MONITORING (SW) – The supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban has contracted COVID-19 and has possibly died while receiving treatment, the Foreign Policy reported.
Confirmation that Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada had contracted the virus, which has stricken a number of senior Taliban leaders, came Monday from a senior military official of the Islamist movement, Moulawi Muhammad Ali Jan Ahmed. “Our leader is sick, but he is recovering,” Ahmed told Foreign Policy in an interview. However, three other Taliban figures in the Pakistani city of Quetta, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they believed Akhunzada had died of the illness. No official confirmation appeared to be forthcoming Monday.
A senior official in the Afghan government said other Taliban leaders, including many in the movement’s office in Doha, Qatar, who negotiated a bilateral deal with the United States that was signed in February, were also ill with COVID-19. Speaking on the condition that he not be identified, the official said: “Nearly all the Taliban leadership in Doha has the bug.”
“This is significant because if talks [between the Afghan government and the Taliban] are likely not to start within the next few weeks if they’re sick, how long will they keep up the cease-fire?” the official added.
The Taliban officials who would not be named said Akhunzada, the supreme leader, had not been seen for the past three months and had not made any voice recordings, including an Eid al-Fitr message released as a statement ahead of the holiday last month.
Ahmed, the senior Taliban official, said Akhunzada had been hospitalized but he would not confirm where. Asked if the Taliban’s leader had received treatment in Pakistan, he responded: “Why do you people think that Pakistan is the only country [where he would be hospitalized]? There are other countries that are stronger than Pakistan, that support us, and the world knows that. I will not name the country, but it is a powerful country that is one of our allies.”
Afghan government and Western official sources have suspected that Akhunzada contracted the virus some time ago. Antonio Giustozzi, a Taliban expert with the Royal United Services Institute in London, said his Taliban sources confirmed Akhunzada had contracted the coronavirus. “Haibatullah is seriously sick and in hospital in Pakistan,” Giustozzi said. Some Taliban sources in Quetta have said Akhunzada went to Russia for treatment.
The report said as COVID-19 sweeps through the Taliban leadership, infecting negotiators and commanders, the peace process has been hit by the uncertainty of how the pandemic will impact the uppermost echelons of the group.
Foreign Policy reported on May 29 that many of the Taliban’s senior leaders in Quetta had caught COVID-19, including Akhunzada’s deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the jihadi Haqqani network, which has been behind many brutal attacks on Afghan and international forces and civilians in Afghanistan and has close ties to al Qaeda.
With the top two leaders out of action, the Taliban movement is now being run by the son of its founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar, whose death was revealed in mid-2015, more than two years after he had died.
Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob has taken over administrative, operational, and military command of the movement, according to Taliban officials, including Ahmed, and Western intelligence sources. COVID-19 appears to have helped Yaqoob on the way to realizing his long-held ambition of taking his late father’s mantle as Taliban leader.