While some point out lingering factionalism inside the Taliban, others say that the ruling group in Kabul has shown its ‘cohesive’ nature by successfully negotiating with the US and defeating its enemies.
Some Western observers could not resist the temptation of projecting the signs of factionalism inside the Taliban as evidence of the group’s break-up. That was something American counterterrorism officials had long hoped for, pushing some elements within the Taliban to foment split and break the central leadership during the long and costly US invasion of Afghanistan.
The most recent example of that thinking emerged with rumours that Taliban’s interim government’s Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Baradar, who led the group’s negotiations with the US, was physically assaulted during a purported incident of infighting. Baradar firmly denied those rumours in a recent interview.
Prominent experts reject the notion that the existence of factionalism in groups like the Taliban guarantee their fragmentations. In a comprehensive paper, Andrew Watkins of United States Institute of Peace has challenged the Western thinking that the Taliban is on the brink of fragmentation.
“Signs of factionalism should not lead to assumptions of impending fragmentation, insofar as factionalism has been a consistent feature of the Taliban movement and one that has not translated into wider or persistent fragmentation,” Watkins wrote last year.
Watkins finds the Taliban “as relatively cohesive compared to other modern insurgencies, regardless of lingering politicized narratives about the group.”
While groups like the Taliban “can be rife with factions or operate under a factionalized decision-making process”, they could “still remain relatively cohesive in its strategic aims and activity”, according to Watkins. The Taliban have been able to stay as a “cohesive” organisation through all kinds of turbulence the group has gone through, Watkins said.
Ibrahim Moiz, a political analyst on Afghanistan and the Taliban, shared a similar view. “As with most long standing and large organizations, the Taliban has a number of internal currents that occasionally differ without breaking away outright from the organization,” Moiz tells TRT World.
Moiz does not find reports, which claimed that Baradar was injured due to internal fighting, “credible” because their main basis appears to be the fact that the Taliban leader had not made any public appearance in the last few days.
“This stems partly from a misunderstanding of Baradar's role, which then assumes his failure to fit the presumed role must be an indication of internal dispute. In fact he is neither a figurehead of the sort who would have to frequently show himself in public, nor is he the Taliban's eminence grise,” Moiz says.
Sami Yousafzai, an Afghan journalist who's experienced covering the AfPak region with a strong focus on the Taliban's inner workings, also says that there is no evidence that confirms Baradar was hurt. “Baradar was hoping that he would be the head of state, but it did not happen. That’s it,” Yousafzai tells TRT World.
But it appears that there was a kind of dispute between Baradar, who's seen as a moderate voice in the Taliban, and Haqqani leadership, a hardline group to others, during the heated discussions over the political nature of the Taliban’s interim government.
Due to the Taliban’s capacity to settle their own differences by effectively using either force or persuasion, this dispute within their own leaders between Mullah Baradar and the Haqqani Network will not “cause a serious challenge for the Taliban movement,” says Obaid Ali, an Afghan political analyst at Afghanistan Analysts Network.
“I don’t believe that could really damage the relationship between the Haqqani network and the Taliban movement,” Ali tells TRT World. They are able to convince each other somewhat because they have stayed together so long and fought together and want to remain so in the future, according to Ali.
Once the Taliban decides...
Many analysts previously predicted that Baradar would be the prime minister of the Taliban government, but he was appointed as the deputy prime minister, a secondary role for a man who was able to maneuver both Americans and the former Afghan government successfully, using his diplomatic skills. Baradar was also a co-founder of the Taliban.
Baradar’s reduction to a deputy role has pushed some pundits to interpret it as a sign of fragmentation in the group. But both Moiz and Yousafzai disagree with those assessments.
“He is a particularly capable and well-trusted leader whose importance stems from his role as a Taliban founder, a military commander, and a skilfull negotiator. But none of these traits are specific to him and there are any number of colleagues - such as recently promoted foreign minister Ameer Muttaqi - who can and have filled similar roles more publicly,” Moiz assesses.
“I don’t think he is in a position [to oppose the Taliban’s decision] or even if he wants to oppose this appointment, he will not be able to achieve anything because the Taliban once decides something, that’s the final word,” Yousafzai sees.
But how the Taliban’s final words could be accepted by a wide range of the group’s different factions is something of a little mystery to many analysts. During the US-led NATO invasion, different American administrations have long sought to see cracks in the Taliban’s ruling council and other crucial managing parts of the group.
Watkins warns that even in open societies, “it is difficult to conceptualize and quantify the impacts of factionalism”. As a result, predictions based on assessments of factionalism “in closed organizations” like the Taliban “are historically notoriously unreliable”, Watkins viewed.
Despite their own differences, “the Taliban still remain quite united and defections from the Taliban have never been a big issue,” says Yousafzai. While some individuals defected from Taliban chains of command in the past, they have totally failed to bring fighters along with them, he adds.
Among those individuals left or forced to leave the Taliban are people like Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, Mullah Mohammad Rasool, Mutasim Agha Jan, Syed Mohammad Akbar Agha and Sayyid Muhammad Tayyab Agha.
2015 disputes and Taliban resolutions
Since the revival of the movement in 2004, the Taliban has “faced fragmentation challenges”, says Ali. “We have seen many times many disputes within Taliban leaders. One big example is 2015, when the Taliban publicly announced the death of Mullah Omar,” Ali says. Omar was the group’s founder and longtime leader, passing away in 2013 due to natural causes.
The announcement sent shock waves across the movement, leading to most of those individuals listed above to challenge the group’s leadership council, making 2015 the most turbulent year of the movement ever since the US invasion.
“Some of those fragmented from the group joined ISIS (Daesh) and others remained outside of the movement. Some of them even formed their own movements to fight against the Taliban.” Ali says. Figures like Mullah Niazi and Rasool even claimed to establish the High Council of the Taliban, but “that did not exist” for a considerable time, Ali says.
“Even if that [opposition] exists, it did not really cause serious challenges for the Taliban movement at all,” Ali adds. He gave an interesting and brutal example, referring to another dispute in 2015, when a few prominent Taliban leaders disagreed with the decision to appoint the late Akhtar Mohammed Mansour as the movement’s spiritual leader.
“They formed a small group in Zabul [an Afghan province]. They supported Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Afghanistan. Later, the Taliban carried out a large-scale counterinsurgency against these groups and killed or detained them all,” Ali says.
“When you look at those challenges, the Taliban really have this capacity to manage or handle issues related to internal affairs,” Ali adds.
But what’s the Taliban’s secret in managing those disputes?
“The secret behind the Taliban is very simple: they see each other like friends, they work like friends and they are connected with each other through a religious bond,” says Yousafzai. The experienced Afghan journalist also sees a lot of commonalities among Taliban members from having the same mindset to coming from similar traditional educational backgrounds and economic conditions.
“That’s why, they don’t mind seeing one of theirs as a minister the next day or something else. The biggest asset of the Taliban movement is the Taliban unity, obeying orders. Every member in the chain of the Taliban command believes he is safe and secure, being part of the chain of the Taliban,” says the Afghan journalist.
Yousafzai refers to the Taliban’s Mahaz structure, which appears to explain the group’s long term fighting capacity. In the Mahaz structure there are no “intermediary ranks that might separate top figures from field commanders”, Watkins wrote. Taliban’s Mahaz is a loosely designed structure, where local commanders find enough space to operate according to their own ways, while continuing to report to top leaders, which keeps the leadership chain “cohesive”.
“This structure has kept the movement intact despite the external pressures and internal factionalism, tribal tensions, and national expansion it has faced over several decades,” the analyst noted.
Taliban members think that if they “lost” the chain of command, they would “disappear" like the others, who left the group before, according to Yousafzai. “I don’t think there is any active grouping among the Taliban. Yes, few leaders might have some great ambitions but at the end of the day they do what is decided in the Taliban leadership council.”
Western wishful thinking
While the Taliban have been able to fight back against the US and its allies for two decades after the Western invasion in 2001, many observers have long tended to believe that the group will fragment at some point.
That view does not appear to change much despite the fact that the armed group has shown its capability to negotiate with the US and its allies in a successful manner, reaching an agreement with Washington in February 2020 in Doha.
“I think a considerable proportion of it is Western wishful thinking. It is also partly influenced by the counterinsurgency-centred doctrine that the United States, in particular, pursued in Afghanistan - following its Iraq model - since about 2010,” says Moiz, referring to Washington's divide and defeat methods.
“In this model, one Taliban commander is fondly imagined as a moderate reconcilable who can be reasoned with, and another darkly viewed as an irreconcilable extremist, and any differences within the movement are reimagined on these lines. Often the "moderate" and "extremist" switch roles in different tellings of the story,” Moiz adds.
He also thinks that this wishful thinking is not only limited to Westerners.
“India, a major supporter of the Afghan occupation and ancien regime, was caught napping by the 2020 Doha Accord and has since been trying to catch up by excavating long-discredited reports.
“The point, as much as anything for the Indian government's social media cells, is to muddy the water and foment uncertainty, but the vast majority of these reports - such as the physical fight [between Baradar and Haqqani people] have no basis.”