Rumours swirl over whereabouts of two top Taliban officials, including supreme leader

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Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, left, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar have not been seen for some time (AFP/Getty)
Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, left, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar have not been seen for some time (AFP/Getty)

Speculation has been mounting over the whereabouts of the Taliban’s most senior leader and acting deputy prime minister following their prolonged absence from public view.

The Taliban’s co-founder Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, also referred to as the supreme leader, who is in charge of running the Taliban government, has been missing from the public view since 15 August when the Islamist group came to power.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is on the UN sanctions list and is first deputy of the prime minister, has not been seen since reports that he was injured in a shootout with rival Taliban factions.

Taliban officials attempted to quell the rumours by calling them “baseless propaganda”, and swiftly released a video, allegedly of Baradar in a meeting, along with a hand-written letter by the deputy’s aide.

The group also released an audio message, purported to be a recording of Baradar, alongside an old photograph of him.

The Taliban’s swift move to dispel the rumours surrounding the men’s absence has prompted comparisons with the cover-up of Taliban founder Mullah Omar’s death. Back then, the group continued to release audio messages and written statements in his name for two years after his death, before finally confirming that he had died.

“Mullah Baradar, deputy prime minister, Islamic emirate of Afghanistan, in a voice message rejected all those claims that he was injured or killed in a clash. He says it is lies and totally baseless,” said a Taliban spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen, on Twitter.

The video footage released by the Taliban ostensibly showed Baradar at meetings in the southern city of Kandahar. But the videos did not show anything to confirm the time or date when they were recorded.

The audio message also raised questions given its release at a time when the Taliban is no longer a group in hiding but is officially in control of Afghanistan.

Baradar was also the Taliban’s key official who oversaw peace talks with the US in Doha.

“There had been news in the media about my death. Over the past few nights I have been away on trips. Wherever I am at the moment, we are all fine, all my brothers and friends,” a voice claimed to be Baradar’s said in the audio clip.

“Media always publish fake propaganda. Therefore, reject bravely all those lies, and I one hundred per cent confirm to you there is no issue and we have no problem.”

The speculation has been fuelled by a report on Twitter by the Panjshir Observeragencythat Baradar had sustained wounds during a violent clash with members of the Haqqani network in Kabul.

The clashes between supporters of Baradar and those of Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani network, reportedly erupted as a result of internal rivalry following the announcement of key roles in the new cabinet last week.

The Haqqani network is designated a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO) by the US, and its head, Sirajuddin, has been given the position of acting interior minister despite the FBI placing a $10m bounty on his head.

Baradar, who was one of the three deputies of the supreme leader and tipped to be the next prime minister, did not secure any major ministry.

He was also absent from the ministerial delegation that met with Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani in Kabul on Sunday.

Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent non-profit policy research and analysis organisation, said Akhundzada’s absence from public events suggested that he might have died.

It noted that even the one-eyed founder of the group, Mullah Omar, gave radio statements and interviews and met with foreign officials, even if he was not filmed or photographed.

“It would be strange, therefore, if Haibatullah, now that the movement is in power, were alive and still so secluded. For the moment, he appears to function as a symbolic figurehead who can unify without actually appearing or speaking (as was also the case for Mullah Omar, who continued to be cited as supreme leader for two years after he had died).”

The Taliban admitted to covering up the death of Omar for more than two years while official statements continued to be released in his name, according to the BBC. Omar died in Pakistan on 23 April 2013 following an illness, but the statements were released until 2015.

The group said the news was suppressed because 2014 was expected to be the final year of foreign forces operating in Afghanistan.

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