The Afghan Taliban have announced a new leader to replace Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was killed in a US drone strike on 21 May.
In a statement, the Taliban acknowledged Mansour’s death for the first time and named his successor as Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada. The statement disclosed that “Hibatullah Akhundzada has been appointed as the new leader of the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) after a unanimous agreement in the shura (supreme court), and all the members of shura pledged allegiance to him.” The statement further indicated that Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of Mullah Omar, would become a joint deputy head of the movement, alongside current deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani. Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is much more well known, is leader of the Haqqani network, which has been blamed for some of the most violent attacks inside Afghanistan.
The group is known for its daring raids on Western and Afghan targets, particularly in Kabul. Taliban sources have reported that Mansour named Akhundzada as his successor in his will, in what may be an attempt to legitimize the transition. Analysts have reported that it is unlikely that the group will change direction under hardline religious scholar Akhundzada. Mansour was killed in a strike, which targeted his car in Pakistan’s Balochistan province on Saturday. Last year, the Taliban was plunged into turmoil when Mansour replaced the group’s founder Mullah Mohammad Omar. Under his stewardship, the Taliban refused to take part in peace talks and instead, militant attacks increased and became more daring. Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, a former head of the Taliban courts, was a deputy leader to Mansour.
Profile of New Taliban Chief
The Afghan Taliban’s new leader Hibatullah Akhundzada is a hardline religious scholars from Kandahar. The fact that he comes from the Taliban’s traditional stronghold is likely to please rank-and-file fighters.
Born in Panjwai district in Kandahar, during the 1980’s, Akhundzada was involved in the Islamist resistance against the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan. He was quick to join the Taliban, however his reputation is more that of a religious leader as opposed to a military commander.
He served as a deputy to previous Taliban chief Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. According to Gharzai Khwakhogi, a political commentator who worked in intelligence for a while under the Taliban: “(Hibatullah Akhundzada) has lived most of his life inside Afghanistan and has maintained close links with the Quetta Shura.” When the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s western Farah province, he was put in charge of fighting crime in the area. Later, he was appointed to the Taliban’s military court in Kandahar and then as head of its military court in eastern Nangarhar province. As the Taliban consolidated its grip on power in Afghanistan, Hibatullah Akhundzada became the head of the group’s military court and deputy head of its supreme court. When the Taliban was toppled by the US-led coalition in 2001, he became the head of the group’s council of religious scholars. He is a member of the Taliban’s leadership council and has been responsible for issuing most of the Taliban’s fatwas. He also reportedly ran a madrassa (religious school) near Quetta. Experts have indicated that Hibatullah Akhundzada maintained close links with the Quetta Shura, which is understood to make the Taliban’s main decisions as well as appointing its leaders.
The new Taliban chief is not as controversial as his predecessor, who led the militants for two years before news emerged that Taliban founder Mullah Omar was actually dead. Hibatullah Akhundzada was appointed by senior Taliban figures who are said to have met somewhere near Quetta in Pakistan. However, not all members of the shura (council) were there, with many not appearing over fears of being attacked.
While the Taliban has called the new appointment unanimous, they did the same when Mullah Mansour took over last summer. Shortly after his appointment, splits emerged, with sources disclosing that this time, there could still be some disagreements, however they will probably be not enough to challenge the new leader’s authority.
On 17 May, Finland tightened its restrictions on giving residence permits to asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, stating that it was now largely safe for them to return to their war-torn home countries.
Authorities in Helsinki, where anti-immigration political groups have been on the rise, disclosed that security had improved to such an extent that refugees would generally not be at risk in any parts of the three countries, despite ongoing conflicts. While there was no immediate reaction from refugee agencies, the statement released by the Finnish Immigration Service comes in the face of a string of international assessments of the scale of the ongoing bloodshed and refugee crisis. In its statement, the immigration service disclosed that “it will be more difficult for applicants from these countries to be granted a residence permit,” adding, “it is currently possible for asylum seekers to return to all areas in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia without the ongoing armed conflicts of such presenting a danger to them only because they are staying in the country.” Under the new rules, asylum seekers will only be allowed to stay if they can prove that they are individually at risk. In 2015, around 32,500 people applied for asylum in Finland. This was up from 3,600 in 2014. Most of those applying for asylum were from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. This year, the numbers have declined significantly.
Somalia has been slowly recovering from more than two decades of war. The internationally-backed government, which is based in Mogadishu and which has little control outside the capital, continues to fight an Islamist insurgency by the militant group al-Shabab, which regularly launches gun and bomb attacks in the capital and in other areas of the Horn of Africa country. In Iraq, the so-called Islamic State (IS) group continues to hold key cities and vast swathes of territory in the northern and western regions of the country, which it seized in 2014. Furthermore, despite battlefield setbacks over the past year, IS militants have continued to attack civilians in areas that are under government control. This includes a string of attacks that occurred earlier this month in and around the capital, which killed more than 100 people. In Afghanistan, the Taliban launched a spring offensive last month, vowing to drive out the Western-backed government in Kabul and restore strict Islamic rule.
The United Nations reported that the number of civilians killed or wounded in Afghanistan last year was the highest recorded since 2009, with children paying a particularly heavy price.
In its annual report on Afghan civilians in armed conflict, the UN disclosed that there were 11,002 civilian casualties in 2015, including 3,545 deaths. This is a four percent rise over the previous high in 2014. The report stated that fighting and attacks in populated areas and major cities were described as the main causes of civilian deaths in 2015, underscoring a push by Taliban militants into urban centres “with ah high likelihood of causing civilian harm.” The UN began compiling the annular report in 2009. Including Taliban-claimed attacks, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan assigned responsibility for 62 percent of total civilian casualties in 2015 to anti-government elements. However the report also noted that a 28 percent year-on-year surge in the number of causalities caused by pro-government forces, including the Afghan army and international troops. The report stated that seventeen percent of all casualties in 2015 were caused by such forces. It was not possible to say which side caused the remaining 21 percent of casualties. One in every four causalities in 2015 was a child, with the report documenting a 14 percent increase in child casualties over the year. While fighting and improvised explosive devices were the top two killers of children, unexploded ordnance picked up and played with by curious and unsuspecting youngers also claimed a heavy toll, killing 113 children – an average of two a week – an injuring 252 more in 2015. Women also paid a heavy price, with a 37 percent surge in female casualties. According to the report, one in every ten causalities recorded was a woman. The document also highlighted an increase in women being targeted for alleged moral crimes, calling the executions and lashings a “disturbing trend,” and adding that the UN plans to release a separate report on such incidents soon. Chillingly, the report documented a doubling of civilian causalities due to the deliberate targeting by militants of judges, prosecutors and juridical institutions. There were 188 such cases last year, of which 46 involved fatalities. The Taliban claimed 95 percent of such targeted attacks. While ground engagements were the largest cause of civilian causalities, improvised explosive devices came second, with the report adding that the use of such weaponry violated international law and could constitute war crimes. The report also criticized Afghan forces in particular for their reliance on explosives in populated areas. The UN’s special representative for Afghanistan, Nicholay Haysom, has disclosed that “the harm done to civilians is totally unacceptable…We call on those inflicting this pain on the people of Afghanistan to take concrete action to protect civilians and put a stop to the killing and maiming.”
Speaking at a press conference on Sunday, Haysom stated that the statistics in the report do not “reflect the real horror,” adding that “the real cost…is measured in the maimed bodies of children, the communities who have to live with loss, the grief of colleagues and relatives, the families who make do without a breadwinner, the parents who grieved the lost children, the children who grieved the lost parents.” On 1 January 2015, US and other international troops moved from a combat to a training, advisory and assistance role in Afghanistan, effectively leaving Afghan forces to take the lead in fighting the resurgent militants as they targeted towns and cities.
Although it may seem a strange route and unnecessarily long detour to access Europe via Russia and the border to northern Norway, it has its advantages. The convenience of this route is that it bypasses a lot of the strict border controls of the normal routes. The route has been used by Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and other nationalities, and it’s not just refugees fleeing from war or oppression. It is also used by those who are, like so many, looking for better jobs and living conditions. Rather than defying the border fences of and strictly controlled crossings of southern and eastern Europe, not to mention the dangers of the Mediterranean crossing, some seem to prefer the so called ‘arctic route’ to Europe. Many of the migrants come much underdressed though and face tough challenges in the tough, northern climate. Whether or not this route has been easier than the more frequented travel routes to Europe is hard to say.
After flying via Moscow to Murmansk migrants must first try make their way from there, some 136 miles north, past barren tundra, an area of Russian military bases and heavily armed checkpoints, to the small mining town of Nickel. There, refugees face yet another challenge: Russian law bans foot traffic at the border and Norway fines drivers for carrying migrants across because it is considered human trafficking. Because of this migrants have taken to crossing the border by bicycle. The legal twist has prompted a brisk trade in used bicycles throughout Russia’s Northwest — any size or condition is accepted. Entrepreneurial Russian smugglers have made business of this, and even arrange package deals of minivans and bicycles.
News of this arctic route has spread and the fact that the crossing is actually possible has led to an increase in migrants coming this way. The small town of Nickel has seen the stream of people coming north and a lone hotel there has become a key stopover point before heading for the border. Syrians, Afghans, Egyptians, Palestinians, Iraqis and others have filled the hotel’s 30 rooms some nights and yet more migrants are left to seek refuge in a nearby student dormitory. Norwegian authorities have been relatively welcoming and offered temporary refugee status to the migrants. But the growing wave is testing the limits of Norwegian hospitality and as the weeks have gone by, the influx has grown larger than what can be handled. In Kirkenes, a small Norwegian town just across the border, mayor Rune Rafaelson, has said local police estimate 10,800 migrants may arrive by year’s end — in effect doubling the entire region’s population. Rafaelson is one of a growing number of Norwegian politicians who suspects that the Kremlin is driving the current influx, as neighbouring Finland – a non-NATO member that has warmer relations with Russia —faces no similar migrant surge. Storskog border crossing has seen more than 4,000 refugees arrive so far this year, the majority of them riding bicycles. Norway has started building new refugee accommodation at the airport in the nearby town of Kirkenes, where the refugees can stay before being flown south. While the number of asylum- seekers remains small compared with the hundreds of thousands of migrants who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean, their number is steadily rising, and with more than 1000 migrants per week, it has changed the hospitable attitude of the Norwegians.
With the tension between Norway and Russia the issue has since taken on a diplomatic dimension. The arctic route has been known among the migrants as a safe route to Europe, and relatively easy with the checkpoints as the Russians don’t bother anyone who wants to cross over to Norway, but it will be far less safe as the weather steadily gets colder. Besides this, Norway, like so many other countries in Europa, is not interested in taking on more refugees than it can handle. Authorities long refrained from closing this crossing point as it would possibly provoke the Russian government, but now have to consider it an alternative. That Russia allows asylum-seekers to cross the highly-militarised region is sometimes seen by Norwegian commentators and media as a bid by Moscow to destabilise its smaller neighbour. Some suggest it is a provocation, punishing Oslo for adopting European sanctions regarding the Ukraine conflict, or creating divisions in Norway. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg has said, earlier in November, that closing the border will not solve any problems but the government has sent warnings to asylum seekers that they risk being sent back, not just to Russia, from where they crossed into the country, but all the way to their home countries. It has been under discussion in the last couple of weeks that the border crossing of Storskog might be closed under the seldom used “Law on Access to Certain Areas”, which was brought in by the parliament right before the German invasion in April 1940. This would partly be to control the influx and partly a diplomatic reaction towards Russia.
Afghan security forces have launched a major counter-offensive to take back Kunduz, a day after Taliban insurgents seized control of the northern city. The insurgents reportedly launched a surprise dawn attack on the city on Monday and by evening had succeeded in capturing the provincial police headquarters and the governors compound. After driving Afghan forces back to an airport on the outskirts of Kunduz, the insurgents raised their white standard over the city’s central square and freed hundreds of Taliban fighters imprisoned in a nearby gaol. It is the second time this year that the Taliban have attacked Kunduz, a strategically important city defended almost entirely by Afghan forces since 2013, when security for the region was transferred to them by NATO. it is also the first time in fourteen years that the Taliban have managed to gain control of a major urban centre.
Ayoub Salangi, Afghanistan’s deputy interior minister, has announced that security forces are ready to retake the city. Heavy fighting has since been reported, with Afghan soldiers reclaiming strategic parts of the city. In support of these efforts, US forces have also conducted an air strike against entrenched Taliban positions. Casualties on both sides are believed to be high but precise numbers have yet to be disclosed.
In a message issued earlier today, the Taliban’s new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour said that President Ashraf Ghani’s unity government should admit defeat. “These conquests are result of almighty Allah’s support and the mujahideen (fighters) sacrifices,” he said. “Therefore, officials in Kabul have to admit their defeat with courage.” The Taliban leader’s comments coincided with the first anniversary of Ghani’s administration, which is likely to experience further setbacks as it attempts to revive the stalled peace negotiations.
A strategically important transport hub connecting Kabul in the south, Mazar-e-Sharif in the west and Tajikistan to the north, Kunduz was a key Taliban stronghold before the 2001 invasion. It is considered a gateway to the north and a known transit point for opium and heroin smuggling to Central Asia.