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Taliban founder Mullah Omar’s son goes into hiding amid bombing barrage and power struggle

Mullah Yaqoob (Image: The Express Tribune)

Where is Mullah Yaqoob, the military chief of Taliban?  According to  sources, the US and Afghan air force has been pounding his possible hideouts in Lashkar Gah in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan.  In the last 24 hours as many as 406 Taliban terrorists were killed in nationwide operations conducted by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), says the Ministry of Defence. 

Mullah Yaqoob is the son of the one-eyed founder and chief of the Taliban, Mullah Omar.  He hit the headlines last year in May when he was made head of the  military wing of the group. He remained one of the three deputies of the Taliban and also an important member of the group’s top decision-making council, the “Rehbari Shura” also known as Quetta Shura.The Taliban also inducted Mullah Abdul Manan, Mullah Omar’s brother and Yaqoob’s uncle, into the leadership council. According to the Afghan intelligence sources, Mullah Yaqoob has been frequently changing his locations after the US bombers have started pounding Taliban strongholds. 

Arrested Taliban fighters told the Afghan army that Mullah Yaqoob with his trusted “commanders” has been hiding in Musa Qala, a stronghold of the Taliban in Helmand province, near the Durand Line along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

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Musa Qala is the most ‘notorious “districts” of Afghanistan, which fell to the Taliban in the summer of 2015. It is now regarded as the political centre of the insurgency in Helmand.

As the de facto capital of Afghanistan’s opium trade, Musa Qala and Sangin district  provide  insurgents easy access to their principal source of income – drugs – and to cross-border trafficking routes.

It's said that these areas are strictly guarded by the Red Unit of the Taliban. It consists of  hardened commanders, few of whom were released by the Afghan government  from prisons last year,  under the US-Taliban Doha Agreement.

Coming back to Mullah Yaqoob, who was unknown till the Taliban was forced to “acknowledge”  that its supreme leader Mullah Omar had been dead for more than two years, soon after Afghan intelligence said he had died of illness in 2013 at a hospital in Pakistan. According to  various intelligence reports, Mullah Yaqoob, the eldest son of Mullah Omar, was trying to consolidate his power with the support of few Taliban leaders in those two years. He did not succeed, and Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur became the chief . But Mullah Omar's family had refused to pledge allegiance to Mullah Mansour. Mullah Yaqoob had, in fact,  challenged Mullah Mansour's appointment as the Taliban chief. Though Yakoob was made deputy, his opposition to Mansour never ceased.

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After Mansur’s death in a drone attack in 2016, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada became the chief of the group, and in a major shakeup, he appointed Mullah Yaqoob  as the military chief last year. Though Yakoob is “considered” moderate like Haibatullah Akhundzada and Mullah Baradar who are in favour of  the policy of negotiating the Taliban’s ascent to power, he nevertheless needs support of hardline members of the Rahbari Shura to become the chief of the group like his father.

According to the sources, it was under pressure from Saudi Arabia that Mullah Yaqoob was made the military chief, replacing Mullah Ibrahim Sadr, a powerful field commander, who opposed peace efforts.

According to sources, Mullah Yakub has been living with family since the fall of the Taliban regime. He was trained by the Jaish- e- Mohammad (JeM), the masterminds of the Pulwama attack in Kashmir in 2019.

After the sudden US announcement to withdraw forces from Afghanistan from May1, there has been intensified competition between various Taliban groups striving to lead a “victorious jihad”.

“Deep divisions have emerged between the various Taliban councils,” Director of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) General Ahmad Zia Saraj stated at the news conference in April. According to him, “these divisions are increasing day by day as they (the rival Taliban councils) hope  to each advance their interests if foreign troops leave Afghanistan.”

According to the NDS, there have been major “disagreements” between  Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob of the Council of Quetta and ISI supported Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Council of Peshawar. As a result, the situation becomes even more interesting, as a power struggle among the Quetta, Peshawar and Rasul factions becomes inevitable.

Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada is assisted by the three deputies, Mullah Yaqoob, Mullah Baradar and Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Haqqani network. Now there have been reports that there is a “competition”  for supremacy among the three. Being the chief  of the military wing of the group, Mullah Yaqoob appears to have the upper hand.

According to the experts, while Mullah Baradar has become the face of the Taliban, there is no news about Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, mirroring the cloak-and-dagger intrigues of the Taliban.