Taliban appoint hardline battlefield commanders to key Afghan posts

FILE PHOTO: A Taliban soldier walks on a street in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 17, 2021. WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

(Reuters) - Afghanistan's Taliban rulers announced several senior appointments on Tuesday, naming two veteran battlefield commanders from the movement's southern heartlands as deputies in important ministries.

Main Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir will be deputy defence minister, while Sadr Ibrahim was named deputy minister for the interior. Both men had been expected to take major positions in the new government but neither was named in the main list of ministers announced this month.

The two were identified in U.N. reports as being among battlefield commanders loyal to the former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour who were pressing the leadership to step up the war against the Western-backed government.

The appointments add to the roster of hardliners in the main group of ministers, which included figures like Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the militant Haqqani network, blamed for a string of attacks on civilian targets.

But the appointments also appear to reflect concern within the Taliban to secure unity by balancing the regional and personal differences that have surfaced as the movement transitions from a wartime guerrilla force to a peacetime administration.

According to a U.N. Security Council report from June, both Zakir and Sadr commanded significant forces of their own, called mahaz, that traditionally operated across several provinces.

They were considered so powerful and independent that there were concerns within the leadership that this could stoke tension over the loyalties of certain groups, particularly in the south and southwest of the country.

Zakir, a former detainee in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, was a close associate of late Taliban founder Mullah Omar. He was captured when U.S.-led forces swept through in Afghanistan in 2001 and was incarcerated in Guantanamo until 2007, according to media reports.

He was released and handed over to the Afghan government and was widely tipped to become defence minister in the new government before Mullah Omar's son, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, was appointed to the post.

Sadr, a former head of the Taliban military commission from the southern province of Helmand, will be deputy to Sirajuddin Haqqani, whose family comes from the eastern borderlands with Pakistan.

(Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and James Mackenzie; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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