Internal power struggles fracturing Taliban leadership: sources

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Taliban patrols outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan

The Taliban’s veneer of amnesty, peace and unity – largely touted by the well-spoken upper echelons of the group’s leadership who hammered out the US “peace deal” in Doha – is said to be internally fracturing, raising steep concerns for the already blood-drenched and volatile Afghanistan.

According to multiple sources on the ground and former intelligence and military officials, the stark divisions between different Taliban factions are becoming more apparent by the day, with different groups pledging allegiance to different figureheads and countries in the lead-up to the official transfer of power after the US departs in the coming days.

“The situation on the ground is getting worse, the Taliban is becoming more divided, and different factions are already holding their own meetings,” said one former government source inside Kabul. “It is evident [the Taliban] is lacking unity of command, and that makes us even more afraid of violence.”

The multitude of clans is said to have various ideas about dealing with the “arising challenges,” which include how to contend with the growing ISIS threat and the resistance from the Ahmad Masoud-led forces in Panjshir. The province is the only one not to have fallen to Taliban control.

“There are big disputes over power, and the different ethnicities and tribes all want the power,” the source noted of the insurgents. “The Helmandis, for one, are on a big push, claiming that they endured the most and made the most sacrifices with all the US drone strikes over the years.”

For many left inside the embattled country and endeavoring to flee in the final window before the US departs, the growing cracks are further reason to believe their lives are at risk.
EPA/STRINGER

And while the Taliban are the fronts for power in the beleaguered country, well-placed sources say it is the typically shadowy Haqqani network – which has already been designated as being in charge of Kabul’s security – who are playing a much more significant role both politically and militarily behind-the-scenes on all matters concerning Afghanistan.

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The group – which was designated a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) by the United States in 2012 given its relentless attacks and kidnapping of Western forces, civilians and interests – is said to be content on remaining elusive but still very much at the helm of power.

The Taliban itself is not considered an FTO. However, the fundamental component of its accord with the US is that it will not allow terrorist groups to flourish and target America and its allies. Yet since Haqqani’s creation – it splintered from the CIA-backed Mujahadeen, which defeated the Soviets during the 1980s – the outfit has curated and sustained close ties to al Qaeda, and opts for a similar hardline ideological stance.

In something of a stark change from the chaos encircling Kabul’s Hamad Karzai International Airport (HKIA) in recent days, the perimeter appeared much quieter on Saturday with Haqqani and elite Taliban forces converging to clear the clogged streets.

Taliban fighters are seen patrolling Kabul, Afghanistan.
Taliban fighters are seen patrolling Kabul, Afghanistan.
(AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File

However, one well-placed Afghan intel insider pointed out that it was believed the Haqqani loyalists replete with US weapons had moved – or were immediately planning to move – directly inside HKIA in preparation for the power handover. Another US-based intelligence source also highlighted that there was some shooting between Taliban factions close to the airport perimeter Friday night.

But aside from the divergences in terms of who wields the control and power between the Taliban and the Haqqanis, there are also emerging fissures within each of those groups.

“Helmandis and Kandaharis are challenging both groups,” one Kabul-based source privy to discussions said. “The Taliban have tried to calm them by appointing many in good positions.”

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As cracks in the power structure are seemingly surfacing, sources say that the Taliban – which historically emerged out of a Mujahadeen splinter and is no stranger to internal power struggles – started more than a year ago.

In June 2020, a United Nations monitoring team warned that at least one senior Taliban leader broke away to create “a new group in opposition to any possible peace agreement,” bringing with him a number of disgruntled members not willing to adhere to the US terms for a deal.

Taliban patrols outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul
In June 2020, a UN monitoring team warned that at least one senior Taliban leader broke away to create “a new group in opposition to any possible peace agreement.
EPA/STRINGER

Thus within the mosaic of different types and stripes inside the Taliban framework are those willing to comply with the Doha pledge and those who are not. Furthermore, within that are those who have loyalist ties to different countries outside Afghanistan – from Iran and Pakistan to Saudi, Qatar, Syria and beyond.

And exacerbating the complications are the ultra-conservative hardliners who endorse a more stringent version of Shariah Law as was practiced by the Taliban two decades ago and those with a somewhat less draconian outlook.

For many left inside the embattled country and endeavoring to flee in the final window before the US departs, the growing cracks are further reason to believe their lives are at risk. Many perceive the proclamations of amnesty, even if genuine by some in the Taliban top brass, are likely not to be followed by the divergent groups on the ground.

Indeed, Afghans have already offered gut-wrenching anecdotes of targeting in recent days.

“The Taliban have already entered my colleague’s home for search and interrogation,” one Afghan who previously worked in the Presidential Palace whispered in fear on Saturday evening. “It’s just a matter of time now.”

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