations and decision-making of the Taliban give a new definition to the word opaque.

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