How deep are divisions among the Taliban?

Sources tell Al Jazeera the discord is very real and if disharmony grows, it will spell trouble for the people.

Families of former officials have told Al Jazeera that Taliban fighters have tried to seize their belongings, including homes they rented and their private cars [File Photo: Reuters]

There have been reports of divisions among the Taliban leadership, raising questions about the unity within the group which took over Afghanistan last month.

The public’s doubts about the group’s unity only increased earlier this month, when Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy prime minister, seemed to have disappeared from public view.

Then came reports that he had been killed.

When he did reappear, it was in a pre-recorded video. Baradar, clearly reading from some sort of a statement, said his fading from the public eye was the result of travel, and that the Taliban, “have compassion among ourselves, more than a family”.

In a final bid to ease suspicions about his death or injury, Baradar was photographed attending a meeting with United Nations officials on Monday. However, diplomatic and political sources have told Al Jazeera that the discord among the Taliban leadership is real, adding that if the disharmony grows, it will spell further trouble for the Afghan people.

A writer and reporter who has spent several years covering the Taliban said the divisions are the result of a political-military divide. The hardliners, he said, “feel that they are owed things for 20 years of fighting”.

Awaiting the spoils of war

A political source who has had a decades-long relationship with the Taliban’s top brass agrees. He says the effects of that rift extend from the halls of power to the streets, where the Taliban fighters have been going through major cities and forcefully taking the belongings of former officials and their families.

“Right now, all they care about is taking people’s cars and houses,” the source said.

Families of former officials have told Al Jazeera that Taliban fighters have tried to seize their belongings, including homes they rented and their private cars.

This is despite the deputy minister of information and culture, Zabihullah Mujahid, saying two days after the Taliban took over the country that “we have instructed everyone not to enter anybody’s house, whether they’re civilians or military”.

At that same August 17 media briefing, Mujahid went on to say, “There’s a huge difference between us and the previous government.”

Taliban officials arrange a Taliban flag, before a press conference by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, at the government media information centre in Kabul [Rahmat Gul/AP Photo]

However, to those familiar with the situation, the current Taliban leadership is facing many of the same issues with factions as the government of former President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country the day the Taliban took Kabul.

Sources told Al Jazeera that as with other Afghan governments, the divisions among the Taliban fall along personality lines. But unlike previous administrations, the Taliban does not just suffer from overly ambitious members or opposing political views, its split is much more fundamental.

Currently, the Taliban, say the sources, is made up of fighters still awaiting the spoils of war versus politicians who want to assuage the fears of the Afghan people and the international community.

Diplomatic recognition

Several nations have already publicly stated their unwillingness to accept a Taliban-led government in Afghanistan, with the five permanent UN Security Council members on Wednesday asking the Taliban to be more inclusive.

Afghanistan has been facing a liquidity crunch as the country is cut off from international financial organisations, while the United States froze more than $9bn in funds after the Taliban took over the country.

The reporter, who wished to remain anonymous due to security reasons, said that leaders like Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob, the current defence minister and son of the group’s founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, is one of the figures representing the hardline, military-focused faction of the Taliban.

Mullah Baradar (centre) with a group of Taliban officials [File: Social Media via Reuters]

Others, like Baradar and Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, represent the more politically minded branches who wanted to create a more inclusive state.

Another point of contention for the two factions is the role of regional neighbours – Pakistan and Iran – which have long been accused of supporting the Taliban during its 20-year armed rebellion.

Hardline faction

Many leaders of the hardline faction, who were arrested by Pakistan, are suspicious of Islamabad. Several of those have instead leaned towards supporting Iran.

Suspicions of Pakistan rose when the chief of Pakistani’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), visited Kabul just before the announcement of the cabinet. The reporter said General Faiz Hameed called for a more inclusive government, which would make room for Shia Muslims and women, but that the hardliners, already suspicious of Islamabad, refused.

When Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan also called for an inclusive government, a Taliban leader, Mohammad Mobeen, went on national television to criticise Khan, saying the group does not “give anyone” the right to call for an inclusive government, and that Afghanistan reserves “the right to have our own system”.

For weeks, the Taliban had been courting erstwhile officials like former President Hamid Karzai, former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and Gul Agha Sherzai, who served as governor of Nangarhar and Kandahar provinces.

At the time, many Afghans assumed these figures would be included in the much-promised inclusive government. However, a former diplomat said that hardliners in the group had said from the start that anyone who spent “even a day” in previous administrations would not be given seats in a new Taliban-run government.

This left only the group’s own ranks as choices to head various ministries and directorates.

To the outside world, the current government, which the Taliban referred to as “temporary”, is anything but inclusive. However, to people familiar with the matter, even with all of the mullahs and other scholars named as acting ministers and directors, the current structure is actually very accommodating to the various subsets within the Taliban. During his television appearance, Mobeen also said that the current administration was very inclusive.

“This is the best it’s going to get. The government won’t become any more inclusive,” the reporter said of the lack of ethnic diversity or inclusion of any democrats or technocrats in the administration.

Taliban fighters patrol in Kandahar [File: Sidiqullah Khan/AP Photo]

The real power

On Tuesday, the group announced additional members of the cabinet, mostly deputy ministers, but went to great lengths to point out that the new appointments were meant to address questions of diversity and qualifications in their administration.

The selections included figures from Panjshir and Baghlan. Panjshir is home to the National Resistance Front, which launched a sole large-scale effort to try and keep the Taliban from taking over the entire country. Baghlan has also seen pockets of resistance in some districts over the last month.

The Taliban was careful to point out that three of the new posts would be given to residents of Panjshir, Baghlan and Sar-e Pol, provinces with considerable Tajik and Uzbek populations. Though the group has made room for Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen, there are still no Shias, Hazaras or any other minority group in their government.

The real power, said the sources, lies among a secretive shura (the advisory body) in Kandahar, where the group claims their current chief, Hibutallah Akhunzada, is based. This circle is seen as the real decision-makers in Afghanistan going forward.

“The government doesn’t have the power,” said the reporter.

Several Taliban leaders were apparently upset with their positions in the new administration.

Diplomatic and political sources said based on their current actions on the streets of Kabul, there are fears that regional and more personal feuds among the rank and file Taliban will lead to skirmishes or battles in the capital and other provinces.

“The battles for political seats are one thing, but when their soldiers start fighting based on their longstanding feuds, nowhere will be safe.”

Source: Al Jazeera