Factional Struggles Emerge in Virus-Afflicted Taliban Top Ranks

The Afghan government fears that internal clashes within the militant group will leave it without a reliable peace partner.

Taliban representatives attend the intra-Afghan dialogue talks in the Qatari capital of Doha on July 8, 2019.
Taliban representatives attend the intra-Afghan dialogue talks in the Qatari capital of Doha on July 8, 2019. ARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images

With the likely death of the Afghan Taliban’s supreme leader from COVID-19 and the illness of many other senior figures, the son of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the militant group’s founder, has taken control. But now the Afghan government is worried that a power struggle within the Taliban could damage the tenuous peace process that is barely underway.

Indeed, as the Taliban move closer to a return to at least partial power in Kabul, thanks to a deal with the United States aimed at ending its war in Afghanistan, there are signs the jihadi movement is set to descend into an internal battle of its own, as rival factions and tribes fight for control of its vast financial and military assets.

At stake is close to $2 billion in annual revenues, a well-armed and battle-hardened militia, and alliances with international terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, eager to piggyback on the Taliban’s supposed victory over the United States and its allies and use Afghanistan, as it once again becomes an ungoverned space, for training and operational planning.

Uncertainty about how the Taliban’s leadership struggle will unfold comes amid the latest stage of U.S. efforts to broker peace, following the signing of a bilateral deal on Feb. 29 that transformed the Taliban into an ally and facilitated the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan in 14 months. That drawdown is already ahead of schedule, and some analysts believe it could even be completed before the November U.S. presidential election.

“We need one united Taliban,” said an Afghan government official who spoke on the condition that he not be named. “But the real problem now is that until two years ago, in the central leadership, it was all about jihad, about getting rid of the ‘occupiers,’ about religious principles. Now it is purely about power. Who gets what. It comes down to money and power.”

“Before the agreement with the United States, they could say they had one larger cause that they were all standing for. Now it’s gone, the Americans are going, [and] they are facing many issues internally,” the official said.

In the long run, a divided Taliban could work to Kabul’s benefit, since until now the group has refused to acknowledge the Afghan national government as legitimate. The ideological and tribal rivalries becoming apparent once more at the upper reaches of the militant group should provide greater leverage for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to force his own conditions for peace, including an unconditional nationwide cease-fire. But Ghani has been unable so far to master Afghanistan’s complex mix of tribal and ethnic politics.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, who granted sweeping concessions to the Taliban to secure the deal, is this week concentrating on bringing the Kabul government and the Taliban together for peace talks. He has visited Islamabad, which has long supported, funded, and armed the Taliban, and Doha, the capital of Qatar, where the Taliban’s political operation is based. Next stop is Kabul, which was sidelined from all negotiations.

The focus of Khalilzad’s meetings is the progress of a prisoner swap he agreed to bilaterally with the Taliban, in which Kabul releases around 5,000 Taliban prisoners in return for about 1,000 captives held by the militants. Once this is complete, talks between Kabul and the Taliban are supposed to begin. Afghan media have reported this could be as soon as July.

But new doubts have arisen in the wake of the apparent death of Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, the supreme leader, who has not been seen in public for almost a year since a bombing at a mosque in Pakistan killed his brother, who was the imam. According to several sources close to the Taliban, Akhunzada died after being stricken by COVID-19. “For many months, there have been no messages from him [Akhunzada]—everything is done on his behalf, and this increases suspicion that he is no longer alive,” said a source in Kabul who is in close contact with Afghan and Taliban leaders. “There is nothing to say or show that he is dead. Or alive.” The Taliban have publicly denied Akhunzada is dead.

Akhunzada’s absence won’t immediately blunt the Taliban’s power and influence, experts say; never known as a strong strategist, Akhunzada was chosen for his religious credentials, seen then as useful for relegitimizing the Taliban’s war as a jihadi cause aimed at removing the “infidel occupiers.” Even so, Akhunzada supported the peace process, Taliban sources said.

Also stricken by the coronavirus was Akhunzada’s deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who as chief of operations was the Taliban’s prime decision-maker and led the al Qaeda-aligned Haqqani terrorist network. With Haqqani out of the picture as well, according to sources, the vacuum has been filled by Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, Mullah Omar’s ambitious son. Yaqoob has taken on Haqqani’s role as chief of operations, as well as the Afghanistan affairs portfolio, said Taliban, Afghan government, and Western intelligence sources. He also controls military operations.

Even so, Yaqoob is not popular within the militant group and is widely seen as arrogant and entitled, believing that the mantle of supreme leader is his “birthright.” He is seeking to consolidate his position ahead of an expected series of shuras later this year, which he hopes will confirm his ambition, and he appears to be deft at shoring up support among his Hotak tribe and his late father’s trusted confidants.

Since losing his bid for the leadership in 2015, Yaqoob has tightened his grip on the Taliban’s finances, setting up his own financial commission that his advisors have said now controls around $1.7 billion in annual revenues, from opium, mining, rent seeking, extortion, real estate, construction, telecommunications, and trade in agricultural products other than poppy.

This has exacerbated tensions with Gul Agha Ishakzai, who controlled finances for Mullah Omar and was instrumental in ensuring he was succeeded as supreme leader—when his death became public more than two years after he had died—by Mullah Akhtar Mansour. Mansour was deeply involved in the drugs trade and regarded by battlefield commanders as lacking the religious credibility that had given their fight legitimacy.

Mansour was killed a year later, in May 2016, by a U.S. drone strike. He was succeeded by Akhunzada, who was imam at the mosque where his brother was killed in August 2019, before being elevated to the Taliban’s top job.

Amid the infighting, Afghan, Western, and Taliban sources say Yaqoob is maneuvering to consolidate power and then formalize his position by moving key supporters into positions in Quetta, Pakistan, and Doha. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, co-founder of the Taliban with Mullah Omar, his close advisor, and the lead interlocutor in the talks with the United States—he signed the agreement—is supporting Yaqoob, Taliban sources said. One source described him as the “kingmaker.”

The Afghan source with knowledge of the Taliban said Muhammad Tayyab Agha, who was Mullah Omar’s chief of staff and led the political office from 2009 to 2015, “will come back to Doha.” Tayyab Agha resigned as head of the Doha political operation, apparently fearing rifts after Mansour, who had tribal links to the Ishakzai, was named supreme leader.

For the most part, Yaqoob and the other top leaders are united in favor of the U.S.-Taliban talks, and dissidents who still oppose them have been edged out. Last year, the Rasool Shura, a minority faction led by Mullah Mohammad Rasool, based in western Afghanistan and reportedly supported by Iran, declared opposition to the negotiations, as did Iran. The faction quickly lost its power. “A lesson,” said a Quetta source, “that you cannot survive outside the family.”

The question now is whether the Taliban will take a different direction than in the past. The peace process offers the Taliban a path back to Kabul, largely on their own terms. A power struggle could delay progress in meeting that goal, especially if it spills into intrafactional violence. One Taliban source said Yaqoob’s cooperation with the peace talks could depend on how much support he receives in his bid for the supreme leadership, from within and outside the Taliban. Either way, it is a matter of time before the Taliban become “an influential legal-political force in Afghanistan,” as Russia’s special presidential envoy to the country, Zamir Kabulov, put it in a recent interview.

Nor have the Taliban paid little more than lip service to a U.S. demand in the agreement that they cut ties with al Qaeda: Links between the Taliban and international jihadi groups remain as strong now as they ever have been. In its latest report on Afghanistan, the U.N. Security Council said: “The Taliban regularly consulted with Al-Qaida during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honour their historical ties. Al-Qaida has reacted positively to the agreement, with statements from its acolytes celebrating it as a victory for the Taliban’s cause and thus for global militancy.”

Michael Semple, a former European Union and U.N. advisor on Afghanistan, said the Taliban “have intensified their relationship with al Qaeda and the other international jihadist factions in the wake of the signing” of the February agreement. “Although obviously the majority of fighters in the Taliban ranks are Afghans, there’s a significant role for the foreign militants. That has intensified—it’s systematic. They are contributing to the ongoing military campaign. There’s no sign that that’s changing,” he told an online discussion hosted by London’s Frontline Club last week.

“The reality on the ground is that if the U.S. completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan without a serious program of ongoing support for the Afghan government, then the Taliban, who roll back into power in Kabul restoring the Islamic Emirate, will be triumphantly allied with al Qaeda,” Semple said. “The empirical evidence tells us that Taliban intelligence have strengthened their relationship with the foreign militants and rely on them for servicing the war effort.”

The Afghan government has so far failed to secure a permanent cease-fire ahead of talks, and the Security Council report concedes that securing the terms of the agreement with the Taliban will be “challenging.” American officials have said that if the terms of the deal are breached, they will return, though it is unlikely that once U.S. troops are gone, they will redeploy, under Trump or Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, if he wins in November.

In the case of a Biden win, a Western intelligence source said, Afghanistan is not likely to be a priority for a new U.S. administration. “He has to repair relations with Europe and NATO, the trade war with China will be his biggest problem, Iran, North Korea. The United States has become an unreliable partner for the Kurds and for Afghanistan,” he said. Beyond that, as vice president to President Barack Obama, Biden was among those who pushed for a rapid U.S. drawdown.

“By the inauguration in January, there will only be four months left on the drawdown timetable—and that’s if all U.S. troops aren’t out by November. Biden will have a lot to do, and Afghanistan will not be high in the order of operations.”

Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist, author, and analyst. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

Mirwais Khan is a journalist, broadcaster, and researcher based in Islamabad.