The Taliban’s reclusive supreme leader is said to have made an extremely rare public appearance to mark the Eid al-Fitr festivities, but witnesses said he kept his face turned away from the crowds.
Haibatullah Akhundzada told worshippers marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan that the Taliban had achieved freedom and security since seizing power last year.
“Congratulations on victory, freedom and success,” he told thousands of worshippers at the Eidgah mosque in the southern city of Kandahar.
Akhundzada delivered his brief address from one of the front rows of worshippers, without turning to face the congregation, according to social media posts.
Taliban officials did not allow journalists to approach him, an AFP correspondent reported. Audio of his speech was released, but no pictures of the leader emerged immediately afterwards.
The speech is thought to be only his second since taking leadership of the movement in 2016 and marked his most significant appearance since the Taliban took power in August 2021. A recording claimed to be from another public address was released in October 2021.
Speculation over level of power
The lack of appearances or pictures and video has led to speculation that he may be little more than a figurehead, with little real day-to-day power in the movement, or that he might have been dead for several years.
Mullah Mohammad Omar, his predecessor and the movement’s founder, had been dead for two years before the Taliban finally announced his demise in 2015.
Several senior Taliban figures who spent years in hiding during the movement’s long insurgency have continued to shy away from public and the media while in power. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the now interior minister who has a $10 million US reward on his head for information, until recently insisted that no photos of his face were released.
Akhunzada made his speech praising security under the Taliban amid fears of a resumption of violence following a string of bombings, mainly striking Shia and Sufi Muslims.
Recent attacks included the bombing in of Kabul mosque on Friday, killing at least 50 worshippers. Several of the attacks have been claimed by the local branch of the Islamic State group, which has been fighting the Taliban since 2014 and has continued since they took power.
Worshippers said they were thrilled by the chance to see the Taliban leader.
“I’m so happy that I can’t even describe it,” Kandahar resident Bismillah, who attended the Eid prayers, told AFP.
“I had a dream to pray alongside my supreme leader, to hear his voice or to see him.”
Gul Ahmad, another resident of Kandahar who prayed at the mosque, said Afghans would continue to worship despite the recent attacks.
“Our people love their religion… even if blasts happen every day, our people will still visit such places and worship,” he said.
Girls still banned from attending secondary school
The Taliban’s victory and the collapse of the internationally-backed government ended a nearly 20-year-long war which had been killing hundreds each month, including many civilians.
But the Taliban’s victory has also been followed by economic collapse and accusations that they are enacting or allowing reprisals against former government officials and forces. Girls have been banned from attending secondary school and increasingly repressive restrictions applied to women in public.
Akhunzada issued a separate message to mark Eid late last week, calling for international help to prop up the collapsing health sector and restating Taliban claims that there was an amnesty in place for former regime workers. His message made no mention of when girls would return to secondary school.