The Taliban has carried out the first major cabinet reshuffle since retaking Afghanistan to consolidate power in a fractured movement and weaken the once-feared Haqqani Network, intelligence sources have told The National.
The group downplayed this week’s appointment of Maulvi Abdul Kabir as acting prime minister “in order to ensure there are no obstacles and delays in the affairs of the administration”, after they said leader Hasan Akhund, 78, would be taking time off to “rest due to an illness”.
While the announcement was portrayed as a simple bureaucratic move, Mr Kabir is a powerful force in the administration.
Believed to be in his early 60s, he was the last prime minister of Afghanistan before the fall of the Taliban regime as the US invaded in 200 and he played a key role in the Doha talks with the US about their withdrawal. He is understood to have considerable influence with the Taliban’s supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada.
He is also linked to several terrorist attacks, including the 2007 attack on the Afghan parliament that killed 50 people, including five MPs. He is under UN sanctions and reportedly has ties to Afghanistan’s lucrative drug trade.
“The promotion is a reward for his loyalty to Haibatullah,” said one former security official. “We should expect to see more such appointments where those obedient to Haibatullah are rewarded.”
“Haibatullah Akhundzada has gone with [Mr Kabir], who was part of the Taliban during Mullah Omar’s time in the late 1990s up until 2001,” said Kabir Taneja, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
“This way, Akhundzada is keeping both intra-tribal issues in check and also protecting power by not allowing the ‘newer’ power brokers in Kabul,” he added.
Rahmatullah Nabil, a former Afghan spy chief, said the decision was a definitive move to not only reinforce control but also quell any future conflict.
“The decision of selecting a successor to Mullah Hasan seems both definitive and intricate as it aims to reduce competition among other Taliban leaders for the position that will be vacant after [Mr Akhund’s] departure,” he told The National.
“It is also a soft signal to [first deputy prime pinister] Mullah Baradar and [defence minister] Mullah Yaqoob that they are not as powerful within the Taliban movement,” he said.
However, Mr Kabir’s appointment is also indicative of fracturing fault lines within the Taliban, the analysts said.
“It showcases Akhundzada’s own paranoia and mistrust with regard to the many power centres in Kabul that are, by most accounts, frustrated by his doggedness on issues such as girls' education and other points of ideological friction,” Mr Taneja said.
"Kabir being appointed as a stand-in for the Prime Minister, instead of Mullah Baradar, who is the first deputy, gives a glimpse of how the divisions are set up within the Taliban,” he said.
Most significantly, though, Mr Kabir’s appointment is thought to be an attempt to weaken the influence of the Haqqani family, which shares power with them in the current government of Afghanistan.
There have been reports of a growing rift between the Taliban’s supreme leader and the Haqqani network, which was founded in the 1970s and was one of the most powerful and feared groups in the Afghan insurgency. It gave the Taliban critical support during the long insurgency against the US.
In a gathering to commemorate the anniversary of the death of the Taliban’s founder Mullah Omar last week, Sirajuddin Haqqani alluded to the reshuffle within the Taliban’s government.
“We should not monopolise the government and make it small so that only individuals from our religious seminaries see themselves involved in it. Everyone is part of this government,” he said.
Mr Kabir is from the Paktia province and belongs to the Zadran tribe, like the Haqqani family, and as such his appointment is considered to be a move to weaken their influence in the region.
“It not only aims to appease the Loy Paktia [the greater eastern region] by choosing a second-in-command from that region, but also undermines Siraj who does not enjoy a friendly relationship with Kandahar, nor with Kabir,” Mr Nabil said, referring to Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is the Interior Minister in the Taliban government and the leader of the Haqqani Network.
“This appointment could also pave the way for the replacement of the Haqqanis,” Mr Nabil suggested.