Mullah Hibatulla’s Political Battle Against His Domestic Rivals

By: Younus Negah   

Kabul has remained the administrative capital of the Taliban Emirate due to its organizations, infrastructure, and historical background. Mullah Hibatullah and Mullah Umar both established a second capital at Kandahar, where the Emirate system (Khan, Amir, or Shah) is in power. The current system and infrastructure in Kabul, which have been in place for centuries, were designed for governance, and any force that takes control of them would be subject to the current governing circumstances. Even in Kandahar, where a group of desert tribes who wear prayer beads and charms around their necks and have spitfires and other items, there is no need for the traditional bureaucracy of government offices, built-in desks, and established systems that are usually required to establish sovereignty and maintain power. Instead, the Amir is free to create an emirate without government bureaucracy, and can rely on tribal or religious traditions to simulate a court, as he is not bound by predetermined circumstances. The Amir acts as the Khan of Khans and issues commands and “ordinances” on his own. The administrative structure of Kandahar differs from that of other powerful cities, and this has recently caused disputes to be made public. Two examples of this are Sirajuddin Haqqani’s resistance to the power vacuum in Kandahar and Mullah Yaqoub’s stance against blind obedience. In response, Mullah Hibatullah was publicly condemned by Mawlawi Abdul Qadir Muradi, the head of the Taliban headquarters in Balkh, who stated that Mullah Hibatullah would be held accountable to God, the people, and his followers. Muradi also declared that he was not afraid to speak harshly to Mullah Hibatullah or anyone else.

Mullah Hibatullah’s interactions with his Emirate’s administrative staff suggest that he does not view himself as a “Peshwa”, or a leader who interferes in the formation of political and theological policies. Rather, he desires to be a powerful Amir like Abdul Rahman Khan, who is responsible for all military, intelligence, judicial, administrative, financial, and employment matters. Since Abdul Rahman Khan’s reign, Afghanistan has experienced considerable change, making it difficult for one person to govern the country, even with the assistance of terrorist groups and a long-standing religious tradition. To become an absolute ruler, Mullah Hibatullah must overcome numerous obstacles. The networks led by him wish for their aspiring Amir to take on a symbolic and spiritual role for the Taliban Emirate, rather than attempting to take control of all legal, financial and administrative functions in his office, and to create a foundation for the unification of the Jihadi players and networks under the rule of the Taliban. However, Hibatullah has not achieved the objectives of his allies and the strong relationship he holds.

Public records of Mullah Hibatullah’s meetings and exchanges with ministries, district governors, judges, top generals, and intelligence chiefs over the past 1.5 years have been released. One of these documents is the record of the conference between the Taliban leader and the directors of the human resource departments of the Taliban ministries, which took place on January 10, 2023. This twelve-page meeting report, published on Hasht-e-Subh, contains a lot of information on his political, religious, and administrative ideas. This article will analyze Mullah Hibatullah’s style of management and technique in governing affairs, based on this document and other news reports, and examine how the conflict over power distribution has entangled Mullah Hibatullah with his close alliances.

Kandahar is the Capital of the Emirate’s Ruler

It can be inferred from Mullah Hibatullah’s meeting with the directors of human resources that the Taliban leader and his allies are attempting to gain control over the financial, military, intelligence, legal, and employment sectors. Hibatullah does not appear to differentiate between Emirati officials, believing that all of them, from the prime minister to the general director of intelligence, the head of human resources, and the military leader, are answerable to him.

Mullah Hibatullah refrained from using his position of authority as the Taliban’s leader to exercise general control from the start. His lack of military strength and the fact that he reached this position from the administrative and religious levels rather than the battlefield likely contributed to his decision not to become a symbolic leader and limited the ambitions of rivals such as Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Yaqub, who have military connections with the Taliban. Mullah Hibatullah served as the deputy Amir under Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, who employed a variety of tactics during his leadership. Firstly, he asserted authority due to his religious knowledge and oratory skills as he was a Taliban judge and a preacher at a religious school. Secondly, Hibatullah employed Sharia, religion, and Hadith. He had a considerable group of mullahs who were in agreement with him, and he sat behind them, attempting to increase his power. Thirdly, due to his prior office experience in the early days of the Emirate and the administrative agency that Mullah Mansour granted him, he was attempting to use his authority by communicating with various levels of departments directly.

In 2017, reports emerged in the media that Mullah Hibatullah was involved in selecting employees and exerting administrative control. He had recently become the Taliban leader following the death of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour (May 21, 2016). Jamila Amini, the head of the Farah Provincial Council, stated that Mullah Hibatullah visited Farah in September 2017 and held meetings with local Taliban leaders. It was alleged that he had entered Afghanistan with the assistance of Pakistani intelligence and had traveled to Helmand and Farah in order to appoint new “governors, district governors, and military commanders”.

After the Taliban relinquished power, news about Mullah Hibatullah became less frequent and reports of the battles between Abdul Ghani Baradar, Mullah Yaqoob, Sirajuddin Haqqani, and others to control the Kabul posts were widely discussed. As Mullah Hibatullah’s identity began to be more widely known, news about him mainly focused on his interactions with administrative officials, his removals and replacements, and the issuing of restrictive orders for the administration and the public. Reports of Mullah Hibatullah’s involvement in provincial administrative matters have been seen in the news and in speeches. According to a report from the Bakhtar news agency on December 15, 2021, Mullah Hibatullah had a meeting with the leaders of the Taliban offices in Kandahar the day before (December 14), which had recently been taken over by the Taliban. The Taliban governor was also present at the meeting. From the start, Mullah Hibatullah summoned the heads of departments to his office and issued commands and prohibitions instead of sending them through Mullah Hassan, ministers, or governors. He not only mandates and forbids matters related to faith and religion, but he also intervenes in the details of things such as employment, as seen in the report of the meeting with the heads of human resources of the Taliban Emirate (published in Hasht-e-Subh).

On August 25, 2021, Mullah Hibatullah arrived in Kandahar and held a meeting with senior Taliban members to discuss the establishment of a new administration. Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s spokesman, informed the media that the conversation was an indication of Mullah Hibatullah’s ambiguity regarding his stance. Subsequently, he assumed a position of authority and control rather than discussion. After the meeting in the Loya Jirga hall, Mullah Hibatullah’s jihadi address increased the popularity of obedience to the Amir. This was seen as a sign of involvement with the Taliban, and opponents were often resentful of the Taliban’s commitment to such formality. However, within the Taliban, the emphasis on obedience was accompanied by conflict and animosity over resources and power. Eventually, these tensions caused the mask of strict adherence to break, and the conflicts became more visible. An administrative note was sent along with the first report of Mullah Hibatullah’s arrival in Kandahar.

Mullah Hibatullah held a three-day conference with the Emirate’s cabinet at the start of 2022 in Kandahar. According to the Taliban’s announcement, Mullah Hibatullah gave instructions to the ministries and officials regarding the operation of various departments and branches. This disregarded the hierarchical structure of the cabinet, as Mullah Hibatullah gave direct orders to Mullah Hasan’s ministers and delegates. This is contrary to the concept of respecting hierarchy, which is essential for democracies and other governments that are governed by the rules of law. Mullah Hibatullah reportedly gave individual instructions to each of Mullah Hassan’s deputies, as stated in the Taliban’s announcement. Mullah Hassan has been silent for the past year, with no orders or news mentioning his name. Sirajuddin Haqqani, Mullah Baradar, and Mullah Yaqub are all below Mullah Hibatullah, but who have authority in their own respective divisions.

Mullah Hibatullah has been successful in his efforts thus far. He has solidified his position as the leader of the Emirate and the highest religious authority by taking advantage of his religious standing and the Talabani tradition. To demonstrate his control over the Emirate in Kandahar and the Kabul government’s authority and implementation of orders, he has utilized all available resources. The discontent and criticism of his rivals within the Emirate further demonstrate his effectiveness.

The Amir is the Only Flawless Theologian

Mullah Hibatullah’s identity is still uncertain and he has not been seen in public for the past 18 months. However, there have been numerous reports of his meetings with various Taliban officials. He is the Amir of Obedience and is known to advise and warn in these reports, as well as claiming that Sharia is perfect. He has also increased the network of mullahs in all divisions, and recently called a meeting with the human resources directors to express his dissatisfaction with the slow recruitment of mullahs and to emphasize the ease of the recruiting process.

Mullah Hibatullah’s office invited the directors of human resources departments to Kandahar for a two-day meeting. The report of the meeting revealed that the administrative practices of the office were similar to those of a royal court, with a homestay, reception areas, and a ceremony officer, despite claims that the lives of the Taliban leaders are simple and ordinary. The Taliban’s proposed practices were not reflected in the report. At the beginning of the meeting, the attendees held an internal meeting at the Amir’s guest house without Mullah Hibatullah present in order to become familiar with the protocols of meeting with him and discuss their proposals.

The following day, they gathered at Mullah Hibatullah’s guest house’s mosque to hear the court ceremonies official’s advice on the proper way to meet with the Amir. They were then taken to Mullah Hibatullah, where they were given four chances to speak: when introducing themselves, when their representative recited the Quran, when reaffirming their commitment, and at the end of the meeting. Mullah Hibatullah gave his sermons and instructions in two rounds, one before the noon prayer and the other after the prayer. The meeting report noted that the heads of human resources were not given the opportunity to discuss their complaints and ideas in the main body of the meeting. They provided a written copy of their complaints and ideas to their َmir on the first day of the conference.

Mulla Hibatullah’s speech was described in twenty paragraphs. The main points of his speech were to obey the Amir, prepare for Jihad, sacrifice, and seek advice from the scholars (Mulla Hibatullah’s deputies) in all matters. He appears to be a good storyteller. The report of his words contained twenty-two narrations, verses, and historical accounts, and Mulla Hibatullah has narrated of the Prophet Mohammad, the Companions, God, and other religious figures in all twenty paragraphs. Hibatullah has established himself as a representative of the elders and an enforcer of God’s law, and in the name of Allah and the religious elders, he has demands obedience and sacrifice.

Creating a Sense of Collective Mission Through Depersonalization

Human resources directors provided a list of recommendations that addressed both personal and professional requirements. On the first day, they identified their work expectations and barriers while in a typical office environment. Most of the middle and low-ranking Taliban in the group had personal goals and passions. They wanted support, a place to live, a job, and a degree. There were likely representatives from the Islamic Republic regime present, and they discussed their issues and proposed solutions. They made formal complaints, such as certain Taliban commanders who had positions during the war being assigned to positions without ceremonies, and they requested protection and advantages from prominent men. They also noted that there were no rules and principles for recruitment and dismisal, no plan to increase capacity, and “Mujahideen” who were chosen by order and without examination were not trained in the job and had limited advantages.

Mullah Hibatullah spoke of conquering and triumphing, recited Surah Al-Nasr, and made it clear that the mission of those working in the Taliban emirate should not be based on personal interests. He has since devoted much of his time to restraining his own desires by using verses, stories, and advice to praise the purposes of the Emirates and the Hereafter while condemning his own and this world’s interests. Mullah Hibatullah has specific expectations of his followers, and using their shared interests and beliefs about the afterlife as a way to make them compliant and obedient is a way to enforce those expectations. According to the second part of Mullah Hibatullah’s meeting, the interests of the country and the system should be taken into account when making decisions about hiring and layoffs, not personal interests. The third passage states that God condemns those who disobey their obligations.

In the nineteenth paragraph of his article, Mullah Hibatullah provided detailed recommendations on how to hire as many Mujahideen as possible, without taking into account regulations, documents, or education. He also included all of the necessary prayers and reports for the agents. He explicitly stated that “the entire body of the army should be made of Mujahideen”. He acknowledged that Mujahideen may lack the technical abilities required for office work, but argued that if given time, they would understand their duties better than anyone else. He warned that if the human resources directors recruited their friends, God would curse them, but if they replaced experts with his supporters, God will bless them.

At the end of the day, Mullah Hibatullah made direct demands of the human resources directors to make the appointment of Mujahideen easier. In the latter part of the second day, when the process of depersonalization and instilling obedience is complete, Mullah Hebatullah, in a seemingly careless manner, makes his demands known to the human resources directors. He inquires as to why the recruitment law has not been sent for his approval; why waste Mujahideen’s time when employed in offices; and why the names of distant friends and Mujahideen’s women are required on recruitment forms. He then commands that no illegal work be done and that Mujahideen recruitment be facilitated. According to him, Sharia is meant to provide ease and privilege to the Mullahs and the Talibs.

The human resources directors should disregard any negative comments from those who oppose Islam regarding the Taliban and their Emirate. They should focus on implementing Sharia law throughout the nation, arming themselves, and being willing to make sacrifices (paragraph 14).

Mullah Hibatullah is using political strategies such as reciting verses, telling stories, promoting Jihad, and calling for global conquest to influence the minds of his subordinates. He wants his Emirate’s representatives to be obedient missionaries and be willing to sacrifice all Afghans if they are ordered to do so. He is also emphasizing the recruitment of Mullahs and Taliban fighters to strengthen his and his faction’s power, in order to gain control of the Emirate and marginalize his rivals.

Everything is Mine

At the end of the first half of the day, Hibatullah asked everyone to reaffirm their loyalty to him by shaking his hand. He had used the meeting with the human resources directors to promote his ideas and manipulate the attendees.

Mullah Hibatullah called for the surrender and allegiance of all governors at the end of July 2022. It is believed that he uses various tactics to increase his influence in areas controlled by his rivals. These tactics include swearing loyalty and having face-to-face meetings with administrative leaders such as governors, presidents, and judges, as well as surrounding governors, ministers, and leaders with mullahs linked to him. Mullah Hibatullah is not the only person associated with the Taliban regime; there are others, such as Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Yaqoub, who are in command of military forces. Additionally, some people, such as Mullah Baradar, have international connections and access to money through extremist funding and smuggling. A group of mullahs without these resources have joined forces around Mullah Hibatullah and are attempting to gain control of the country’s financial, military, and administrative resources by relying on their leader’s power and position.

Sometimes Mulla Hibatullah openly claims that everything belongs to him! On October 10, 2022, Mulla Hibatullah summoned the intelligence heads of 34 provinces to his office, accompanied by Taj Mir Jawad (the Taliban’s executive deputy of the intelligence department), Mawlawi Abdul Hakim (the chief judge), and Sheikh Noorul Haq Anwar (the chief of staff director). According to a report posted on the front page of the Taliban Prime Minister’s office, Mullah Hibatullah gave a speech about the implementation of Sharia, the value of obedience, and guidance on self-sacrifice, and then issued an order to the representatives of the Taliban Emirate to “comply with the directives and decrees at all costs”. This request is not uncommon, but it is unclear how many people have been killed in the process of carrying out the Taliban’s instructions and how many murders and other atrocities have been committed.

Mullah Hibatullah asserted that the intelligence agencies were under his control in the legislature and cautioned against any external interference. He emphatically stated: “Intelligence is an integral part of leadership. They will obey my orders, strengthen the system, thwart the adversary’s schemes, and detect and prevent the enemy’s malicious intentions against us.”

It appears that, similar to the meeting with the human resources directors, Mullah Hibatullah was the sole speaker at the meeting, and the others simply recited the verse and expressed their loyalty in response to their leader’s query. This meeting also lasted for four hours, and in its detailed report, only Mullah Hibatullah’s remarks were cited.

Experts have claimed that Mullah Hibatullah’s attempts to marginalize domestic competitors and his excessive interference are the main causes of the recent public discontent. These measures include the removal of non-Taliban government officials, the banning of women’s education, and the imposition of inhumane restrictions related to administration tasks. It is uncertain whether Mullah Hibatullah and his team of mullahs will be successful in making Kandahar the capital of the Emirate and the Taliban leadership’s sole source of power. Additionally, it is unclear if they can maintain the Emirate’s internal unity. Finally, there is concern about the potential consequences of internal conflicts over the distribution of resources and authority, as well as the growing dissatisfaction of the people and external pressures, on the Taliban’s empire.