Special Report: Inside the Taliban’s factional and tribal warfare to control

By Kazim Ehsan

In July 2022, Mullah Pir Agha, the Taliban’s most notorious military commander, founder, and head of the Taliban’s elite rapid  Response Force, “Red Unit,” was killed in a car accident on his way to Kandahar, returning from the Haj pilgrimage. Mullah Pir Agha was born in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar province and was one of the most trusted military commanders to Haibatullah Akhondzada and slain Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor.   Pir Agha’s first claim to ruthless fame came when he killed the entire family of Mullah Dadullah and many other members of the Kakar subtribe in Zabul province in 2016. Mullah Dadullah himself was dubbed “The Butcher,” widely regarded as the most ruthless Taliban commander. He was one of the most influential leaders among the Kakar subtribe in Kandahar province. 

In another incident, Dawood Muzammil (of the Noorzai subtribe), the Taliban governor for Balkh, was killed in a suicide attack at his office. Dawood was one of the trusted figures close to Mullah Haibatullah and a senior member of the Taliban Halmend shura (moved from Quetta), which included Ibrahim Sadr, Gul Agha Ishaqzai, and Abdul Qayyum Zakir.” Previously, he worked as Nangarhar governor and deputy interior minister. He allegedly had a solid hand in coordinating and running the opium business in western borders while working as Farah’s shadow governor before the Taliban returned to power in the summer of 2021. 

Qayoom Suroush, a former researcher with Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) and Center for Civilian in Conflict (CIVIC), says that Dawood Muzammil was a significant figure within the Kandahari Taliban who played an essential role in the management and operation of drug trade within the Taliban. “Reports indicate that Qayyum Zakir and his network (Ibrahim Sadr, Gul Agha Ishaqzai, and Dawood Muzammil) benefit and facilitate the drug trade all over Afghanistan.”

 He, Ibrahim Sadr, Qayyum Zakir, and Akhtar Mansour, the ex-Taliban leader, had strong connections with Iran. Mansour was killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province in May 2016 while returning from Iran. Mansour and Sadr both belonged to the Ishaqzai branch of the Durrani tribe. Former Governor Shahjahan has claimed that during Dawood’s tenure as the Taliban’s shadow governor of Farah, Iran supplied and equipped the Taliban militia against the republic government.  

Despite IS-KP claiming responsibility for killing Muzammil, there is speculation that both Pir Agha and Muzammil’s death related to internal Taliban conflict and planned by Haqqani Network. Considering the Taliban’s merciless fight with independent media and efforts to hide the escalating tension, it is challenging the find fact behind Muzammil and Pir Agha’s death. However, both Pir Agha and Muzammil were the most prominent military commander of the Taliban in Haibatullah’s circle of loyalists, both hailing from Kandahar province and sharing tribal bounds with him. Furthermore, they were vital in oppressing opposing voices against the Taliban and Mullah Haibatallah’s authority.  Considering these factors, it is not unlikely that they both become victims of Taliban internal conflicts. 

Tensions within the Taliban are escalating as rival factions engage in a hidden struggle for control over crucial resources, specifically the drug trade and opium industry. Experts suggest the battle over the opium business has been a leading cause of conflict among different groups within the Taliban.

To quell the illicit drug trade, the Taliban leader issued a religious decree last year which prohibited the cultivation, production, and sale of drug-related products within Afghanistan. The order condemned these activities as contrary to Islamic principles and warned that anyone caught engaging in them would face prosecution under the strictures of Islamic Sharia law. However, in practice, opium cultivation has dramatically increased and resulted in manifold drug-related income for the Taliban administration. 

According to a recent UNODC report, opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan increased by 32% in 2022 compared to the previous year, reaching 233,000 hectares and making it the third largest area under cultivation since monitoring began. The report also reveals that opium income surged from $425 million in 2021 to $1.4 billion (~330% increase)  in 2022, equivalent to 29% of the entire agricultural sector’s value in 2021.

Qayoom Suroush, a former researcher with Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) and Center for Civilian in Conflict (CIVIC), believes “it would be naive to think that there is no competition over such huge illicit cash among the people in need of cash. Drug money might not be the only factor in the Taliban internal conflict, but it is certainly one of the main factors.” 

Taliban Financial Team 

Since the Taliban’s emergence in the late 1990s, a select group of individuals from the Durrani tribe, led by influential members of the Noorzai and Ishqzai sub-tribes, have been managing the financial affairs of the Taliban and promoting the opium trade in the region. This group, which included notable figures such as Bashir Noorzai, Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, Abdul Ghani Brother, Gul Agha Ishakzai(Hidayatullah Badri), and Haji Khairullah Barekzai, all close associates of the Taliban’s late founder and first supreme leader Mollah Mohammad Omer. Almost all of these figures have been sanctioned by the US Department of Treasury or designated terrorists by the US Department of State.

Among these, three figures Haji Bashir Noorzai, Gul Agha Ishaqzai, and Haji Khairullah Barekzai, were key players in running the Taliban financial apparatus. It is perceived that Bashir Noorzai was pouring money through his drug empire supporting the Taliban in its early stages. At the same time, Haji Khairullah, who owned a Hawala Chain (Traditional Money Transfer and Exchange system) in Afghanistan and neighboring countries, provided money services to hide the track of opium money. On another side of the chain, Gul Agha Ishaqzai collected, managed, and distributed the money to the Taliban ranks. 

Bashir Noorzai, a former Guantanamo detainee, dubbed “Pablo Escobar of Afghanistan” or “Pablo Escobar of the Middle East,” was a trusted ally of Taliban founder and first leader Mullah Omer. Within the Taliban, it is believed that Noorzai and Ishaqzai (Ishakzai) subtribes controlling the opium business under Bashir Noorzai. He was recently released from prison in exchange for former marine officer Mark Frerichs and arrived in Afghanistan on September 19, 2022. 

When DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) authorities arrested Bashir Noorzai in April 2005 in New York, General Abdul Raziq Achakzai expanded his influence and power in Kandahar and snatched control of the drug business from the Noorzai and Ishaqzai sub-tribes. Raziq, who had hailed from the rival Achakzai sub-tribe, was the chief of police for Kandahar Province. He was widely considered one of Afghanistan’s most powerful security officials in the last years of his life. Raziq rose to power and his grasp on the drug business, forcibly sidelining the Noorzai and Ishaqzai drug lords, sometimes accompanied by brutal violence and bloodshed.    

Raziq was killed by a bodyguard of the Kandahar governor, who opened fire on him after a meeting with the U.S. Army General Scott Miller at the governor’s compound in Kandahar on October 18, 2018.  Almost three years later, On July 14, 2021, the Taliban took control of Spin Boldak, the stronghold of the Achakzai tribe and the birthplace of Raziq. They started searching to identify those who associated with the slain General Raziq or worked with the Republic government. It was reported that the Taliban killed over 100 and detained 300-400 others, primarily from the Achakzai tribe. Sources in Kandahar said the killing was carried out by militia from Noorzai and Eshaqzai tribes seeking revenge against the Achakzai tribe. 

With the Taliban returning to power in the summer of 2021 and Mullah Haibatullah as their supreme leader, Noorzai, Ishaqzai, and other allied sub-tribes revived their earlier glory and control over the opium business and Taliban hierarchy. Sources in Kandahar say that with the rising power of Gul Agha Ishaqzai, Haji Yusuf Wafa, and Bashir Noorzai’s return from Guantanamo, the drug war is mixed with tribal feuds.  

Qayoom Suroush believes the tribal divisions within the Taliban, less or more, overlapped with the opium business. He suggests that the tribal divisions within the Taliban leadership are crucial in understanding the ongoing conflict. Prior to the group’s takeover of Kabul, the Taliban leadership was made up of three Shuras – Quetta Shura, Miran Shah Shura, and Peshawar Shura – with each representing distinct factions and tribes within the Taliban. In 2007, the Haqqani Network declared the autonomy of the Miran Shah Shura from the Quetta Shura to challenge the southern Taliban-dominated Quetta Shura. The Haqqani Network and its affiliated Miran Shah Shura, representing Loya Paktia, sought more leadership roles, while the Quetta Shura was looking to them as primarily a military ally. “The current competition and conflict over the drug business and the tribal divisions among key Taliban leaders will have crucial implications for the future leadership of the Taliban regime,” he added.

According to the sources in Kandahar province. Haqqani Network is forging alliances with tribal groups that conflict with the Kandahari Taliban, Noorzai, and Ishaqzai’s tyrannical controls over the drug business. The Kakar and Achakzai, now disfavored, massacred, and hunted down by the ruling Noorzai and Ishazai sub-tribes, are among the most potent subtribes reportedly sided with the Haqqani faction. The resource also said KabulNow that many other Pashtun sub-tribes in Helmand, Uruzgan, Zabul, and Nimroz joined Haqqani Network to counter the unholy alliance of Noorzai-Ishaqzai tyranny.