During twenty years of insurgency, the Taliban's common goal of ousting the US troops from Afghanistan held the group together, keeping factional differences at bay. But since coming to power in August 2021, its internal cohesion has been under persistent stress because of several factors ranging from the differences over power sharing to shunning some hardline positions such as allowing girls to attend secondary schools in return for gaining international legitimacy.
On July 31, the elimination of Al Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri in a US drone strike in Kabul, where he was living in a Haqqani Network’s safehouse with his family, added another layer of complication to the Taliban’s internal order.
There are four major divisions in the Taliban administration. The first is between the movements’ pragmatist and hardline leaders. Unlike the pragmatists, mostly from the Taliban’s political office like Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Deputy Foreign Minister Sher Abbas Stanikzai, the hardliners such as the Haqqani Network have been in favour of protecting Al Qaeda.
With Al Zawahiri's killing taking place in Kabul’s upscale neighbourhood about 1.5 kilometres away from the presidential palace, the Taliban's stance toward Al Qaeda has now become questionable, especially because the terror group has reportedly been shielded by the Taliban chief in Kabul. The US has termed it a violation of the Doha Agreement 2020. The development will negatively impact the US-Taliban ties, dashing any hopes of getting international recognition. At any rate, Zawahiri’s killing will trigger an internal debate about who leaked his whereabouts to the US, further deepening the mistrust and internal fissures.
Presently, there are two power centres in Afghanistan: political and ideological. The power centre is in Kabul, where the Taliban’s political cabinet resides. Meanwhile, the ideological centre is in Kandahar, and it rests with the Taliban supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada and his inner circle of religious scholars. As the supreme leader, Akhundzada has the final word on the Taliban’s policy matters. This power dichotomy for a movement that is already struggling to transition from an insurgent group to a governing entity has accentuated the internal incoherence.
A case in point is Akhundzada’s decision in March to put on hold the reopening of girls’ secondary schools in Afghanistan despite the Taliban cabinet promising to reopen them. To convince Akhundzada, the Taliban cabinet travelled to Kandahar to explain its decision to the Supreme Leader’s inner religious circle. The ensuing discussion between the ideological authorities and political leaders resulted in a deadlock, prompting Akhundzada to put the decision on hold. He also formed a commission to ensure that all religious requirements — like inducting enough female teachers in schools and making modest uniforms mandatory — are fulfilled before girls’ secondary schools are reopened.
The second division is between the Taliban fighters and top leaders. The Taliban foot soldiers had to bite the bullet on several occasions. In the initial weeks of power capture, the Taliban fighters from Kandhar expected financial rewards from the high command. They even visited the Ministry of Finance in Kabul, expecting they would find cash there.
Much to the dismay of low-rung Taliban fighters, the top leadership was quick to pass orders, asking all the fighters to desist from such acts. To uphold their call of general amnesty, the high command also instructed its foot soldiers to stop pursuing revenge killings.
The third division is between the Taliban’s Haqqani Network and the Kandhari Taliban faction. The Haqqanis and Kandharis trade blame for consolidating power and accommodating their clansmen and friends in the government ministries and institutions.
The Kandharis were opposed to Haqqanis’ inclusion in the cabinet, arguing that it would make it difficult for the Taliban administration to get international recognition. Sirajuddin Haqqani who has a head bounty of $10 million is an UN-designated 'terrorist'. On the contrary, the Kandharis complain that the power is too much concentrated in the Haqqanis’ hands. It is important to mention that Sirajuddin Haqqani got the most powerful interior ministry. The Haqqani Network has also been tasked with maintaining Kabul’s security.
Another source of friction between the two factions is the never-ending bickering over the credit for the victory. The Kandharis claim that Mullah Baradar’s negotiation with the US in Qatar, culminating in the Doha Agreement 2020, which paved the way for US withdrawal from Afghanistan, ensured the Taliban victory. On the contrary, the Haqqanis maintain that the military struggle which forced the US to negotiate an exit from Afghanistan won them victory.
The fourth division is between the Pashtun and non-Pashtun or Uzbek and Tajik Taliban. The non-Pashtun Taliban feel marginalized and discriminated against by their Pashtun counterparts. The arbitrary demotions, arrests and removal of various Uzbek Taliban commanders and resultant protests and armed clashes have exposed these cracks out in the open. Even the Taliban chief of army staff, Qari Fasihuddin Fitrat, an ethnic Tajik credited with the Taliban’s speedy military victories, also feels alienated. He does not have the authority to appoint or transfer commanders.
Similarly, in January 2022, the arrest of a well-respected Uzbek Taliban commander Makhdoom Alam on trumped-up charges of kidnapping a boy two years ago and helping Daesh-K organise rioting and protests from his followers and other Uzbek fighters in the northern Faryab province. The Uzbek Taliban want authority and autonomy in the Uzbek-dominated provinces of Faryab, Jawzjan and Sar-i-Pul and a fair share in the government from the Pashtun Taliban. Likewise, in July, the only Hazara Shia Taliban commander Maulawi Mahdi parted ways with the Taliban over the ownership of a coal mine in his native Balkhab district. After defecting from the Taliban, Mahdi moved back to Balkhab, cut all communications with the Taliban, mobilized his followers and forced the Taliban governor to escape to Kabul. The on-off clashes are continuing between Mahdi and the Pashtun Taliban fighters.
So far, the Taliban have used appointments as a tool to contain internal rifts. The Taliban hardliners, despite their small number, have an outsize influence on the Taliban’s key decisions, appointments and policy-making process. With time, these cracks will become untenable and hard to manage for the Taliban. How the Taliban administration balances the expectations of the Afghan people, demands of the international community and hopes of the movement’s factions and fighters will impact its future trajectory.
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