Mullah Abdul Salam Akhund was the first of nine Afghan Taliban cabinet ministers arrested by Pakistan’s security services in early 2010 as part of a CIA-driven crackdown.
Akhund, the Taliban’s shadow governor for Kunduz, was released three years later, along with most of the other detainees, so that they could persuade Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, to engage in peace talks with the United States and Afghan governments.
The Taliban’s former foreign minister, Mullah Mohammed Hassan, also was released.
The two veteran militants now have something else in common: they were in charge of the Taliban forces that overran the strategic northern Afghan city of Kunduz last week. Afghan forces eventually retook the town, but the assault culminated in the apparent American bombing of the local hospital, killing at least 19 people.
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Afghanistan’s premier intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, claimed last week that Akhund had been killed in a U.S.-led NATO air strike on Kunduz, but the Taliban’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, has denied the report.
A former Taliban minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Hassan was the deputy commander in Kunduz.
The release of Akhund and Hassan was part of a diplomatic maneuver that led to the opening last year of a Taliban representative office in Doha, the capital of the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar. Taliban officials based there have since been at the forefront of diplomatic exchanges, leading up to the first direct talks in August between the insurgents and the Afghan government, held at the Murree hillside resort near Islamabad.
But a scheduled second round of talks in Pakistan was hurriedly canceled on July 31, after the Afghan government announced that Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s founder, had died two years earlier.
The fighting at Kunduz has proved a public relations coup for the man named to succeed Omar, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor and defied predictions by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that Omar’s death would mean the demise of the insurgency.
Kunduz was the first city to be retaken by the militants since U.S.-led multinational forces invaded Afghanistan 11 years ago.
By leading the assault, Akhund and Hassan have delivered a “PR coup” for the new Taliban chief, according to Jan Achakzai, a Pakistani politician well connected with the Taliban.
“The fall of Kunduz boosted Taliban morale . . . .and marked the extended tactical power base of the militants from south-southeast to north Afghanistan,” Jan Achakzai, a former spokesman for the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, a Pakistani political party with close ties to the Taliban
A former Taliban minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, told McClatchy the effort to seize Kunduz represented a new phase in Taliban operations.
“Until Kunduz, we were fighting a defensive guerrilla war,” he said. “Now we will incessantly be on the offensive, to take more and more territory.”