KABUL, Afghanistan — Four days after their leader was killed in an American drone strike, the Taliban broke their silence early Wednesday to announce that a lesser-known deputy, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, would take over and continue the group’s war against the Afghan government.
Mawlawi Haibatullah, who is thought to be in his 50s, is seen within the group as carrying deep religious credentials, and he served as a judicial leader during the days of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. But in the discussions leading up to his selection, Taliban commanders described him as a respected elder who was guiding the selection process, not as a front-runner himself.
Instead, the two men seen as the chief rivals for the leadership — Sirajuddin Haqqani, the insurgency’s operations leader; and Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub, the young son of the Taliban’s founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar — were named as deputies on Wednesday, according to a statement from the Taliban’s core leadership council in Quetta, Pakistan.
In the statement, the council appeared to fend off the idea that any shift on entering peace talks might be coming, calling on the Taliban to unite behind Mawlawi Haibatullah and continue to fight.
The announcement was also the group’s first public confirmation that their leader for the past year, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, had been killed in an American airstrike in Baluchistan Province, Pakistan, on Saturday. The Taliban’s spokesmen, who publish regular updates from battlefields across Afghanistan, had remained silent since the strike, as the movement’s leaders convened in Quetta to discuss his burial, as well as his successor.
Taliban commanders reached by phone said that one of the group’s first meetings in Quetta was at the home of Mawlawi Haibatullah, who was said to be guiding discussions that were focusing more centrally on whether Mr. Haqqani or Mullah Yaqoub would rise to lead the insurgency. Over the past year, Mr. Haqqani had increasingly been running the day-to-day war for the Taliban as Mullah Mansour was occupied with a campaign of quashing internal dissent and with travel abroad.
Many of the movement’s leaders had pushed for a relatively obscure figure to succeed Mullah Mansour — to avoid a divisive personality and for purposes of enhanced security, keeping in mind that Mullah Omar’s reclusive ways long protected him and even concealed his death for years. It appeared on Wednesday that such criteria had served Mawlawi Haibatullah well.
Mawlawi Haibatullah is viewed as an important cleric and a spiritual authority within the Taliban ranks, but one who lacks military experience. Mullah Omar was reported to have relied on his interpretation of jurisprudence when making decisions. Mawlawi Haibatullah served as a top judge during the Taliban’s rule of Afghanistan, in Kandahar as well as on the Supreme Court in Kabul.
One factor that may have helped in his ascent to the leadership, in the face of competition from Mullah Yaqoub and Mr. Haqqani, was the hope that he could unite a movement that was fracturing under Mullah Mansour, analysts said.
Habibullah Fawzi, a former Taliban diplomat, said that Mawlawi Haibatullah had taught religious studies to many Taliban commanders, and that his position could inspire unity.
“One of the reasons that the Taliban chose Haibatullah as leader is that as a religious scholar, he can reunite different factions of the Taliban and prevent disintegration,” Mr. Fawzi said.
Mawlawi Haibatullah, from the Panjwai district of Kandahar Province, is from the Noorzai tribe. Some of the leaders of a breakaway Taliban faction that revolted against Mullah Mansour are also Noorzais, and they are believed to have better relations with Mawlawi Haibatullah, who has been involved in trying to mediate their return.
But a spokesman for the breakaway faction, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, said on Wednesday that the choice of Mawlawi Haibatullah was unacceptable. He said that members of the faction had not been consulted, and he compared the process to the way in which Mullah Mansour rose to power last summer, leading to a revolt.
“Sheikh Haibatullah is not the right choice for us,” Mullah Niazi said, using the term for an elder scholar. “He has been selected quite similarly to Mansour with no consensus of all mujahedeen — it will never be acceptable to us.”
Mullah Niazi said that at least 300 well-known religious scholars should be present at the selection of a new supreme leader, but that only a small circle had chosen Mawlawi Haibatullah. His swift selection, along with the promotion of the “powerless” Mullah Yaqoub, was intended to create a situation in which Mr. Haqqani holds the real power, Mullah Niazi said.
It is unclear how united and strong the breakaway faction remains after Mullah Mansour sent squads of fighters to crush it, striking serious blows. The faction’s leader, Mullah Muhammad Rasool, has also disappeared in Pakistan in recent months, with the news media in the country reporting his detention.
Along with the announcement on Wednesday came the Taliban’s latest attack on the outskirts of Kabul, targeting a van that was taking employees of an appellate court to neighboring Wardak Province. The Taliban had vowed to take aim at government employees, particularly those in the judicial system, after six prisoners in Kabul were hanged recently, having been convicted on terrorism charges.
Najibullah Danish, a deputy spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, said 10 people had been killed in the attack and four others had been wounded.