The way the Taliban functions internally remains an enigma despite the fact that the group is now running Afghanistan. This is what we know about the group’s political structure.
The Taliban or students of madrasas, religious schools, are a byproduct of the anti-Soviet mujahideen movement which emerged largely from the Afghan peripheries against the country’s urban-based educated elites.
While they have been criticised for their problematic political views and practices, which are generally seen as a radical interpretation of Islam, the Taliban have shown some level of sophistication to have been able to continue their military operations for the last two decades against a central government backed by the US and its allies.
In many ways, the Taliban have stayed united and been able to navigate in the misty waters of Central Asia’s turbulent politics, dealing with various regional actors like Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran as well as the superpower US.
Here is a brief look at the Taliban’s organisational structure.
Rahbar Shura (Leadership council)
Rahbar is a Persian word meaning guide, and shura is an Arabic word for council. In Iran’s post-revolutionary political structure, the Shia-majority country’s supreme leader was also called Rahbar. The Taliban, a Sunni Hanafi group, are a Pashtun-dominated movement.
Some of the ruling power in the Taliban lies in the group’s Rahbar Shura. Most experts agree that despite being a consultative body, the Shura is influential in the process of deciding on who will be the Taliban government’s prime minister and other members of the cabinet.
“In some cases, the Shura is a consultation body. In some other cases, the Shura has different responsibilities and also some authority,” says Obaid Ali, an Afghan political analyst at Afghanistan Analysts Network. Among members, some will be more influential than others for various reasons, making “their views more acceptable to the rest of Shura members than others,” he adds.
“It’s some kind of cabinet. We can say that it’s the cabinet of the Taliban movement but in a different format,” Ali tells TRT World.
“The leadership council serves much like a government Cabinet running all the group’s affairs subject to the approval of the supreme leader,” wrote Abdul Sayed, an expert on radical groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“The Taliban structure includes the rahbari shura, several subordinate shuras (during the insurgency these effectively served as different ‘corps commands’ e.g. Miranshah Shura handled southeast Afghanistan), as well as commissions which are basically like ministries - health commission, culture commission, military commission, and so on. Often led or assigned by members of rahbari shura,” says Ibrahim Moiz, a political analyst on the Taliban and Afghanistan.
But who elects Shura members?
The first Shura was formed by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s first supreme leader in 2002 after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 following the September 11 attacks, in Pakistan’s Quetta, according to Sayed. As a result, many called it the Quetta Shura.
Mullah Omar established the Shura to restore and deepen the Taliban’s reach across Afghanistan, according to Ali. All members of the first Shura were elected by Mullah Omar and after him whoever the supreme leader is has continued to elect Shura members, Sayed says.
It appears that the Shura was moved to Afghanistan after the Taliban took over the country. “It had its latest meeting in Kandahar. I heard that even before that its meetings were held in Helmand,” Sayed tells TRT World. Helmand is Afghanistan’s largest province.
Interestingly, the current Taliban government’s cabinet has 33 ministry posts, a number that appears to nearly correspond with the number of Shura members, which were estimated to be around 30. Out of 33, only three ministers are non-Pashtun.
According to Sayed, the first Shura included the following members: Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Usmani, Mullah Abdul Lateef Mansour, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, Mullah Dadullah Khund, Mullah Jalaluddin Haqqani, Mullah Abdul Kabeer, Mullah Hamdullah Nani, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Rahmani, Mashar Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund, and Mullah Ameer Khan Mutaqi.
Among those members, Mansour succeeded Omar as the next supreme leader as Akhund has become the prime minister of the Taliban-ruled interim Afghan government.
“The initial shura were just members of the emir's inner circle and/or other respected colleagues. I assume there is some sort of informal seniority but I'm not sure how one actually enters the Shura, presumably when new members join the Taliban their leaders are given a spot,” Moiz tells TRT World.
While many analysts find the Taliban structure anti-democratic, the existence of the Shura appears to prevent a dictatorial leadership, allowing some degree of community-based decision-making through a process of consultations among Shura members.
But it’s clear that the Shura has no transparency as even the identity of its members cannot be known for sure. Apparently, it also has no monitoring system on its decisions and actions. Let’s say when the Shura makes wrong decisions, it appears that there is no political avenue to correct those decisions.
“It's a typical council where various leaders talk about policy and whatnot. I don't think it's terribly formal,” Moiz says. The head of the current Shura is Akhund, one of the co-founders of the group.
The Shura has no power to elect its own members and also the supreme leader. “Mullah Omar had been the supreme leader until his death. A Taliban leader has never been removed by Shura [to date],” Sayed says.
Supreme leader: Ameer ul Momineen
The ultimate authority in the Taliban lies with the supreme leader. Not only does he elect Shura members but also decides the composition of the government.
The first supreme (spiritual) leader Mullah Omar elected two deputies to smooth out the leadership transitional process, according to Sayed. The first deputy was Mullah Ghani Baradar and the second deputy was Obaidullah Akhund.
According to Omar's understanding, after he died, the first deputy, Baradar, should have succeeded him. But because both Baradar and Akhund were arrested by Pakistani intelligence at different times, Mansour became Omar’s first deputy and also the head of the Rahbar Shura. As was expected, he also succeeded Omar as the second supreme leader of the Taliban in 2015.
Mansour also chose two deputies as his first and second amirs: Hibatullah Akhundzada and Mullah Sirajuddin Haqqani. Akhundzada became the third supreme leader of the Taliban after Mansour was killed by a US drone attack in 2016. Haqqani is the leader of the influential Haqqani network and right now he is also the interior minister of the Taliban government.
But it’s not all clear who will be the next supreme leader after Akhundzada because there are two prominent changes compared to the old structure of the supreme leadership, Sayed notes. At the moment, there is no seniority among current deputies, which are also numbered as three, not two, as it used to be.
Akhundzada appointed another deputy, Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Omar, after he became supreme leader. But he also did something different from his predecessors by appointing a third deputy, Baradar, after he was released by Pakistan in 2018 under the US pressure.
Now Sirajuddin, Yaqoob and Baradar are Akhundzada’s three deputies. “I don’t know who are the first, second and third deputies among these three. I am not sure whether they are equal or not,” says Sayed.
This lack of clarity might trigger infighting inside the Taliban, whose factions and differences are subject to fierce arguments. There were unconfirmed claims that members of the Haqqani network clashed with Baradar during one of the meetings on the formation of the Taliban-led government.