The Taliban finally have a clear field in Afghanistan after the departure on Monday evening of the last American military plane, which now leaves the country in front of a new era, but especially in the face of great uncertainty.

It is a troubled period that begins, fueled in part by the violent past of the new masters of Kabul, as well as by the mystery surrounding their supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, whose rare elements known from his curriculum would suggest “only one big possibility of disaster ”for the country, estimates anthropologist Nazif Shahrani.

“We know very little about this man, whose very existence is questioned by many,” said the professor and Middle East specialist at Indiana University in a videoconference. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, rumors have indeed been circulating for years that the leader of the Taliban was killed in a bombing or that he was swept away more recently by COVID-19. However, evidence is lacking to go beyond these rumors.

“We do know, however, that he is at the head of a group that is nothing but a war machine, a machine that only brought fear, violence and repression during his many years in power in Afghanistan. Adds the academic.

On Sunday, a Taliban spokesperson announced that the low-profile supreme leader was in Kandahar, in the south of the country, and was preparing to speak publicly “soon”. Without further details.

Its presence in Kabul, a city now stripped of the American presence after 20 years of occupation, was the subject of strong assumptions Tuesday, without the regime providing confirmation. According to several analysts, the complete departure of the Americans, set for August 31, was expected by the Taliban to expose their leader.

A man in the shadows

To date, only one photo exists of Hibatullah Akhundzada, who came out of anonymity in 2016 to better enter the shadow of the movement of which he took the reins, a few days after the death of Akhtar Mansour, shot during of a drone attack piloted by the US military in Pakistan.

“This episode alone justifies his great discretion, since he especially does not want to perish like his predecessor, killed less than a year after coming to power,” said in an interview with the To have to Eric Fleury, professor of political science at Connecticut College. But the lack of information on this man does not necessarily mean that he should not be feared. “

With the exception of rare official messages broadcast to mark holidays on the Islamic calendar, the new spiritual leader of the Taliban has never spoken in public. The influence of this son of a theologian, originally from Kandahar, cradle of the Taliban, is however very great within the radical Islamic movement, which he joined in 1994, when it was founded.

Hibatullah Akhundzada was one of the close advisers to Mullah Omar, the group’s founder, in addition to having headed the Taliban justice system. His takeover in 2016 notably brought together several dividing factions after it was revealed that Akhtar Mansour had managed to cover up Omar’s death for nearly three years after his death, and this, in order to pull the strings of the Islamic organization discreetly.

“Unlike previous supreme leaders, Hibatullah Akhundzada is not a warrior associated with the Mujahedin and did not fight against the Soviets,” explains historian Ali Olomi, of Penn State University, joined by The duty in Abington, PA. Rather, he is a religious ideologue known for throwing fatwas [avis religieux]. His leadership, however, is likely to be as austere as in the past and to be reminiscent of the Taliban regime of the 1990s, despite some cosmetic changes. “

Appearance of moderation

The slightly more conciliatory speech, expressing a certain moderation, conveyed by the spokespersons of the group since last August 14 and the takeover of the country by the Taliban may be part of these changes. “But we must not be fooled,” says anthropologist Nazif Shahrani. The idea that the Taliban can be collaborators with the West is only a myth. The Taliban speaking in the media and those on the ground speak two very different languages. On the ground, they mainly do what they want, which is to impose terror and trample on human rights. “

Mr. Shahrani points to the recent appointment of Khalil Ur-Rahman Haqqani as Kabul’s security official as proof of this. This leader of the new regime is said to have been behind several bomb attacks on Afghan territory in the past. The United States considers him a terrorist and also offers a bounty of $ 5 million to anyone who could contribute to his capture.

On Sunday, on the airwaves of Al Jazeera, the main interested party said he wanted to restore order in Afghanistan. “If you can defeat a superpower,” he said, referring to the Americans leaving, “you can also bring security to the Afghan people. “

A project that will be difficult to complete, however, as the Taliban are returning in force to a country that has been radically transformed since their departure 20 years ago. “They are not only facing a crisis of confidence, but a deep hatred of the Afghans who, for two decades, have lived in a very different context,” says Nazif Shahrani. Over 60% of Afghans are under 25. Kabul is no longer the ruined city they left for the Americans. It is a more populous, more modern metropolis, and they will be faced with a population that now has different expectations. “

According to him, tensions should quickly escalate in a country where, since their arrival, the Taliban have not offered services to the population. “The wages are not paid. Banks are closed. The services have been digitized over the past five years and the Taliban do not have the technical skills, nor the access to money from the previous government, to keep them running smoothly, ”said Nazif Shahrani. “Under these circumstances, their chances of succeeding in governing are therefore very slim,” he adds, whether the supreme leader is visible or invisible, he warns.

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