Who is the Taliban supreme leader?

Who is the Taliban supreme leader?

The Taliban have released just one photograph of the leader

Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. Credit: Reuters File Photo

In the days since taking power in Afghanistan, a wide range of Taliban figures have entered Kabul -- hardened commandos, armed madrassa students and greying leaders back from years of exile.

There has been one major exception -- the group's supreme leader.

But Hibatullah Akhundzada may finally make a public appearance -- and soon -- the Taliban said Sunday.

"He is present in Kandahar," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.

Read more: Haibatullah Akhundzada, a key to the Taliban's resurgence

Akhundzada -- the so-called commander of the faithful -- has shepherded the Taliban as its chief since 2016 when snatched from relative obscurity to oversee a movement in crisis.

After taking the insurgency's reins, the cleric was tasked with the mammoth challenge of unifying a jihadist movement that briefly fractured during a bitter power struggle.

The infighting came as the group was hit with successive blows -- the assassination of Akhundzada's predecessor and the revelation that its leaders had hidden the death of Taliban founder Mullah Omar.

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Little is still known about Akhundzada's day-to-day role, with his public profile largely limited to the release of annual messages during Islamic holidays.

The Taliban have released just one photograph of the leader.

The announcement that Akhundzada will soon appear in public comes as the heads of the group's various factions openly preached in Kabul's mosques, met with opposition figures, and even chatted with Afghan cricket officials in recent days.

The Taliban have a long history of keeping their top leader in the shadows.

The group's enigmatic founder Mullah Mohammad Omar was notorious for his hermit ways and rarely travelled to Kabul when the Taliban were in power in the 1990s.

Instead, Omar remained largely out of sight, reluctant to even meet visiting delegations.

He stayed in his compound in Kandahar, the birthplace of the militant movement and the centre of its iron-fisted government in the 1990s.

Still, Omar's word was rule and no singular figure has emerged to command the movement with the same respect.

Prior to the Taliban's announcement that Akhundzada might appear soon, Laurel Miller -- the head of the Asia programme at the International Crisis Group -- said he had adopted a "reclusive" style similar to the founder Omar.

The secrecy might also be fuelled by security fears, Miller added, citing the assassination of his predecessor Mullah Akhtar Mansour by a US drone strike.

"It's also possible that after showing himself he would withdraw and exercise his authority in a remote fashion, as Mullah Omar did," the analyst said.

The announcement of a looming appearance follows rumours about Akhundzada's health that have been circulating for years, with chatter in Pakistan and Afghanistan suggesting he had contracted Covid or been killed in a bombing.

The revelation in 2015 that the Taliban leadership had for years hidden the death of Mullah Omar sparked a brief but bloody power struggle, with at least one major faction splitting from the group.

It would also come at a time when the Taliban prepare to form a government, with myriad factions within the group representing different interests from across Afghanistan.

As the Taliban transition from fighting to governance, appeasing all the factions will be crucial to consolidating power.

Any vacuum at the top could destabilise a movement that has managed to stay together during decades of conflict, tens of thousands of foot soldiers killed, and top leaders assassinated or shipped off to the US prison in Guantanamo Bay.

Some analysts have suggested that the Taliban may just be biding their time until US-led forces make their final exit from Afghanistan before their leader appears in public.

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