During its nearly 20-year insurgency, the Taliban remained a largely coherent fighting force despite succession crises, competition from Islamic State-Khorasan, and a deadly war against foreign and Afghan forces.
As the Taliban has attempted to transform from a guerrilla force into a functional government after seizing power in August 2021, there have been mounting reports of infighting within the militant group have been gradually emerging.
A senior Taliban official last week openly criticize the Taliban leadership for its repressive policies in Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s deputy foreign minister, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, publicly criticized the Taliban leadership for banning girls from attending secondary school.
“We must aim for winning the hearts of our people rather than ruling over them with batons,” Stanikzai, the former head of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, said in a televised speech on May 22.
Experts say this rare public criticism “lifted the lid on the widening rifts in this militant Islamist group.”
“There are unprecedented differences within the Taliban leadership,” says Michael Semple, a former European Union and United Nations adviser in Afghanistan.
Experts say the Taliban, made up predominately of Pashtuns, is divided along ethnic, regional, and tribal lines.
They also say that there are differences among militants over the Movement’s policy after seizing power almost a year ago.
In August 2021, the Taliban “regained power”, announcing a more flexible regime than their first, extremism rule, but in recent months have begun to suppress dissent and undermine freedoms, especially for women in education, employment and daily life.
The Taliban’s policy has cost the movement wide criticism from the international community and organizations, which increased the internal division.
Last Tuesday, the UN Security Council called on the Taliban to “quickly reverse the policies and practices that currently restrict the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Afghan women and girls” in a unanimously adopted statement.
There is believed to be growing competition between the Sirajuddin Haqqani network — the Taliban faction based in the east — and co-founders in the south of the country.
There is also a smaller and less powerful faction of ethnic Tajik and Uzbek Taliban commanders who are based in northern Afghanistan.
Reports also indicate there hav been rifts between the Taliban’s relatively pragmatic political figures, hard-line field commanders, and extremist clerics who are bent on implementing their fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law.
The differences in matters of policy and moderation are really secondary,” says Semple. The more serious differences are squabbles over the division of powers and privilege.
“These are the real divisions that the Taliban worry about,” he continues.
But Sami Yousafzai, a veteran Afghan journalist and commentator who has tracked the Taliban since its emergence in the 1990s, says most of the rifts within the Taliban are merely differences of opinion and do not amount to factional infighting.
“The Taliban are very serious about their unity and cohesion,” he said. “If someone works or talks against their policies, they are isolated, pushed out, and even killed.”
Yousafzai cites the examples of former Taliban ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef, ex-foreign minister Abdul Wakeel Muttawakil, and moderate Taliban leader Agha Jan Motassim, all of whom were demoted for showing dissent.
He also drew attention to the killing of Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, in last year’s suicide bombing, which formed a splinter group in 2015.
“The Taliban are a complete dictatorship, and everyone within its ranks must accept this fact,” said Yousafzai.
Since returning to power, the Taliban has imposed a series of restrictions on women, including on their appearance,
access to work and education, and freedom of movement.
The rules are reminiscent of the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s, when the militant Islamists deprived women of their most basic rights.
In March, the Taliban dramatically backtracked on its pledge to reopen high schools for girls.
It came after repeated promises to allow all girls access to education, a key demand from the international community for any future recognition of the Taliban-led government.
Observers said the policy reversal reflected rifts in the Taliban leadership.
The decline was made by Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, who has the final say under the clerically led system.
Akhundzada likely opted to appease ultraconservatives within the Taliban, experts said.
Ibraheem Bahiss, an Afghanistan expert, says it is unusual for Taliban officials to publicly oppose the policies of the spiritual leader.
“The public opposition “Taliban officials” to recent government decisions could be partly a way to figure out how to navigate intra-movement differences and influence policies,” he said to Radio Free Europe.
According to Bhaiss, Taliban leaders are divided into two groups: “the pragmatists who see the group’s hard-line policies as an obstacle to gaining international recognition and securing the lifting of sanctions, and the extremists determined to monopolizing power and imposing a strict form of Islamic law.”
“Taliban appear divided in reemploying policies similar to their emirate of the 1990s or treading a new path still in line with their ideology,” he said.
But Semple says the infighting within the Taliban has moved beyond bickering over policies. Noting that it has documented regular cases of “Taliban on Taliban” violence in Afghanistan.
“Any idea that they are so united that they could never fight against each other is complete nonsense,” he said.
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