Report

Taliban Splintered by Internal Divisions, External Spoilers

Pakistan said to be supporting alternative jihadi groups to undermine the Taliban and maintain leverage over Afghanistan.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
A Taliban fighter mans a machine gun mounted on a vehicle near the venue of an open-air pro-Taliban rally on the outskirts of Kabul on Oct. 3.
A Taliban fighter mans a machine gun mounted on a vehicle near the venue of an open-air pro-Taliban rally on the outskirts of Kabul on Oct. 3. HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

The unity that catapulted the Taliban to victory in Afghanistan is splintering under the pressure of internal divisions that could threaten the group’s survival if rivals cannot mend their differences while dealing with the realities of running a troubled country.

Against a backdrop of looming economic and humanitarian catastrophe, lines—and swords—have been drawn between two senior Taliban figures: political leader Abdul Ghani Baradar, who co-founded the group with Mullah Mohammad Omar and whose power base is in Kandahar, and sanctioned terrorist Sirajuddin Haqqani, who heads the affiliated Haqqani network and is close to al Qaeda.

As Taliban factions battle for bigger slices of the pie, the local branch of the Islamic State is picking up recruits disillusioned with the political direction the Taliban are taking, security and academic sources said.

The unity that catapulted the Taliban to victory in Afghanistan is splintering under the pressure of internal divisions that could threaten the group’s survival if rivals cannot mend their differences while dealing with the realities of running a troubled country.

Against a backdrop of looming economic and humanitarian catastrophe, lines—and swords—have been drawn between two senior Taliban figures: political leader Abdul Ghani Baradar, who co-founded the group with Mullah Mohammad Omar and whose power base is in Kandahar, and sanctioned terrorist Sirajuddin Haqqani, who heads the affiliated Haqqani network and is close to al Qaeda.

As Taliban factions battle for bigger slices of the pie, the local branch of the Islamic State is picking up recruits disillusioned with the political direction the Taliban are taking, security and academic sources said.

Amid the internal power struggle at the top of the Taliban, and the Islamic State recruitment drive, indications are emerging of an alliance of smaller jihadi groups spearheaded by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), attracting elements dissatisfied with even the most extreme factions currently in control of Afghanistan.

The Islamic Invitation Alliance (IIA), funded by the ISI, was formed in early 2020 with the aim of ensuring the Taliban’s victory, according to a document prepared for the previous government of Afghanistan, seen by Foreign Policy. It now aims to destabilize the Taliban by empowering extremism across Afghanistan, said an intelligence source involved in uncovering the group’s existence, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The emergence of the IIA, which sources say is known to the U.S. intelligence community, further complicates Afghanistan’s fractious political landscape as the country’s former allies grapple with how to deal with a government controlled by sanctioned terrorists allied to al Qaeda.

The cleavage between Baradar, who cut the so-called peace deal in 2020 with former U.S. President Donald Trump, and Haqqani, who introduced suicide attacks to the Afghan battlefield, is growing wider. Baradar, now interim deputy prime minister, is seen as “America’s man,” while Haqqani, acting interior minister, represents the group’s most strident anti-Western face, which appeals to Pakistan, said Rahmatullah Nabil, the former head of intelligence for the previous Afghan government.

He said divisions between the two men, who have an uneasy power-sharing agreement, are pushing Taliban foot soldiers into the arms of the Islamic State, challenging the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan, and risking the country’s stability and potentially regional peace.

“Guerrilla fighting with drug smuggling income is easier than running a state,” said Nabil, referring to the Taliban’s control of heroin production and trafficking. “They have already faced several challenges, and their internal divisions are increasing.”

Those divisions became public in September, shortly after the Taliban seized control of the country, and could be behind some recent high-casualty attacks attributed to the local Islamic State branch, known as the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), according to Weeda Mehran, a conflict expert at the University of Exeter.

“We knew the Taliban was not a homogenous group. Nonetheless, we are seeing violence between rival factions now becoming more public,” she said. The Islamic State is a “convenient scapegoat” for attacks possibly committed in the fratricidal battle for supremacy.

A recent attack on a Kabul military hospital, for instance, killed a Haqqani ally, Hamdullah Mukhlis, head of the capital’s military corps. Survivors of the attack told AFP that the attackers chanted “Long live the Taliban” and avoided areas of the hospital where Taliban fighters were being treated. IS-K claimed responsibility.

“Baradar’s side can benefit on two fronts—if they are smart enough to play it like that: They can ensure they get their internal rivals with these huge attacks, and they can show the West they are acting against IS-K to get support for dealing with the ‘new’ terrorists,” Mehran said.

IS-K’s capabilities concern the U.S. Defense Department, where belief has taken root that it could pose a threat to the United States in under a year. Recruiting experienced fighters will only bolster those worries.

Colin Kahl, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that the United States is fairly certain that both IS-K and al Qaeda have the “intention” to attack the U.S. homeland.

Some reports have said IS-K is also absorbing members of the former state security forces as they try to avoid retributive attacks from the Taliban and earn money. Nabil said IS-K offers 30,000 afghanis, or about $300, per month. Former Afghan National Defense and Security Forces personnel, however, have denied the reports.

IS-K and al Qaeda are part of an increasingly complicated political mosaic as Pakistan’s ISI continues to ensure it has leverage over the Taliban and control of regional jihad. Both groups have been drawn under the IIA umbrella, according to the research document, which has not been made public. It says the IIA grew out of ISI support for a group called Karwan Abu Obaida (KaO), which splintered from the Haqqani network after the Trump-Taliban agreement was signed in February 2020.

KaO was made up of Haqqani followers who were disappointed that the Haqqani network did not take action against Baradar and other Taliban leaders for negotiating with the United States, the document says.

“From its inception, KaO focused on targeted attacks against journalists, civil activists, and ‘those who are against Islamic law,’ as well as ‘those who are supporting the agreements with the Americans crusaders’ and their allies in Afghanistan,” the document says, quoting interlocutors.

It adds that the ISI initially deployed the KaO to extend the assassination campaign, which had a devastating impact on government, civil society, and media in Afghanistan throughout 2020. The ISI then decided to expand its influence over non-Taliban actors working to topple then-President Ashraf Ghani’s government, the document says, with the aim of building a formidable jihadi force that could be a useful tool of political coercion in the event of a Taliban victory.

During 2020, the IIA also became a platform for the return to the battlefield of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar, a former warlord who struck a peace deal with Ghani in 2016 to return from exile, became disillusioned and “approached the ISI for help re-engaging with the insurgency,” the document says.

The main objectives of the IIA, which numbers an estimated 4,500 fighters, are to “keep the jihad movement in Afghanistan alive” and “act as a tool of ISI pressure” on the Taliban to ensure that Pakistan’s interests are protected, the document says.

It adds that the IIA is funneling ISI funding to member groups and giving IS-K a boost by enabling it to claim responsibility for attacks committed by other groups in the coalition. This creates the potential for a self-fulfilling prophecy by allowing IS-K to build an image of itself as an “ascendant organization in Afghanistan.”

Requests for comment on the report were made to Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesperson and, separately, the public relations and information officer, as well as to Islamabad’s embassies in Kabul and London, all without response.

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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