Coronavirus Leaves Taliban Leadership in Disarray Before Peace Talks

Top Taliban leaders have been caught unawares by the spread of Coronavirus within their ranks, leaving control in the hands of Mullah Mohammad Omar’s son, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, reported Foreign Policy.

Many senior Taliban leaders have tested positive for COVID-19 and are seeking treatment. This comes at a critical time when the U.S.-led peace talks with the Afghan government and Taliban are scheduled to start. The U.S. has also increased its pace of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Taliban leader and co-founder Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, had been absent from meetings for the past weeks. He was being represented by his deputy Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is also the leader of the Haqqani network, Antonio Giustozzi, a leading expert on the Taliban at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told Foreign Policy.

But now, Haqqani has tested positive for Coronavirus and has also been absent. “When Sirajuddin got sick he probably infected everyone else as he was deputizing at meetings for Haibatullah,” Giustozzi theorized.

Officials had warned about the unchecked spread of Coronavirus within the Taliban, who are often in remote areas. Mullah Yaqoob is the son of the late Mullah Omar who founded Taliban. He has temporarily replaced Haqqani as the interim chief of operations to squash rumours of any disunity within its ranks.

The future of the Taliban

Mullah Yaqoob has been consolidating his power after he failed to succeed his father. He had instead been appointed to lead the group’s military commission in 15 Afghan provinces. The current disarray gives him an opportunity to further solidify his position and maybe, to ultimately take full control of the Taliban. He can extend his military control over all the 34 provinces across Afghanistan.

“Yaqoob is popular among the battlefield commanders and so they are willing to accept his leadership,” a Taliban official in Quetta told the publication.

Yaqoob is known to have links to Saudi Arabia, which has been funnelling money to support his consolidation of power and the Afghan peace deal. His management of the group’s finances has been exemplary.

Yaqoob also has connections within Kabul’s government and intelligence circles. If he takes over, there is hope of ensuring the peace deal does not get derailed.

With Yaqoob coming into the spotlight, experts see two outcomes of his bid to alter the power dynamics – either intra-Taliban fighting will break out or Yaqoob would be recognised as the next leader.

If there’s infighting within the Taliban, the pro- and anti-Yaqoob faction, each side would be more involved with resolving the leadership issue than participating in the peace negotiations.

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