Serious Leadership Rifts Emerge in Afghan Taliban

Nov 28, 2012

The Afghan Taliban are perhaps the most cohesive political force in Afghanistan’s history. While nearly every other faction across the spectrum has suffered splits and realignments, the Taliban leadership has remained remarkably unified and consistent in membership throughout the various iterations of war during the last two decades.

In recent months, however, this leadership has shown the first signs of sustained internal divisions: certain commanders have been dismissed from the insurgents’ top brass, spats have erupted between leading figures, and a growing number of field commanders are contravening the orders of their superiors. In the process, a political struggle between blocs favoring and opposing talks with the United States has emerged. This article describes these developments and attempts to assess what impact, if any, they have on the prospects for a negotiated settlement to end the war.[1]

Causes of Leadership Division
Like any organization, the Taliban has always contained factions and differing allegiances that stem from non-homogenous conceptions of polity. During the Islamic emirate of the 1990s, informal blocs formed around a variety of disagreements, most strikingly on Usama bin Ladin’s activities in Afghanistan.[2] During the insurgency period (post-2003), top Taliban figures have differed on the efficacy and morality of suicide bombings.[3] These were mostly tactical and strategic disagreements. In the last two years, however, three developments opened the way for a set of substantive, political disagreements within the organization: Taliban leader Mullah Baradar’s arrest, the U.S. military’s targeting of mid-level commanders, and the initiation of peace talks with Washington.

In his decade in hiding, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar has operated away from the rest of the insurgency, presumably due to the protection (or, according to some, quasi-imprisonment) of Pakistani intelligence. Baradar, the day-to-day leader of the insurgency until 2010, was one of the few who enjoyed access to Mullah Omar, and in this capacity came to wield enormous influence within the movement.[4] Baradar’s strong links with Mullah Omar (the two hail from the same district in Uruzgan and were childhood friends), his background as a frontline commander, and his political acumen allowed him to bridge the Taliban’s traditional divide between military and political leadership. In the process, he became a major binding factor in the insurgency.

When Pakistan arrested Baradar in the winter of 2010, reportedly due to unauthorized contacts with the Karzai government, the leadership bifurcated into two networks.[5] Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, the former civil aviation minister in the Taliban government, heads the first, and the second is under the command of Mullah Zakir, an ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee.[6] Confusion over the chain of command, absent during Baradar’s tenure, now features frequently in dealings between the Karachi- and Quetta-based Taliban leadership and the rank-and-file in Afghanistan.[7]

At the same time, the capture-kill U.S. military campaign between 2009 and 2011 killed a few thousand suspected insurgents, according to ISAF press releases.[8] A significant number were field commanders, which amounts to the wholesale removal of a layer of local insurgent leadership. Whereas many field commanders from the 2006-2008 period were likely to be associated with the Taliban government of the 1990s—and by extension the Quetta shura—by now many Taliban units are under a fourth or fifth generation of local leadership.[9] As a consequence, ties between the Quetta shura and the field corps appear to be at their weakest point this decade, with Taliban figures and tribal elders reporting that cases of insubordination are more common now than ever before.[10] In Baghlan Province, for example, a prominent commander refused to turn over a portion of taxes his unit collected to Peshawar, as per Taliban rules. Ignoring punitive efforts by the leadership, he simply established his own freelance armed group.[11]

Finally, news of contacts between the United States and Mullah Omar’s representative Tayeb Agha, along with an agreement to open a political office in Qatar, have throttled the Taliban community. There is now, according to Taliban insiders, a community of hardliners in the leadership who oppose negotiations or are mistrustful of Washington’s intentions, and those more open to a settlement.[12] In general, the hawks are clustered in the military command and the doves on the political side, but this does not tell the whole story.

Divisions
Three cases highlight the nature of these divisions. The first relates to a senior Taliban figure named Mullah Abdul Raouf Khadem, an Alizai from Kajaki, Helmand Province, who was a prominent military commander during the Taliban regime. In 2001, he quit the Taliban and surrendered to the Northern Alliance, who promptly betrayed him by turning him over to U.S. custody.[13] He ended up in Guantanamo Bay, which, according to other inmates, further radicalized him.[14] Upon his release in 2007, he quickly rejoined the Taliban and climbed to a senior position on the Quetta shura’s Military Commission, which oversees fighting countrywide, and became an officially designated deputy to Mullah Omar.[15]

Khadem emerged as a hardliner, often acting against the party line. In 2010, a series of “night letters” bearing his name appeared in southern Afghanistan that threatened to kill entire groups of tribal elders in certain villages.[16] When elders appealed to the Taliban leadership, they were told that “it was out of their hands,” according to one interlocutor, and that Khadem was ignoring orders.[17] Some months later, he produced literature extolling the virtues of Wahhabism, contrary to the mainstream Taliban theological line of Deobandism. For these and other transgressions, he was stripped of his position on the leadership shura and shunted to the relatively unimportant shadow governorship of Uruzgan Province. When he was eventually relieved of this post as well, he relocated to a Pakistani border town and, according to Taliban figures, established a quasi-independent group that opposed negotiations.[18] Since then, his name has been linked to a number of actions that have fallen outside of the Taliban’s official sanction, such as the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani and the activities of the so-called Mullah Dadullah Front, which claimed the murder of High Peace Council member and ex-Taliban minister Arsala Rahmani. It remains unclear, however, whether he is indeed involved in these activities or if his name presents a convenient false flag for others inside the movement.[19]

The second major incident concerns a powerful Taliban commander named Mawlawi Ismael, an Andar from Ghazni, who was appointed by Baradar in 2009 as shadow governor of Zabul Province. In that capacity, Ismael took advantage of a key stretch of highway running through the province to extort NATO supply convoys, earning millions in revenue.[20] In the wake of Baradar’s arrest, Ismael became one of the most important commanders in the country and was selected to head the Quetta shura’s all-important Military Commission.

His fall came as quickly as his rise. It began when he attempted to clamp down on field commanders raising funds independently of command and control chains—in particular, the case of Baz Muhammad, a prominent Taliban member from Farah Province. Muhammad employed his cross-border Noorzai tribal networks to raise funds that he refused to share with the Quetta leadership. When Ismael arrested one of Muhammad’s principle fundraisers in an effort to force him to hand over the money, Muhammad retaliated by beating and kidnapping Ismael.[21] This response—Ismael held the most important military position in the country—is unprecedented in the organization’s history.[22]

The Taliban top command eventually stepped in to free the two parties and resolve the issue. Not long after, in April 2012, Ismael found himself embroiled in another fight with commanders in Zabul Province over money, and some reports claimed that one of the commanders ended up dead.[23] Around the same time, the Quetta shura arrested Ismael after he had unauthorized contact with the United Nations, possibly as an opening for talks, in which money allegedly changed hands.[24] He thus became one of the highest-ranking members of the Taliban ever to be detained by the Taliban itself. He is now under house arrest and has been removed from any official positions within the movement.[25] In the process, his wide and influential network within Afghanistan has been thrown awry. Mullah Ghulam Hassan, one of his allies, released a video proclaiming Ismael’s innocence and threatening to kill members of the Quetta shura. Others have allegedly broken with his network and with the Taliban proper, now instead operating as independent armed factions.

While Ismael and Khadem were relative newcomers in the Taliban’s upper echelons, infighting has also reached the leadership’s innermost circles. Agha Jan Mutasim, a longstanding member who served in a number of important political roles for the Quetta shura, was gunned down by unknown assailants in Karachi in 2011.[26] He survived and fled the country, subsequently suggesting that hardliners opposing his advocacy of negotiations were responsible.[27] Others claim the shooting stemmed from suspicions that he embezzled Taliban funds a few years before, or that he fell victim to feuding between the Muttahida Quami Movement and Pashtuns in Karachi, or even that Mullah Omar himself ordered his assassination.[28] Whatever the reason, Mutasim now stands as the most senior Taliban member ever forced out of the movement.

The three incidents are a marked departure from the Taliban’s past cohesion. Although spats are common in any organization, there is little record of leadership-level disputes descending into violence or open breaks with the Taliban’s doctrine at that level. Taliban interviewees could not state similar examples from the post-2003 insurgency period.[29]

Prospects for the Future
Each of these three cases intersect, in some way, with the question of peace negotiations. When news of Tayeb Agha’s meetings with the United States leaked, it created a mini-crisis for the Taliban leadership, who faced the problem of convincing their rank-and-file to support their peace initiatives while simultaneously asking them to risk their lives on the battlefield.[30] Many second-order effects ensued; fundraising, for instance, became more of a challenge, to the point that the shura’s Financial Commission issued a rare public appeal for donations directly on the Taliban’s website.[31] In this regard, the Quetta shura’s messaging and positioning vis-à-vis negotiations should be seen as directed as much to their own members and supporters as to the outside world.

Disagreement abounds within Taliban circles as to whether Washington is a trustworthy negotiating partner and whether it is more politically astute to simply wait the Americans out until the 2014 withdrawal deadline—in other words, there is an ongoing political struggle between pro-war and pro-negotiations blocs. At the same time, and perhaps overlaid with this, there appears a growing divergence of Taliban tactics. In recent months, insurgents have increasingly targeted civilians—even when there is no discernible military target nearby—such as an August attack on a market in Nimroz Province.[32] These assaults may be a reflection of the growing cadre of younger Taliban leaders who are less tied to their communities than previous generations, although it is too early to say with certainty.

Regardless, even some considered hardliners (who tend to be on the military side) have made overtures or sent feelers to the Afghan government and Western officials.[33] In a way, there appears to be a deeper logic at work, where every member of the leadership is attempting to situate himself for the coming post-2014 world. The danger inherent in the hardline position is that by opposing a settlement, that member might lose out if such an agreement is indeed reached. This is, in effect, the delicate balance those across Afghanistan’s political spectrum have had to master during the past 30 years of war, where fortunes can change at a moment’s notice.

These dynamics indicate that leadership-level divisions are not irrevocable. In interviews, Taliban who support negotiations complain that they have nothing to show their more skeptical comrades from their engagement with Washington, which suggests that if the talks achieve substantive confidence building measures—such as the exchange of prisoners—they might have a uniting effect that will aid in an eventual settlement.

Anand Gopal is a writer and Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, where he studies South Asian and Middle Eastern political movements.

[1] Much of this article is based on interviews conducted by the author with Taliban figures this summer in the United Arab Emirates and with members based in Pakistan over phone or Skype. These members spoke on the condition of anonymity. The author also interviewed three Western authorities—including one U.S. and one UN official.

[2] Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970-2010 (London: Hurst, 2011).

[3] Antonio Giustozzi ed., Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

[4] Personal interviews, members of the Taliban political shura, Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2008. Also see Ron Moreau, “America’s New Nightmare,” Newsweek, July 24, 2009.

[5] Dexter Filkins, “Pakistanis Tell of Motive in Taliban Leader’s Arrest,” New York Times, August 22, 2010.

[6] Personal interview, Taliban member connected to the Quetta shura’s political wing, Dubai, 2012; personal interview, Taliban commanders and tribal elders, Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2010; personal interview, Alex Strick van Linschoten, 2010; personal interview, U.S. State Department official, 2011; personal interview, UN Security Council official, New York, 2012.

[7] The Taliban’s political leadership is largely based in Karachi, while its military command is in Quetta. Peshawar forms the third major Taliban center, overseeing affairs in the east. All three cities are in Pakistan.

[8] Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, “A Knock on the Door: 22 Months of ISAF Press Releases,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, October 12, 2011.

[9] This article uses the term “Quetta shura” as shorthand for the Taliban leadership. The actual shura is merely symbolic. The real loci of power in the leadership exist in clusters of informal networks and on bodies such as the Military Commission.

[10] Personal interviews, senior Western official involved in appraising the security situation, 2011; personal interview, Western NGO security officer, 2010; personal interview, member of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan’s political team, 2010; personal interviews, dozens of tribal elders in Baghlan, Kandahar, Loya Paktia and Kabul, Afghanistan, 2010-2011; personal interview, Taliban member connected to the political shura, Dubai, 2012.

[11] Personal interviews, tribal elders, mullahs, police officials, Baghlan Province, Afghanistan, 2011.

[12] Personal interview, Taliban member connected to the Quetta shura’s political wing, Dubai, 2012; personal interview, second Taliban member connected to the Quetta shura’s political wing, 2012; personal interview, a former high-ranking government official during the Taliban regime, 2012; personal interview, Michael Semple, 2012.

[13] Anand Gopal, “Qayum Zakir: The Afghanistan Taliban’s Rising Mastermind,” Christian Science Monitor, April 30, 2010.

[14] Personal interviews, government officials, tribal elders and Taliban commanders, Helmand and Kandahar provinces, Afghanistan, March and June 2010.

[15] “Afghan Taliban Chief Appoints Two Deputies,” The News International, March 29, 2010.

[16] The author received and read copies of these night letters. Also see personal interviews, tribal elders in Panjwayi, Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2010.

[17] Personal interview, Agha Lalai Dastagiri, head of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, 2010; personal interviews, tribal elders, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, 2010.

[18] Personal interview, Taliban member connected to the Quetta shura’s political wing, Dubai, 2012; personal interview, second Taliban member connected to the Quetta shura’s political wing, 2012; personal interview, UN Security Council official, New York, 2012; personal interview, Michael Semple, 2012.

[19] The Mullah Dadullah Front is an ad-hoc faction within the Afghan Taliban that emerged following the expulsion of Mullah Bakht (also known as Mullah Mansur Dadullah) from the Taliban in 2008 for insubordination. It is unclear if the name is used by hardliners in the organization as a false flag or if a coherent group with the name actually exists.

[20] Personal interviews, Afghan government officials and tribal elders, Zabul, Afghanistan, 2010.

[21] Personal interview, Taliban member connected to the Quetta shura’s political wing, Dubai, 2012; personal interview, second Taliban member connected to the Quetta shura’s political wing, 2012; personal interview, Michael Semple, 2012; Ron Moreau, “Feud Splits the Taliban,” Newsweek, August 17, 2012.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Nasim Hotak, “Senior Taliban Leader Shot Dead in Quetta,” Pajhwok Afghan News, April 17, 2012.

[24] Personal interview, UN Security Council official, New York, 2012; personal interview, second Taliban member connected to the Quetta shura’s political wing, 2012. In some interviews, Taliban and Western officials deny this claim. Either way, it is likely that the Zabul struggle is directly related to Ismael’s arrest in some way.

[25] Some press reports mistakenly stated that the Taliban executed Ismael.

[26] Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau, “Afghanistan: A Moderate Defies the Taliban,” The Daily Beast, April 25, 2012.

[27] Ibid.

[28] See, for instance, “Exclusive Interviews with Top Taliban Leaders,” Japanese Broadcasting Corporation, September 11, 2012.

[29] The sole exception might be the feud between Mullah Dadullah and Mullah Akhtar Osmani, which ended when both were separately killed by coalition airstrikes in 2006 and 2007. In Taliban circles, the rumor persists that one or both of these leaders (or their relatives) used coalition forces to eliminate the other, but evidence is scant and there is reporting indicating otherwise. Personal interviews, Taliban members connected to the Quetta shura’s political wing, 2012.

[30] Personal interview, Taliban member connected to the Quetta shura’s political wing, Dubai, 2012; personal interview, second Taliban member connected to the Quetta shura’s political wing, 2012; personal interview, a former high-ranking government official during the Taliban regime, 2012; personal interview, Michael Semple, 2012.

[31] This statement is available on Taliban websites.

[32] “Afghan Civilians Targeted in Wave of Attacks,” al-Jazira, August 15, 2012.

[33] The author has evidence of a number of such cases.