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Why suicide bombing of a top cleric is a big blow to the Taliban

Maulavi Rahimullah Haqqani (Image: Twitter)

Earlier this week, a physically handicapped suicide bomber, who had hidden explosives in his prosthetic leg killed a top cleric in Kabul. The killing of Maulavi Rahimullah Haqqani at the Madrassah he ran sent layered messages, all amounting to yet another devastating blow to Taliban, which had angered the Americans after it took over the Afghan capital on August 15 last year.

While the Americans have been furious because they had to leave under fire after the Taliban takeover, the Pakistanis have been also miffed  later by the Afghan militant group. Unlike the Taliban in its first avatar when it played ball with the Pakistanis, Taliban 2.0 has been a different kettle of fish. By raking up Pashtun nationalism and forcibly challenging the sanctity of the Durand Line, the colonial era boundary that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, the group has seriously alienated Islamabad.

Enough circumstantial evidence is now emerging, revealing that  the Americans and the Pakistanis are jointly holding the Taliban's feet to the fire.

The killing of Maulavi Haqqani has weakened the Taliban from within. The cleric, who was earlier stationed at the Jamia Zubaria seminary in Peshawar, was playing a key role in raising the morale of Afghan commanders, many of whom were not long ago  based in Peshawar.

These commanders had flocked to the Jamia Zubaria seminary, where Haqqani was a highly popular teacher, especially on account of his moderate views, which included support for women’s education.

Haqqani’s connection with the Taliban military was also well institutionalised, as he was  a member of the Afghan military commission. 

Maulavi Haqqani’s killing also represents a bloody ideological struggle between the Hanafi and the Salafi school of thought, which permeates ISIS. ISIS has taken responsibility of the suicide blast that killed Haqqani.

A large section of the Taliban belongs to the Hanafi school—one of the four major schools of Sunni Islamic legal reasoning. According to some accounts, the school has evolved from the teachings of the eighth century scholar Abu Hanifa, who studied and taught in Kufa in Iraq. Two of his disciples, Abu Yusuf (d. 798) and al-Shaybani (d. 805), put together Abu Hanifa’s teachings, which were adopted by the Abbasid dynasty resulting in its international spread. “Hanafi doctrines have always been considered among the most flexible and liberal in Islamic law, including in the areas of criminal law, treatment of non-Muslims, individual freedoms, marriage and guardianship, and ownership and use of property” says the website Oxford  bibliographies.

The Salafists violently reject the Hanafi school. One of the most “ultra-conservative” school believes that authentic Islam can be derived by rigorously following the footsteps of the early, righteous generations of Muslims, known as the Salaf, who were closest to Prophet Muhammad. Salafis believe not just in the “spirit” but in the “letter” of the law, setting them apart from their mainstream counterparts. Born out of this puritanical zeal, Salafi-Jihadism has emerged as a potent force. “Salafi-jihadists tend to emphasize the military exploits of the Salaf (the early generations of Muslims) to give their violence an even more immediate divine imperative,” says a  a study by Brookings.

Maulavi Haqqani was a visceral foe of the Salafists, and the struggle for ideological supremacy in AfPak has a bloody past. In 2016, ISIS attacked Haqqani near his Peshawar seminary, but he managed to escape. Four years later the Jamia Zubaria was bombed while he was teaching, injuring hundreds of his students, while dozens were killed.

But curiously, in the run up to Haqqani’s killing a major Salafist leader was also killed in mysterious circumstances. Sheikh Sardar Wali Saqib, head of Salafi scholars, was murdered by unidentified gunmen in Kabul city last month, setting the stage for possible vendetta between the two ideological arch-foes.

Could Haqqani’s death be the result of an “insiders” job, while ISIS takes the flak? Some AfPak watchers do not rule out this possibility, pointing out that Taliban spiritual leader Haibatullah Akhunzada strongly differed with Haqqani’s public airing of women’s education in Taliban ruled Afghanistan.

Big-picture readers point out that Haqqani is likely the victim of high-octane collaboration between the Americans and the Pakistani military which now shares the strategic goal of undermining Taliban 2.0. By killing Zawahiri, a global terror icon,  in a Kabul safe-house which had links with interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, Washington has delivered a body blow to the Taliban which had aspirations for being internationally mainstreamed by campaigning that it had jettisoned terrorism.

It is now quite likely that the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) which is known to have penetrated the ISIS, may have delivered another hefty blow to the embattled Taliban.

Also Read:  Did Pakistan help US eliminate Ayman Al Zawahiri in Afghanistan?