The opening of the Taleban’s political office in Doha brought the slither of a clandestine insurgent movement into the public eye. But just who is in the office, about to negotiate with the US and the Afghan government – if, that is, all sides can sort out protocols and procedures? The first of three pieces on the ‘Qatari Taleban’ is a re-posting of a biography of the head of the newly opened office, Muhammad Tayyeb Agha. The piece was written by guest writer and Taleban expert, Anand Gopal in July 2011 when it was revealed that Tayyeb Agha had been speaking to US officials in Germany. As Gopal reports, Tayyeb Agha, who speaks English and Arabic, operated at the heart of the Taleban government as Mullah Omar’s press secretary and translator. Since 2001, he is believed to be one of the very few people to have maintained a direct line to the Taliban leader.Tayyeb Agha is fluent in several languages, including Arabic and English
Erudite and politically savvy, Agha is one of the few people in the world with direct access to Mullah Omar in Karachi, senior Taleban figures say. He’s been able to parlay such connections into considerable influence, despite being only in his mid-thirties. Most recently he headed the Taleban’s political committee, a body tasked with formulating the political objectives of the movement and developing contacts with foreign governments. He is well respected within leadership circles, both for his political abilities and his education—he is fluent in five languages, including English and Arabic.
But how did someone so young manage to win the trust of Mulla Omar and other top leaders? Agha was born in Jelahor (aka Jelawur) village of Kandahar’s Arghandab district sometime around 1976, to a prominent religious family of Sayyeds.(1) His father, Mawlawi Sadozai, was one of Kandahar’s leading ulema, with a large religious following and a network of madrassas, who at one point even provided instruction to a young Mulla Omar. During the nineties and the current insurgency, Sadozai held a leading position of the Taleban’s ulema shura, providing edicts and rulings on Taleban affairs. Agha’s maternal grandfather was Mawlawi Abdul Qayum, another of Kandahar’s leading religious authorities. (2)
But the family’s biggest claim to fame was Agha’s older brother, Lala Malang. In the mid-eighties, Lala Malang was the preeminent mujahedeen commander in Kandahar, the Soviet’s biggest foe. Malang had studied at the Nur-ul Madaris under Nasrullah Mansur in Ghazni, one of the early incubators of Taleban-type movements. He led a large ‘taleban front,’ or mujahedin group consisting entirely of religious students, in the Arghandab and Panjwayi areas, quickly earning renown as one of the most effective and popular commanders.
In 1984 he was captured by the Russians and, in a highly publicised move, exchanged for a Soviet soldier two years later (legend has it that the soldier himself had converted to Islam and the mujahedin cause and desperately resisted the hand over). But Lala Malang’s time was short—he was killed in barrage of 122 mm Howitzer shells during a Soviet sweep of Arghandab in the summer of 1987 (only after this did Mulla Naqib emerge as the leading commander in the area).
Tayyeb Agha, meanwhile, had been too young to fight during most of the jihad. Towards the end of the eighties he moved to Quetta for studies, where he learned English and Arabic. His language abilities and his family history allowed him to rapidly climb the ranks of the nascent Taleban movement. As so few Talebs could speak a foreign language other than Urdu, Agha was enlisted into service as Mulla Omar’s press secretary and translator, which was useful particularly in meetings with Arabs. He also worked as a translator in various ministries in Kabul. Eventually, he grew to become Mulla Omar’s personal secretary.
During US invasion and bombing campaign, Agha was one of the few Taleban leaders who maintained contact with Mulla Omar as he fled like a fugitive through the outskirts of Kandahar city. It was during these tense days that the two grew very close and Omar began to trust Agha with his life. (3)
During and after the fall of the Taleban, like many other members of the senior leadership, Agha displayed a strong pragmatic streak. He was a key member of the delegation that transferred authority from Mulla Omar to Hamed Karzai in December of 2001. At the time, he and other leaders were looking for a deal that would give them amnesty in exchange for recognizing the Karzai government and abstaining from armed struggle. In January of 2002, Tayyeb Agha, former Finance Minister Agha Jan Mutassem and former Health Minister Mullah Abbas Akhund [amended on 5 August 2015] traveled to Khas Uruzgan in an attempt to work out a deal with new government. But confusion reigned: the district was split into two competing pro-government groups, each insisting that Taleban surrender to them. The trio then reached out to Gul Agha Sherzai, governor of Kandahar, but was rebuffed—in part because Sherzai had come under major US criticism for earlier accepting the surrender of other high-ranking Taleban. At the same time, US forces conducted a pair of night raids in Khas Uruzgan that wiped out both pro-government camps, killing and capturing a number of government workers. The three men came to believe that the raid was intended for them and grew convinced that any attempted deal would be futile. They fled across the border to Pakistan.
In the subsequent years Agha engaged in fundraising activities of the insurgency, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. At the same time, he has been centrally involved in political tasks, including frequent travel (such as to Mecca in 2008) for talks about talks. He has clearly articulated the Taleban’s position on talks – they should be directly with the U.S. In a 2009 interview, he explained:
‘Our problem is not with the Karzai government because the power is not in his hands at all. We have not been part of these negotiations. A few days after his statements on negotiations in Saudi Arabia, he stated that there were no negotiations whatsoever. If negotiations were to be held here to solve the conflict in Afghanistan, they must be between the two parties to the conflict, namely the Afghan people and its mujahed leadership, represented by the Islamic Emirate and its leaders on the one hand, and the foreign forces occupying Afghanistan on the other. Any negotiations held with other sides are a waste of time, and an attempt to sidestep the realities on the ground and prolong the crisis and the ordeal of the Afghan people’. (4)
Agha is believed to be one of the Taleban leaders briefly arrested by Pakistan early last year. If so, it was likely to ensure that he does not act too independently of Pakistan’s wishes.
Is Agha the address or representative for the Taleban that US and Afghan officials have for so long asked for? It’s hard to say—there are different tendencies in the leadership and some real differences on political outlook. But his closeness to Mulla Omar may just give him the credibility needed to be the representative interlocutor the West has been looking for.
* Anand Gopal is a journalist who has covered Afghanistan for the Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor and a number of other outlets. Among his papers is ‘The Battle for Afghanistan: Militancy and Conflict in Kandahar’ published by the New America Foundation, where he is now a fellow researching insurgent and revolutionary movements in South Asia and the Middle East.
(1) The Sayyed consider themselves as being ‘above the tribes’ and sometimes are called ‘Arabs’ as they claim to be descendants from Prophet Muhammad. The major Pashtun tribe in Jelahorare the Naser who have long been associated with Sayyeds and often function as holy men or mediators. [Amended on 5 August 2015.]
(2) [amended] In an earlier blog, we have given a completely other story about Tayyeb Agha’s family and tribal background: that Tayyeb Agha is a young educated son of Mawlawi Abdullah Zakeri, chairman of the Afghan Ulema Council in Peshawer established pre-Taleban who visited Kabul during the 1990s, advised the mujahedin leadership and Rabbani and later the Taleban and that he is from the Tsinzai, a subtribe of the Hotak (see the original here). It is not the first case that there are different versions, not least to exactly achieve this: to blur the background and make access more difficult.
(3) Agha’s last public appearance was a press conference in Spin Boldak with foreign reporters during the waning days of the regime, in November 2001. While he mouthed the usual regime propaganda, he also had long discursions into Afghan history and politics, and impressed many there with his lucidity and command of English.
(4) Jamail Ismail, ‘Afghan Taliban Political Bureau Head Discusses Pakistan Ties, Islamic Emirate, al-Hayat, 4 December 2009.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020
Muhammad Tayyeb Agha