KABUL (Dispatches) – Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada addressed supporters in the southern city of Kandahar, officials announced Sunday, his first public appearance since taking control of the group in 2016.
Akhundzada has been the chief of the movement since 2016 but has remained a reclusive figure, even after his group seized power in Afghanistan in August.
His low profile has fed speculation about his role in the new Taliban government -- and even rumors of his death.
On Saturday, he visited the Darul Uloom Hakimah madrassa to “speak to his brave soldiers and disciples”, according to Taliban officials.
There was tight security at the event and no photographs or video have emerged, but a 10-minute audio recording was shared by Taliban social media accounts.
The speech did not touch on political organization, but sought God’s blessing for the Taliban leadership.
He prays for the killed Taliban members, wounded militants and the success of the group’s officials in this “big test”.
Widely believed to have been selected to serve more as a spiritual figurehead than a military commander, Akhundzada’s statements will fuel speculation that he now plans to take a more central role in leading the new government.
Akhundzada rose from low-profile religious figure to leader of the Taliban in a swift transition of power after a 2016 U.S. drone strike killed his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour.
After being appointed leader, Akhundzada secured the backing of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, who showered the cleric with praise -- calling him “the emir of the faithful”.
Meanwhile, the Taliban have warned that a failure by the United States and other countries to recognize their government in Afghanistan and unfreeze Afghan assets abroad would lead to problems not only for the war-torn country but for the rest of the world.
“Granting recognition to the current system is the right of Afghans and no one can deprive us of this right nor will it benefit anyone,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a news conference in Kabul.
“Our message to America is, if non-recognition prolongs, problems of Afghanistan prolong, it is the regional problem and could eventually become a problem for the world,” he added.
Pointing to the rights of women and minorities in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Mujahid said that young girls in many Afghan provinces have returned to school and the issue is gradually being resolved for others across the country.