History is riddled with politicians who assume top posts in their countries but turn out to be nothing more than ceremonial figureheads, perched on the frontline by those who are far stronger, yet prefer to take a backseat and rule from the shadows.
General Mohammad Naguib was one such case, propped up as President of Egypt in 1952, only to be brushed aside by military strongman Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1954. General Fawzi Selu was another, who was head of state in Syria between 1951-1953, only to be removed, rather abruptly, by the very man who brought him to power, Colonel Adib al-Shishakli.
Both Selu and Naguib were chosen because of their age and seniority within the military establishment. Nasser and Shishakli were too young to assume top command immediately after staging their coups and wanted to invest in the reputation and rank of older and more experienced officers, before taking over direct control of their countries.
The new Prime Minister of Afghanistan, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, is likely of similar caliber. He was parachuted into the job on September 7, 2021, two weeks after the Taliban overran Kabul. He and his cabinet have assumed the title of “acting” and Akhund seems to be a premier by name only. Real power remains in the hands of Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar and the Supreme Leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, who is to Afghanistan today what Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been to Iran since 1989.
Real power remains in the hands of Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar and the Supreme Leader.
Prime ministers come and go, while akin to a king, the Supreme Leader remains at his job, with the ultimate say on all political and military affairs. He has the authority to fire and hire, dissolve parliament, appoint ambassadors, and declare war and peace. The Taliban probably chose Akhund as Prime Minister because he is the oldest member of the group, not because he was viewed as a capable leader.
Akhund is reportedly in his mid-70s; nobody knows exactly when he was born, with the EU estimating his birth took place sometime between the years 1946-1950. Nevertheless, his age range creates a significant generation gap with his ministers, who are far younger than him.
The new Foreign Minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, is 51 while the Minister of Defense, Mullah Yacoob, is only 29—young enough to be Akhund’s grandson. Indeed, when Yacoob was in grade school learning to memorize the Quran, Akhund was serving as Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister and Deputy Foreign Minister, during the first Taliban era (1996-2001).
Akhund will have a difficult time reigning over the young men carrying arms on the streets of Kabul.
Even though his ministers look up to him as a veteran leader of the Taliban, Akhund will have a difficult time reigning over the young men carrying arms on the streets of Kabul. They consider the Taliban’s recent victory as their achievement and will move heaven and earth to maintain the privileges that come with power. As such, they will certainly not welcome being bossed around by a septuagenarian Prime Minister, nor will they accept being told how to behave or—possibly—to disarm sometime in the future.
From 2001 to 2021, Akhund served as head of Taliban’s executive Rehbari Shura (Leadership Committee), also known as the Quetta Shura. This gave him political prominence but not necessarily any say in military affairs. Still, twenty years of working in the underground operations of the group has taught Akhund plenty, as he’s had ample time to look back and analyze what went wrong with the first Taliban era.
One of its biggest mistakes—for which he is partially to blame—was refusing to extradite Osama Bin Laden, who was a guest of the Taliban after being forced out of Sudan in 1996. The Bush administration made several appeals to the Taliban to hand over Bin Laden after the 9/11 terrorist attack but Akhund refused, and so did the group’s founder Mullah Omar, claiming that this controverted the rules of hospitality both in Islam and in Afghanistan. Moreover, neither of them showed any remorse or regret in the wake of the attack. The result was the US war of 2001, which toppled Mullah Omar and Akhund, sending both into covert undertakings.
A Wiser Premier?
With that hindsight, Akhund is now trying to come across as a moderate, saying that his country will not play host to al-Qaeda again nor will it allow ISIS to control territory in Afghanistan. Tired of being an outlaw, Akhund wants to be recognized as a statesman and welcomed into the family of world premiers. To do that, he needs to tone down the Taliban’s rhetoric by offering concessions on women’s rights, disarming militias, and marketing himself as an ally of the international community in the war on terror.
Tired of being an outlaw, Akhund wants to be recognized as a statesman and welcomed into the family of world premiers.
Whether he can succeed in this image revamp or not is yet to be seen, since hardliners in the Taliban seem to have a very different vision for the country. In fact, the Supreme Leader has said that Akhund’s government will uphold the strictest interpretation of Islamic Sharia, making no mention of democracy, basic freedoms, or women’s rights.
The choice of ministers in the Akhund government suggest that even if the premier himself may be wiser, the Taliban are not. Four of the new ministers are former inmates at Guantanamo Bay, including Deputy Defense Minister Mohammad Fadel and Information Minister Khairullah Khairkhwa, while Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani is “wanted” by the FBI. There are no women in the Akhund administration and no members of the Shiite Hazara minority, though Akhund tried—with little luck—to include all ethnicities.
Who Really Controls Afghanistan?
A bigger problem for the new premier is his first deputy, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who evokes much stronger admiration than Akhund and at 53 happens to be much younger. He is closer to the military establishment and an intimate associate of the Taliban’s founder Mullah Omar. The two men were childhood friends and married two sisters, with Mullah Omar giving him the nickname “Baradar,” which means “brother.” They were also among the core group that founded the Taliban, giving Baradar a revered standing that Akhund lacks.
More importantly, Baradar has war medals to boast of, obtained during his early military career fighting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—and Akhund does not. The Deputy Prime Minister collaborated with the Americans, was bankrolled by the CIA, and held senior posts during the first Taliban era, such as governor of Herat, commander of military forces in western Afghanistan, and finally, central military commander in Kabul until 2001. He has also spent time in jail, which is always a plus in highly politicized societies. Notable former prisoners can reap an almost saintly status for having suffered greatly and are seen as deserving of the positions of power that they gain.
Baradar was arrested by Pakistani intelligence in 2010 and remained behind bars until 2018, when he was released at the official request of the Trump White House, which hoped it would push the peace talks forward with the Taliban.
With such a resume, Baradar is coming across as the de facto premier of Afghanistan. Unless Akhund proves otherwise, he will likely remain a ceremonial figurehead for the foreseeable future, as somebody who can easily be disposed of when his time is up, arousing little commotion and no objection from the military class.
Yet taking a long look at history, we can also find numerous politicians who were brought to power precisely because they were perceived as weak, only to surprise the world with their courage and audacity. Former Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat was one of them. Sadat took the bold move of signing peace accords with Israel in 1978, although most political observers expected him to walk in Nasser’s shadow. Tunisian President Kais Saied is another example; a university professor-turned-politician, he recently staged a bloodless coup in July against the powerful Ennahda Party in his country.
Ultimately, only time will tell whether Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund is just another Mohammad Naguib or remarkably more like Anwar al-Sadat.