Who's who in the Afghan insurgency

The insurgency in Afghanistan is a complex phenomenon made up of a number of groups, some of whom have a tight chain-of-command while others have loose organisational structures. FRANCE24 takes a look at the key faces of the insurgency.


The Afghan insurgency comprises a variety of groups spread across the Pashtun belts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. While the Taliban is the largest group, the insurgency also comprises a number of warlords, some of whom command forces of Afghan, Pakistani and Arab fighters. At the core of the Taliban movement lies the Quetta Shura (or council) of advisors close to reclusive Taliban chief Mullah Omar. Here are some of the key players in an extremely complex insurgency.

Mullah Omar – Taliban
Jalaluddin Haqqani – Haqqani Network
Sirajuddin Haqqani – Haqqani Network
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – Hezb-i-Islami
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar – Taliban (captured)
'Mullah Zakir' or Abdul Qayuum Zakir - Taliban
Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor - Taliban


Mullah Mohammad Omar

The reclusive leader of the Taliban is called the Amir al-Mu'mineen (or commander of the faithful) by his supporters after he donned a cloak believed to have belonged to the Prophet Mohammad in 1996 at a Kandahar shrine.

From the mid-1990s until the 2001 fall of the Taliban, he served as the de facto head of state of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – an entity that was only recognised by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Not much is known about one of the world’s most reclusive wanted men: former Taliban members have sometimes provided conflicting accounts of Mullah Omar’s exploits and the few photographs used by media organisations are also disputed.

A native of the southern province of Kandahar, Mullah Omar is believed to have been born in 1959. He belongs to the Gilzai clan of ethnic Pashtuns.

Most accounts say he fought in the jihad against the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when he is believed to have lost an eye.

According to some former Taliban members Mullah Omar, along with three other senior figures, formed the Taliban in 1994. Shortly after its formation, the new movement captured the strategic southern city of Kandahar. Other military victories soon followed. From 1996 until 2001, a strict version of sharia law was implemented in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan.

Following the 2001 US invasion, Mullah Omar went underground and widely believed that he lives in the tribal border regions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Within the Afghan insurgency, the circle of close advisors around Mullah Omar is known as the Quetta Shura, or leadership council. While the current Taliban insurgency is made up of a network of groups, the Quetta Shura is believed to be the nucleus of the movement.

Omar is the central figure who, as the head of the “Kandhari mainstream”, imparts cohesion to the often semi-autonomous networks that make up the Afghan insurgency.

Jalaluddin Haqqani

Respectfully known as “Maulavi Haqqani” to his followers, Jalaluddin Haqqani is the head of what Western intelligence agencies call, the “Haqqani Network”.

Haqqani earned a formidable reputation as a military commander in the 1979-1989 anti-Soviet jihad and had close links with Pakistani, US and Saudi intelligence agencies, making him one of the better armed commanders in the anti-Soviet jihad. A fluent Arabic speaker, Haqqani has long-standing ties to Arab mujahideen volunteers and the essentially Arab-led al Qaeda networks. The first al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan were built on territory controlled by Haqqani and he was instrumental in channelling Saudi funds for the anti-Soviet resistance.

Although he is not one of the founding members of the Taliban, he switched allegiance to the movement in 1995 just before the Taliban capture of Kabul and served in senior positions in the Taliban defence administration, particularly in the northern war against the Northern Alliance commander, Ahmed Shah Masood.

Following the 2001 fall of the Taliban, he moved to the tribal areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

In the current insurgency against NATO and Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government, the Haqqani network has been responsible for some of the deadliest attacks in Kabul, including the coordinated Feb. 2009 attacks targeting the Afghan Justice Ministry, the July 2008 Indian Embassy bombings and the Jan. 2010 coordinated attacks on Afghan ministries and a Kabul luxury hotel, according to Afghan security officials.

While Haqqani is an Afghan Pashtun, he has not had a strong base inside Afghanistan, but has led the insurgency from the Waziristan area in Pakistan’s lawless tribal zones. In recent years, Afghan security officials say he has reached agreements with local Taliban commanders in the provinces surrounding Kabul, from where some of the high-profile attacks on the Afghan capital were launched.

Haqqani’s close ties to Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service have been a source of friction between Washington and Islamabad, according to several US news reports. US military officials say Pakistani forces are reluctant to move against Haqqani and that the Afghan warlord still has close ties to some ISI elements. Pakistan denies the charges.

A 2008 DVD put out by the Haqqani network showed the aging commander in poor health and apparently suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The operations of the group are increasingly being run by his son, Sirajuddin Haqqani (see profile below).

Sirajuddin Haqqani

The son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, Sirajuddin is likely in his 30s or 40s and has increasingly taken over the day-to-day operations of the Haqqani Network from its Pakistani tribal base in North Waziristan.

The younger Haqqani belongs to the new generation of Afghan insurgents who are instrumental in transforming the poorly educated largely rural ranks of Taliban fighters into a sophisticated fighting force.

While his father was a leading figure in the anti-Soviet jihad, the young Sirajuddin was not an impressive fighter in his youth, said Brig. Amir Sultan Tarar, a retired ISI officer known as Col. Imam, in a Jan. 2010 interview with The Wall Street Journal.

"The child didn't take to war," Tarar told The Wall Street Journal. It wasn't until his early 20s sometime around 1990 that the younger Haqqani "became an active participant in our struggles," Tarar added.

After the 2001 fall of the Taliban, there were some hopes in US military circles that the senior Haqqani would join the NATO-led operations in Afghanistan. Following the new policy to negotiate with the Taliban, there have been some attempts made to strike a deal with the Haqqani network leadership. But senior US intelligence officials say such talks are much harder under the younger Haqqani’s leadership since he lacks the deep roots and pragmatism of his father.

The younger Haqqani – like other Taliban leaders of his generation such as Mullah Zakir (see profile below) - follows a more extremist Islamist ideology. He has also been keen to play down his father’s ties with the CIA.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar

One of the most controversial figures in modern Afghan history, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is primarily known for his role in the post-Soviet mujahideen wars during the early 1990s when his fighters pummelled Kabul in a vicious fight for control of the Afghan capital.

The leader of the Hezb-i-Islami party is also widely derided for his political opportunism. He has, at various stages of his long political career, been supported by the US, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran before ultimately falling out with his powerful backers. During the Taliban era, Hekmatyar lived in exile in Iran until his expulsion in 2002.

Following his expulsion from Iran, Hekmatyar is believed to have moved back to Afghanistan from where his forces have emerged as an aggressive opponent of the Karzai administration. His group has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in Kabul.

Hekmatyar, along with Mullah Omar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, is considered one of the three most senior leaders in the Afghan insurgency today.

Unlike the Taliban though, Hekmatyar has shown willing in recent times to negotiate with the Karzai administration following Kabul’s new push to engage with insurgent leaders. For his opponents, his deal-making overtures to the Afghan government are proof of his political opportunism.

A Gilzai Pashtun, Hekmatyar is an orthodox Islamist who fought in the anti-Soviet jihad. Initially backed by Pakistan, his group received the lion’s share of CIA funds channelled by Islamabad to the resistance until Islamabad switched its support to the then emerging Taliban movement.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, also known as Mullah Baradar Akhund

Before his capture in Feb. 2010, he was the Afghan Taliban’s Number Two, next only to Mullah Omar.

He was captured in a joint US-Pakistan raid in the Pakistani city of Karachi in February 2010.

Baradar, who is extremely close to Mullah Omar, was apparently one of the four founding member of the Taliban movement in 1994. He was a deputy defence minister under the Taliban, before the regime fell in 2001. Before his capture, Baradar was a member of the Quetta Shura or leadership council. He largely handled the day-to-day operations of the group under the guidance of his widely respected and famously reclusive chief, Mullah Omar.

According to Interpol, Baradar was born in the village of Weetmak in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province in 1968. Afghan officials report that he is married to Mullah Omar’s sister.

While Baradar’s capture was hailed as a success of US-Pakistani cooperation, Pakistani officials have indicated that they masterminded Baradar’s capture since he was engaging in peace negotiations with Afghan government representatives without the permission of the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency. Islamabad is wary of any negotiations with the Taliban that does not involve Pakistani officials.

'Mullah Zakir' or Abdul Qayuum Zakir

One of two Taliban deputies named following Baradar’s capture. He has, at various times, used the alias, Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul. But in insurgency circles, he’s popularly called “Mullah Zakir” .

Zakir shot to fame in March 2010 when he was one of two deputies nominated to take over Baradar’s duties following the latter’s arrest in Karachi.

He is believed to be in his 30s or early 40s and belongs to a younger generation of Taliban militants who did not fight in the heroic jihad against the Soviet occupation from 1979-1989.

But what he lacks in anti-Soviet jihad credentials, he makes up for in ex-Guantanamo credentials. Former inmates of the US detention center in Guantanamo Bay inmates enjoy a high status in Taliban ranks.

Born in Afghanistan, but educated in the madrassas of Pakistan during the civil war, Zakir joined the Taliban in the mid-1990s. During the Taliban’s reign, he became the commander of the “Helmandi Brigade,” a sort of special forces used alongside conventional forces during the Taliban’s war against the Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Masood, according to a US news report.

After the 9/11 attacks, Zakir surrendered to Northern Alliance warlord Rashid Dostum, who turned him over to the US authorities.

Zakir was then sent to Guantanamo, where he used the false name "Ghulam Rasoul". According to a summary of transcripts from his Guantanamo review board, which were obtained by a freedom of information request by a US daily, Zakir said he was simply a village boy who was forced to fight on the Taliban frontline during a visit to Kabul.

"I have seen pictures that show Afghanistan is being rebuilt, and I am happy that Americans are rebuilding my country," he told a review panel sometime between 2004 and 2007. "I see no reason why I should be against the Americans."

He was transferred to Afghan custody in 2007 and released a year later.

According to some news reports quoting unnamed US and Afghan sources, he was captured in Pakistan in January 2010, but later released. Pakistani officials have declined to comment on the issue. 

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor

One of two Taliban deputies named following Baradar’s capture. In his 40s, Mullah Mansoor was part of the original Taliban leadership prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Reports say he has been instrumental in managing Taliban logistics and raising funds, especially from the Gulf states.

In a bizarre incident underlining just how little is known about senior Taliban figures, US and Afghan officials admitted that they held months of secret talks with a man posing as Mullah Mansoor. The impostor was paid “a lot of money,” according to US news reports, and was even granted a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai before the error was discovered.



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