Knowing the Taliban: Power, Government, and People

Jalil Rawnaq, Amir Behnam | Translated by Kazim Ehsan and Maisam Iltaf

The Taliban’s ultra-conservative and radical religious ideology, based on its own harsh interpretation of Islam, has largely defined the group’s worldview, behavior, and political aims. Although the group’s religious identity remains more prominent, the group’s tribal components, which influence i.e., power structures, have received little attention. The Taliban claims that the group’s religious ideology and political theology embrace non-Pashtuns, but the latter’s little presence within the Taliban’s high ranks remains rather symbolic than decisive.

Since overtaking power in August 2021, the Taliban has been struggling with manifold challenges, including, but not limited, to dysfunction and domestic and international legitimacy amid worsening humanitarian, human rights, and economic crises. At home, the Taliban lack popular appeal, particularly among the non-Pashtuns, despite their claims for bringing “stability”, and outside, no foreign government has recognized the group yet. The group’s violations of human rights, particularly the rights of women and girls, failure to form an inclusive administration, crackdown on freedom of press and expression, reprisal against former officials and military forces, and deprivation of people from basic services, among other things, have significantly frustrated people and discouraged the global community from recognizing the Taliban.

Moreover, the new “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” is fraught with internal rivalries and division over prestige, influence, and power. These rifts, particularly within the group’s leadership, have compounded the fragility of the Taliban regime, casting a shadow over the group’s cohesion and the uncertain future of Afghanistan under their rule.

This article offers an overview of how the Taliban first emerged and ruled in the 1990s, how it returned to power in 2021, its new interim power-sharing structure and its ethnic and tribal set-up, and current internal rifts and divisions within the group’s leadership.

The Advent and First Rule

The Taliban are predominantly Pashtuns (although it does not make them the representatives of Pashtuns) and an ultra-conservative and radical Sunni-Hannafi Islamist group. Many of its leaders hail from the southern and southeastern regions of Afghanistan and initially studied at madrassas associated with Harkat-e Inqilab-e Islami and Hezb-e Islami (Khales). A significant number of the group’s old guard but also its young generation were educated in Deobandi madrassas networks in Pakistan, particularly the religious seminaries linked to Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and the Dar ul-Uloom Haqqania known as the “university of jihad.” Mawlana Sami ul-Haq, who ran Haqqania, was known as the “Father of the Taliban” for having taught some of the Taliban’s leaders, including Mullah Mohammad Omar.

The Taliban was formed in a mosque in Sangisar village of the southern Kandahar province in the early October of 1994 following months of meetings, according to Abdul Salam Zaeef’s autobiography My Life with the Taliban. It, however, bears noting that the Taliban did not emerge from nowhere, as William Maley points out in Fundamentalism Reborn?: Afghanistan and the Taliban (edited by him). The movement was rather nurtured throughout and primarily emerged from madrassa networks and war veterans who fought against the Soviets in the 1980s. Zaeef claims that Mawlawi Abdul Samad was initially chosen Taliban’s leader, but he was soon replaced by Mullah Mohammad Omar after he stepped down. In March 1996, Omar was designated Amir ul-Momineen, commander of the faithful, by a shura of 1,200 ulema in Kandahar.

The Taliban, according to Zaeef’s account, initially began its activities with 35 forces, little funds, and a broken Russian motorbike, which they called “the tank of Islam”, but the group soon swelled into hundreds of volunteers and attracted donations in the ensuing months as they roamed around its birth city forcing checkpoints into submission. Among the first donors was a businessman who gave the Taliban a sack full of money, more than $1 million, as Zaeef states in his book. Haji Bashir Noorzai, who was in control of Kandahar’s northwest Maiwand, offered the Taliban two vehicles and continued to fund their maintenance. In the next decade, Noorzai would become a notorious convicted druglord and a close ally of the Taliban.

The Taliban fighters attacked and seized key roads, highways, and districts in Kandahar one after another. Maiwand district was the first to be seized, thanks to Haji Bashir Noorzai who ceded it. Taliban then took over Panjwayi and Daru Khan and stretched to the south-eastern district of Arghistan after Mullah Mohammad Rabbani Akhund and later Mullah Naqib joined their fight. The border town Spin Boldak was key to the Taliban’s further surge, according to Zaeef. When Mullah Mohammad Rabbani Akhund and Mawlawi Abdul Razaq pledged their allegiance to Mullah Omar, three factions of the Taliban were united under the leadership of the Amir. Subsequently, the Taliban took over Kandahar in November 1994 and established Sharia law after appointing key leaders to the official posts. It was this time when the Pakistani spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) took note of the movement and started establishing contacts, Zaeef recounted, adding that “Pakistan sensed that its strategic interests could be best served under the Taliban.”

By September 1996, the Taliban overran Kabul, declaring Afghanistan an Islamic Emirate, and claiming that they earned legitimacy by bringing law and order after a chaotic civil war. In reality, however, the Taliban’s worldview, based on their binary “Muslim versus infidels” doctrine, was different. The group soon imposed a wide range of regressive and segregation policies to curb human rights, particularly the rights of women and girls, crackdown on media, suppress and persecute minorities, and deprive people of basic public services. To enforce its brand of Islam, the Taliban detained, tortured, and executed their critics and ordinary citizens, particularly women and girls who were flogged, executed in public, and stoned to death simply for exercising their basic human rights. Even typical activities such as flying kites, watching movies, listening to music, and taking photographs were banned. The Taliban remained significantly isolated from the rest of the world despite securing recognition from Pakistan but also Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Taliban controlled almost 90% of the country until 2001.

By late 2001, the group was toppled by a US-led invasion in response to the 9/11 attacks, masterminded by the Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, that killed nearly 3,000 people. Osama was under Taliban protection who refused to hand over him to the US, prompting then-President George W. Bush to declare war against the Al-Qaeda and Taliban. The US, supported by its allies, launched “Operation Enduring Freedom”, dropping relentless bombs striking Al-Qaeda and Taliban strongholds, forcing many of their leaders and fighters to escape to neighboring Pakistan.

Mullah Omar and his Successors

Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban’s leading founder and spiritual leader, was born in 1960 in Chah-i-Himmat village in the Khakrez district of Kandahar, according to his biography published by the Taliban. He came from the Hotak tribe of Ghilzai Pashtuns and remained the group’s Amir until his mysterious death. A small-time mujahideen fighter, he initially fought under Hafizullah Akhundzada, resisting the Soviets, and mostly remained secluded, with his foreign minister, Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil, managing his contacts.

In his book, The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier, Imtiaz Gul says that Mullah Omar was backed by Pakistan’s Army and the ISI who offered arms, advice, and finance to the Taliban. A veteran Pakistani spy, Sultan Amir Tarar alias Colonel Imam, widely dubbed as the “godfather of the Taliban”, not only trained Mullah Omar but also played a decisive role in the rise of the Taliban. The news of Mullah Omar’s death ended years of speculation and mystery. On July 29, 2015, the former National Directorate of Security announced that he had died in a hospital in Karachi Pakistan in April 2013. The Taliban also officially confirmed his death. Omar’s eldest son, Mohammad Yaqub, stated that his father died in Afghanistan after suffering from tuberculosis.

The Taliban appointed Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, who until then was Omar’s deputy, as the group’s new Amir. Mansoor’s appointment exposed the fissures within the Taliban’s top ranks. While some suspected that he was not named as successor in Omar’s will, others criticized him for concealing Omar’s death and issuing decrees under his name. Splits soon emerged when Mullah Rasul Khadem, a Taliban commander from Helmand, parted from the Taliban’s new Amir. Later, Mullah Manan Niazi, the governor of Balkh during the first rule of the Taliban, joined Khadem as his deputy. Tayeb Agha, a close associate of Mullah Omar, split from the Taliban’s political office in Doha with Sher Abbas Stanikzai, backed by Mullah Mansoor, filling his position. The dissent further led to competition over the role of Amir when Omar’s son and Sirajuddin Haqqani, the notorious leader of the Haqqani network, challenged Mansoor’s authority. The dispute was only resolved when Sami ul-Haq intervened, favoring Mansoor’s new role. Mansoor remained the group’s supreme leader until May 2016, when he was killed in a US drone strike in Nushkil district in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.

Mansoor, who hailed from the Ishaqzai tribe of the Durrani Pashtuns, was born in Kariz village in the Maiwand district of Kandahar around 1965. He joined Mullah Omar probably in June 1995 and soon rose to the top echelons of the Taliban until replacing Omar as the Amir after Omar’s death. Between 2007 and 2010 he was also able to stake a claim at higher positions when Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy of Mullah Omar and his brother-in-law, was detained by the ISI. In his book, The Return of the Taliban: Afghanistan after the Americans Left, Hassan Abbas claims that Mullah Baradar was the top candidate for the role of Amir, but he was “out of favor with Pakistan.” Born in 1968 in Uruzgan province, Baradar belongs to Durrani’s Popalzai tribe. He was arrested in Karachi in 2010 and released in 2018 to spearhead the group’s negotiations with the US in Doha, Qatar.

Mansoor’s short-lived tenure as the Taliban’s Amir, according to Sami Yusufzai, a journalist familiar with the Taliban, significantly empowered the Ishaqzai tribe within the group. A New York Times report argued that Mansoor sidelined the hardliner commanders of the group’s Rahbari Shura (leadership council) replacing them with moderates. However, it is unlikely that Mansour intended to empower the moderates to key positions who were seeking to further negotiations with the US and Kabul governments. For one, Mansoor himself was regarded as a strong proponent of peace talks, who vowed to fight until Sharia law was implemented in Afghanistan.

Following the death of Mansoor, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, Mansoor’s deputy and member of the Rahbari Shura, was elected the group’s third supreme leader. A hardline and conservative religious cleric hailing from the Noorzai tribe, Akhunzada has been consolidating his grip on power since the Taliban’s takeover in mid-August 2021 and remains the group’s undisputed authority. He was a compromise between the young and inexperienced Mullah Yaqub and Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was on America’s most wanted list.

Born in Kandahar’s Panjwai district, Akhunzada, in his 50s, belongs to the Noorzai tribe of Durrani Pashtuns. He fought against the Soviets before joining the Taliban in 1994 under the leadership of Mullah Omar who appointed him as the head of the military court in Kandahar. The new Taliban leader, according to Sami Yousafzai, is a mysterious and secretive tribal figure who avoids appearing in public and meeting with foreigners. Even before his role as Amir, he was a powerful and “ruthless” figure overseeing the group’s bombings and was also known for his extreme fatwas. Akhundzada’s reputation was largely reinforced when his 23-year-old son, Abdur Rahman, carried out a suicide bombing in Helmand in 2017.

Between September 2021 and May 2023, Akhunzada issued more than 50 edicts against women and girls, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett. These draconian laws and measures were aimed at banning girls’ education beyond sixth grade, women from higher education and employment, including working for UN agencies, forbidding women in public spaces such as restaurants, gyms, beauty salons, and parks, and imposing other curbs on their public life and freedoms, which could account for crimes against humanity.

Doha and “Peace Negotiations

In June 2013, the Taliban, with the support of the US, officially opened its political office in Doha, Qatar, appointing its representatives to direct talks with the US but also meet other foreign officials and travel. Tayeb Agha, previous personal secretary to Mullah Omar, was tasked to head the office. They were quick to hoist their flag, spurring outrage in Kabul and fear among the people, particularly women. Despite pressures, the Taliban lowered the flag but did not remove it. In Doha, the Taliban had found a permanent address to further their political goals.

In addition to Agha, Mawlawi Shahabuddin Delawar, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, Hafiz Aziz al-Rahman, and Suhail Shaheen were key members of the office. In 2015, Agha resigned from his position citing dissent with the appointment of Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor as the new Taliban Amir. Stanikzai replaced him as the new head. Later, Mullah Dawood, Dr. Saleh, Jahangirwal, Qazi Sayed Jan, Mohiuddin Sadat, Jan Mohammad Madani, Zia ul-Rahman Madani, and Mullah Sayed Rasul were called on board.

In June 2014, the Taliban released US officer Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five top Taliban commanders from the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, namely Abdul Haq Wasiq, Mullah Fazl Mazlum, Mullah Noorullah Noori, Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, and Abdul Nabi Omari. They shortly joined the Taliban delegation in Doha. Over the next few years, the informal negotiations between the US and the Taliban were led by Stanikzai. The members of the Taliban delegation during this period ranged from 8 to 14 people.

In October 2018, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, co-founder of the Taliban, was released from a prison in Pakistan at the behest of the US. He was appointed the new head of the Doha office, replacing Stanikzai. Baradar was tasked to spearhead negotiations with the US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad toward a political solution to end the conflict in Afghanistan. Baradar was to head 14 Taliban representatives, and five more, who joined the team later.

Following nine rounds of discussions, the Khalilzad and Baradar signed a peace agreement in February 2020 in Doha that addressed four main issues: reducing violence, pulling back US and NATO troops, starting intra-Afghan negotiations, and guaranteeing Afghanistan would never again become a safe haven for terrorists. The deal, however, excluded the Kabul government, who had long insisted on a seat at the table from the outset of any talks.

Despite the consistent refusal to negotiate with the “American puppet” government in Afghanistan, which the Taliban would call it, the group agreed to kick off talks with Kabul in March 2020 but no meaningful dialogue took place. Tensions also grew larger between Washington and Kabul because the latter was displeased by both their exclusion from talks and the impatience of the US to move forward as quickly as possible.

In September 2020, the first round of talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government began after months of delay. The third round of talks took place in June 2021 but failed to deliver a breakthrough. The process, however, was further complicated by a weak central government, afflicted by rivalries, incompetence, ideological differences, and divides along ethnic lines. Taliban made good use of it as the group was gaining remarkable momentum both on the battlefield and on negotiating table. Another attempt on July 7 and 8 had some success as more than 60 delegates from both sides gathered in Doha. On July 17, 2021, the talks resumed at a higher level after months of delay when the Kabul government and the Taliban tried to reach an agreement to follow a peace agenda. On the ground, the Taliban fighters were making rapid military advances. Ultimately, the entire intra-Afghan peace talks crumbled when the Taliban unilaterally took over Kabul in the following month.

Taliban’s Return to Power

On August 15, 2021, President Ghani, National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib, and several of their relatives and bodyguards fled the country after boarding four choppers from the presidential palace which landed at Termez Airport in Uzbekistan. Ashraf Ghani’s escape marked the fall of Afghanistan and left a power vacuum that was soon filled by the Taliban as the group’s gun-wielding forces swept across Kabul to confirm their power. Around 8:00 pm, Hamdullah Mukhles and Mawlawi Salahuddin Ayubi, two Taliban commanders, seized the presidential palace. As the world watched in shock and horror, the Taliban leaders, who remained opaque for the last 20 years of its insurgency, were suddenly showing up. Mullah Baradar said in a brief video statement that the Taliban’s test had just begun.

On the evening of August 15, two top Taliban figures, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is on the FBI’s most-wanted list with a $10 million bounty on his head, and Mullah Yaqub, son of Mullah Omar, hastened to seize the ministries of interior and defense respectively. Days later, Baradar arrived in Kabul after briefly visiting the group’s spiritual birthplace of Kandahar. More Taliban leaders followed suit.

The group declared a total victory when the US and NATO withdrew their last troops from Afghanistan by the end of August 2021, marking the end of America’s longest war. According to the Costs of War, America spent $2.313 trillion on the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2001. More than 1,100 foreign troops and more than 100,000 Afghanistan security forces and civilians had died in the war, including the 170 civilians and 13 US soldiers killed in a suicide bombing at the Kabul Airport on August 26 when the foreign troops were evacuating people amid a chaotic final exit.

Taliban’s New Cabinet and Tribal Set-Up

The Taliban had a hard time forming an interim Cabinet in the aftermath of their military takeover. On September 4, a smiling General Faiz Hameed, then-Pakistani spy chief, sipped his tea at Kabul’s Serena Hotel as he mediated between the struggling Taliban factions over power arrangements. When asked about what he hoped for Afghanistan, he asserted: “Don’t worry, everything will be OK.” Three days after Hameed’s advent, the Taliban shrugged off their internal strife and announced an all-male and Pashtun-centered 33-member interim caretaker Cabinet, dominated by members of the group’s old guard, with only a handful of their own ethnic Tajik and Uzbek figures, but no Hazara. According to the UN Security Council’s Monitoring report, the Taliban’s governance structures are “highly exclusionary, Pashtun-centred and repressive towards all forms of opposition.”

Taliban’s Cabinet includes a prime minister, three deputy prime ministers, and 26 ministers. As of July 30, 2023, the Taliban’s 26 Cabinet ministers include 22 Pashtuns, two Tajiks, an Uzbek, and a Hazara. Of the 30 key deputy ministerial roles, 25 are represented by Pashtuns. According to the Monitoring report, 25 out of 34 provincial governors are controlled by the Pashtuns though at the district level it is more diverse. Most of the Taliban’s ministers and other senior officials had been sheltered by the Pakistani government and some had spent long periods in the US military prisons in Bagram and Guantanamo Bay, where they were severely abused and tortured. The UN Monitoring report says that there are 58 Cabinet and senior-level officials within the Taliban who are on the UN sanctions lists, including its Cabinet head, Mullah Hassan Akhund.

There is an extensive amount of information on the Pashtun genealogies. One of the examples has been elaborated by Abubakar Siddique in his book, The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he outlines Pashtuns into four main tribal groupings: Bettani, Karlani, Gharghashti, and Sarbani who predominantly live in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The first grouping consists of the Niazis, Lodhis, Marwats, Babars, Gandapurs, and Kundis, and the Ghilzai confederacy. The Karlani include some of the most famous Pashtun tribes, including the Khattaks, Mangal, Zadran, Zazi, Bangash, Orakzai, Khogiani, and Wardak. The Gharghast branch includes the Kakar, Mando Khel, Musa Khel, and Panri tribes, who largely live in Pakistan. The Sarbani are Sherani, Tareen, Urmer, Durranis, Khalils, Mohmands, Daudzai, Chamkanis, Yousafzai, Shinwari and Tarkalani.

Durranis and Ghilzais are known to be the largest and most influential tribal confederacies. Abubakar Siddique indicates that the Durrani is divided into two branches: the Zirak and the Panjpai. The Popalzai, Alokozai, Barakzai, and Achakzai are important Zirak tribes while the Noorzai, Alizai, and Ishaqzai are prominent Panjpai tribes. The eastern Ghilzais are largely nomadic Kuchis and its main tribes include the Hotak, Sulaiman Khel, Kharoti, Ali Khel, Nasar, and Taraki. Nearly all of the Taliban’s Cabinet members come from the southern Pashtun tribal confederacies of the Durrani and Ghilzai, except for a handful of Tajiks and Uzbeks from the north and west, including the deputy Prime Minister Mawlawi Abdul Salam Hanafi, an Uzbek from Jowzjan province.

The Durrani Taliban are currently at the helm of the ideological, political, and economic leadership. At the top is the Taliban supreme leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhunzada who belongs to the Durrani’s Noorzai tribe. The first deputy Prime Minister Mullah Baradar belongs to the Popalzai tribe. The Ghilzai and Karlani Taliban, on the other hand, primarily hold control over key security agencies. Mullah Yaqub, who belongs to the Ghilzai’s Hotak tribe, heads the group’s Ministry of Defence. Sirajuddin Haqqani, from the Karlani’s Zadran tribe, runs the Ministry of Interior. Mullah Abdul Haq, the spy chief of the Directorate of Intelligence Agency, hails from Karlani’s Khogiani tribe. Mawlawi Abdul Kabir, the political deputy Prime Minister belongs to the Zadran tribe. In May 2023, Kabir briefly replaced Akhund as the acting prime minister until July 17 when Akhund assumed office after two months of medical treatment and rest.

Internal Rifts and Division

Days after the Taliban announced its new interim cabinet, a brawl erupted at the presidential palace between a faction loyal to Mullah Ghani Baradar and forces of Khalil Haqqani, uncle of Sirajuddin Haqqani, over who deserved the most credit for the victory against the US and how the Cabinet was divided up. Baradar, who led the successful negotiations with the US, was apparently displeased with the new power-sharing structure and fled to the group’s spiritual stronghold in Kandahar following the fallout. The Haqqanis, on the other hand, argued that its suicide attacks and military successes were critical to force the Americans out of Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the dispute brought to light the murky pattern of internal rifts and rivalries within the Taliban, which, during its nearly 20-year insurgency, had largely acted as a cohesive military and political organization. Although the group has kept internal differences and conflict secret, some have come out open.

Sirajuddin Haqqani

The current internal rifts and rivalries are unprecedented despite the Taliban’s consistent denial of any internal dissent. The internal friction, which bears complex and multi-layered historical reasons, among other things, includes differences over policy (i.e. ban on women’s education) and interaction with the international community, but the division is more significant in terms of the power structure and control over resources mainly among the two most powerful factions of the Kandahar base and Kabul base. The former includes Akhundzada and his loyalist clerics and the latter consists of the Haqqani Network, led by Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, Defence Minister Mohammad Yaqub and his two trusted deputies Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir and Mullah Mohammad Fazel Mazloom, and Head of the General Directorate of Intelligence Abdul-Haq Wassiq. The UN Monitoring report argues that the Kandahar base is isolationist, religiously ultra-conservative, and undeterred by international demands while the Kabul base tries to present itself “as a little more pragmatic and willing to engage internationally in return for recognition and economic assistance, though their actions to date do not provide much evidence of substantially more moderate views or policies.” The Haqqanis by large remain dominant in the Kabul base and in bed with jihadists like Al-Qaeda. However, even within the Kabul faction, there is mistrust and division among Haqqani, Yaqub, and Baradar, who has a large support base in the southern provinces. Some factions of ethnic Tajik and Uzbek Taliban commanders based in the north have also expressed discords, but they could hardly make a significant difference.

Mohammad Yaqub

Notwithstanding, the group’s political leaders and commanders, even the most influential of them, take their orders from Akhundzada and the Rahbari Shura based not in Kabul but in the group’s spiritual stronghold of Kandahar. Akhundzada, who holds sweeping powers over the political, military, judicial, and religious affairs, has been retaining his tight grip on all decision-making. The UN Monitoring report notes that he remains reclusive and encircled by his ultra-conservative clique in the Kandahar base. Despite the odds, a few in the corridors of power in Kabul have attempted to challenge his role.

In early February, a rare public criticism unfolded signs of differences when Sirajuddin Haqqani, reportedly lashed out at Akhundzada for “monopolizing” power and “harming” the Taliban. Haqqani told a religious gathering in his native southeastern Khost province that the current “situation can no more be tolerated.” His open criticism was against the backdrop of the string of draconian decrees and edicts issued by Akhundzada banning women’s and girls’ education, for which, the Taliban has been widely condemned and squeezed. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid retorted that the members of the group should not publicly criticize or vilify the Amir but rather take their criticism privately to him.

Haqqani’s remarks were glaring enough to prompt Akhundzada to further tighten his own security in Kandahar, removing Ministry of Interior and General Directorate of Intelligence personnel from his bodyguard. The UN Monitoring report revealed that Akhundzada relocated various suicide units from Kabul to his base for his personal security. The report adds that Akhundzada even tried to dismiss Haqqani from his ministerial post, but it did not materialize as he strongly defied. The fallout further incubated the climate of mistrust and an impulse for dual ruling as both Akhundzada and Haqqani tried to appoint loyal commanders and senior officials to their sides. Additional acts of dissent followed when the Taliban’s Finance Minister, Gul Agha Ishakzai, resigned, citing that he “could not tolerate differences with the Amir” and expressed his resentment at Akhundzada’s decision of a blanket ban on opium cultivation in his home area in the south. Former spy chief, Rahmatullah Nabil claimed that Akhundzada withdrew nearly $690 million cash from the group’s Ministry of Finance for personal use and to fund a personal army of 40,000 fighters loyal to him. But it is yet to be determined if it was the case.

Haibatullah Akhundzada

Following Haqqani’s bold remarks, Abdul Salam Hanafi, an Uzbek who holds the symbolic role of the Deputy Prime Minister, also indirectly criticized Akhundzada’s ban on women’s and girls’ education. Speaking at a gathering at Kabul University, he stated that the role of a religious leader is not only to say “prohibited… when you prohibit something, you should also state the solution for it.” Taliban’s Minister of Defense, Mohammad Yaqub, who, as the son of Mullah Omar holds a large prime stature in the eyes of the Taliban’s foot soldiers, was next in the row. In an event celebrating the anniversary of the former Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, he indicated that the group “should never be arrogant and should consider the legitimate demands of the people.

While Akhundzada ornaments his uncompromising laws dragging Afghanistan back to the group’s first repressive rule of the 1990s, the group’s relatively pragmatic political figures, who want to restore political and diplomatic efforts, have also expressed dissent. Sher Abbas Stanikzai, Taliban’s deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, is said to be one of them, who, at a gathering in May last year, criticized Akhundzada’s edicts “against the Afghan culture and Islamic values to deprive women of their right to education.” However, these differences and criticism at the top level against Akhunzada’s ban on women’s and girls’ education do not necessarily reflect the legitimate concerns of the people of Afghanistan, particularly women and girls, because the views Stanikzai and others like him share on women and girls accessing education are fundamentally different than that of the women and girls themselves.

In nearly two years since the Taliban takeover, the rights of women and girls, who had gained a huge foothold, largely in urban areas, with access to education, employment and freedoms in the last two decades, have been severely restricted by Akhundzada’s edicts, despite a huge domestic and international backlash that has seen the group shunned by the international community. The bans have increasingly isolated Afghanistan at a time when its economy has collapsed and a worsening humanitarian crisis is threatening over two-thirds of the population, approximately 28.8 million people, who require urgent humanitarian assistance. The crisis is further deepening amid an international funding shortfall that has been impacted by the bans.

Abdul Ghani Baradar

Another example of conflict pertains to the hiding of the Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was killed in a US drone strike on July 31, 2022. Zawahiri appeared to have been living in a safe house in Kabul maintained by Sirajuddin Haqqani. The hideout and killing of Zawahiri not only raised concerns over the Taliban’s “strong and symbiotic” relations with transnational terrorist groups, but it also soared the division among the contending factions. UN Monitoring report states that Baradar, who intends to control the group’s efforts toward gaining international recognition and unfreezing $9.5 billion in assets halted by the US, told Haqqani that he had been made “to look like a liar in front of the international community” for he had consistently denied Taliban’s ties with Al-Qaeda, while Haqqani was infuriated to determine how Zawahiri’s whereabouts had been disclosed.

The above accounts suggest a pattern of rifts that have been exposed publicly, but it requires a deeper and more nuanced understanding to allow for better judgment and assess how much of these internal rifts could be serious or make a significant difference in reality. Nonetheless, the escalation of it could impact the Taliban’s cohesion and shape the power structures, especially if the divisions lead to intra-factional fighting. More importantly, the role of the Amir remains utmost and to be obeyed at a time when Akhunzada is growing more reclusive, dubious, and hardline.

The prospects of a power change that could sideline or oust the undisputed supreme leader, not least before his natural death, are unlikely to be achieved anytime soon for three main reasons. First, there are no signs to show that Akhundzada would compromise or disempower himself. Second, in order to force out Akhunzada, the discontented Taliban leaders need to convince the Rahbari Shura to reach a unanimous consensus to declare the Amir unfit for the role. Although Sirajuddin Haqqani is said to be trying to build substantial support from the Shura to undermine Akhundzada’s legitimacy, it is hard to pull off the supreme leader because he enjoys significant respect and influence among the Shura leadership. Third, the Kabul base, particularly the dominant Haqqani Network, orchestrate some sort of internal revolt to change power by force. But this is almost impossible because it would require a broad consensus of action, particularly from Baradar and Yaqub, not to mention other powerful senior commanders who also remain divided over control of resources. Moreover, unity among these competing factions is largely challenged given their soaring personal rivalries and differences, and a violent plot will invite inevitable risks of splintering, worst of all a civil war, which the Taliban would not allow for it to transpire because the group wishes to retain control of Afghanistan for as long as possible.

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