Taliban command structure ravaged by bitter factionalism

By Sankar Ray

The Taliban’s monolithic dictatorship is cracking as the urge to compromise on certain issues grows. There is bitter opposition within the top management. It was apparent months ago when the Taliban’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, publicly called on the Taliban Supreme Command to ban girls from attending high school. Former head of the Taliban’s political bureau in Qatar, he said: “We should strive to win the hearts of our people rather than rule them with batons”. Michael Semple, a professor at Queen’s University in Belfast and a former adviser to the European Union and the United Nations in Afghanistan, says the split in the Taliban leadership is ‘unprecedented’.

In parallel with Stanikzai, the women’s protest in the Afghan capital Kabul against Taliban rights restrictions is a blow to liberals who oppose the obscure Taliban biggies. The protesting Afghan women – about two dozen – chanted slogans such as “Bread, work, freedom and education is my right! schools reopen” on May 29 this year, to protest the rollback of women’s rights since they returned to law in August 2021. Girls are now banned from going to school after sixth grade in most of Afghanistan. In March, the Taliban ordered the closure of high schools for girls. In addition, the Taliban authorities issued directives that women, including female journalists, to cover their faces, except their eyes, and the orders must be carried out by punishing the close male relatives of women who do not follow the rules.

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, who paid an 11-day visit to the troubled state, expressed concern at the deteriorating situation in the country as the ruling Taliban impose new restrictions on women and attacks on religious minorities increase. The Taliban have not recognized the scale and gravity of the abuses. The disagreement has grown unstoppable as a recent UN report warned that 97 percent of the Afghan population would sink below the poverty line.

Still, Semple does not foresee a split in the emirate’s leadership, at least not in the not-so-distant future. “The differences in policy and moderation are really secondary. The more serious differences are arguments over the division of powers and privileges. These are the real divisions that concern the Taliban.” This is debatable, as the Taliban’s experienced battlefield grassroots are hardliners who are intolerant by nature. “The Taliban take their unity and cohesion very seriously,” he said. “If someone works or talks against their policies, they are isolated, expelled and even killed,” he joked.

Stanikzai’s public criticism, however, has been directed at the Taliban spiritual head Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the supreme leader or Amir ul-Momineen, the leader of the Faithful who has the final say under the Taliban’s spiritually-led system. Nevertheless, the schism in the Taliban has been increasing for nearly a year as the Taliban attempts to transform itself from a guerrilla force into a functional government after the seizure of power last August. Reports of infighting within the militant group poured in. The rift has been between the relatively pragmatic Taliban political figures and tough field commanders, and radical clerics determined to implement a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law. The latter are supported by the Haqqani Network – a Taliban faction in the east, mainly Pashtun. But there are other factions made up of ethnic Tajik and Uzbek Taliban commanders based in northern Afghanistan.

Another Afghanistan expert, Ibraheem Bahiss, also finds the public criticism unusual and sees it in part as “a way of finding out how to deal with movement differences and influence policy.” He thinks the Taliban are divided into two camps. If one believes restrictive decrees will help the new Islamic emirate gain international recognition and make the lifting of sanctions harder to achieve, the other believes bending to the West does not guarantee better ties with the West. The latter aims to focus on bolstering its Islamic credentials and consolidating its control. “The Taliban seem divided between reintroducing policies similar to their emirate’s in the 1990s or taking a new path that is still consistent with their ideology,” he said.

The divide in the Taliban hierarchy is a harsh reality. The schism is expanding as the Taliban grapple with a range of political, social and economic crises, directly challenging their rule, including a free-fall economy and a devastating humanitarian crisis. The Haqqaani network cannot quell growing resentment and anger as economic distress continues to spread and deepen. Thus, rifts are a reflection of the unequal policies of the Taliban. The collapse of the Afghan economy is forcing its citizens to flee the country en masse in a trend that actually began before the Taliban takeover, right after the announcement of the withdrawal of foreign troops in the spring of 2021.

Recently, the acting Foreign Minister of the Taliban government, Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi, met with an Indian delegation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs led by JP Singh, Co-Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Muttaqi described the Indian team’s visit as a “good start”. “The meeting focused on Indian-Afghan diplomatic relations, bilateral trade and humanitarian aid,” Abdul Qahar Balkhi, the spokesman for the Taliban’s foreign ministry, said on Twitter. The Indian delegation had reportedly signaled the severe poverty and humanitarian deficit in the mountainous country. (IPA service)

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