Could civil war break out in the Taliban’s ranks?
On February 11, in a speech at the graduation ceremony of an Islamic religious school in Afghanistan’s Khost province, the Taliban’s powerful Minister of Interior, Sirajuddin Haqqani, alleged the organization’s “power monopolization and defamation of the entire [ruling] system have become common.” He did not name the Taliban’s Supreme Leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, in his speech. However, his reference to “power monopolization” was aimed at the reclusive Taliban emir, who retains a tight grip over Taliban decision-making. “This situation cannot be tolerated any longer,” Haqqani stated. Soon after, the Taliban’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, lashed out at those criticizing the Taliban leadership. “According to Islamic ethics, the emir, minister, or government official should not be criticized publicly and in such a way as to insult him,” Mujahid asserted (Alarabiya News, February 13).
Haqqani is not the only leader criticizing the Taliban leadership. In May 2022, the Taliban’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, also criticized the group’s leadership for ruling over Afghanistan “with batons” and shutting down secondary schools for girls (RFERL, June 2, 2022). Most recently, Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi condemned Taliban Islamic scholars for resorting to bans on education without providing a way forward (Khaama Press, February 13).
Although disagreements have always occurred among Taliban leaders, the recent exchange of words at the highest level of the organization is serious and even unprecedented, given that the leaders of the Taliban rarely air their differences in public. The widening rift could impact the Taliban’s cohesion and the situation in Afghanistan, especially if the divisions lead to intra-factional fighting among the Taliban.
Taliban Rifts Old and New
Being a loose umbrella network of several tribal groups, clans, and factions, the Taliban was always riven with conflict, rifts, and rivalries. Among the most serious divisions in the group was between the Kandahari Taliban and the Haqqani Network. The two have been rival power centers for decades.  Rifts between the Taliban’s military and political wings, and hawks and pragmatists have been just as important. There were major differences between Taliban military hardliners like field commander Ibrahim Sadr and leaders in the Taliban’s Political Office in Doha, including Abdul Ghani Baradar and Stanikzai, over the question of a power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan and negotiations with the US government (see Militant Leadership Monitor, August 2020). Differences persist between the Haqqani Network and Taliban moderates like Baradar and Stanikzai, who negotiated the Doha Accord on the question of sheltering al-Qaeda (TRT World, August 4, 2022).
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A more recent point of contention is about receiving credit for the departure of US forces from Afghanistan. While Baradar and Stanikzai believed their diplomatic efforts led to the US withdrawal, which paved the way for the Taliban’s return to power, the Haqqani Network argued that its suicide attacks and military successes forced the Americans out of Afghanistan (RFERL, June 2, 2022; TRT World, August 4, 2022). This conflict then erupted to the fore in an August-September 2021 dispute over the distribution of key ministries in the Taliban government—even going so far as to lead to a shootout between the bodyguards of Haqqani and Baradar (Hindustan Times, September 5, 2021). In addition, the subsequent ascendance of Haqqani rather than Baradar in the Taliban power structure likely made the new regime less acceptable to the international community.
Kabul vs Kandahar
The latest rift is between the Kabul-based Taliban government and the Kandahar-rooted, Akhundzada-led Taliban religious council. Decision-making power is concentrated in the hands of the latter, and Akhundzada has been issuing edicts over the past year that are aimed at implementing his narrow vision of sharia law. He has, for instance, issued edicts on women’s attire; the full enforcement of Islamic punishment like floggings, execution, and stoning to death; and the forbiddance of girls and women from education beyond the primary school level, working with international NGOs, and/or appearing in public places (NDTV, May 7, 2022; Times of India, November 14, 2022; RFERL, December 24, 2022).
Akhundzada’s edicts have evoked deep resentment among Afghans and the international community, and reaffirmed apprehensions that the current Taliban government is no different from the one of the 1990s. These edicts are further at odds with the Taliban’s own priority to secure international recognition, in order to pave the way for international aid to the beleaguered country (NDTV, December 25, 2022). It is in this context that the criticism directed against Akhundzada leadership by Haqqani and other members of the Taliban must be considered.
A sense of pragmatism underlies the criticism of the Kandahar clerics. As part of the Taliban government, Haqqani and his allies prioritize their government’s survival, for which drawing international aid is imperative. Such aid will not be forthcoming if donor conditions, including education for girls, are not met. They therefore see Akhundzada’s edicts as obstacles that will prevent international recognition and aid.
Akhundzada has cemented his grip over power. Not only is policy-making firmly in the control of his Kandahar religious council, but the council itself is packed with his loyalists. He has also placed those loyal to him in key positions in the government. As the “commander of the faithful” and Taliban emir, Akhundzada further enjoys the obedience of the Taliban rank and file.
However, as minister of interior, Haqqani controls police and intelligence, which are stacked with his own loyalists. Another Akhundzada critic is Mullah Mohammed Yaqoob, who, as the son of the Taliban’s founder Mullah Mohammed Omar, enjoys enormous stature in the eyes of the Taliban’s foot soldiers. Besides this, as the defense minister, Yaqoob controls the Afghan armed forces. Haqqani, Yaqoob and other leaders who oppose Akhundzada control powerful militias, in addition to large amounts of state-of-the-art US weaponry.
The possibility of the Kabul vs Kandahar rift erupting into open violent conflict cannot be ruled out, though this is unlikely to occur in the near future. Nevertheless, should open fighting break out eventually, it will almost certainly mark the start of a particularly bloody phase of the civil war in Afghanistan.
 While the Kandahari Taliban refers to the Taliban “core”—the founders and other leaders who emerged from the Taliban’s traditional stronghold in Kandahar and southern Afghanistan—the Haqqani Network (whose origins can be traced back to the 1970s) is comprised of individuals from eastern Afghanistan. The Haqqani Network established close ties with Pakistan and had in fact emerged as the sword-arm of Pakistan in Afghanistan during the anti-US insurgency. Although the Kandaharis were based in Quetta during the insurgency and were dependent on Pakistan, they were suspicious of Islamabad’s intentions. In the current situation, Kandahari Taliban leaders like Yaqoob are said to be closer than the Haqqanis to the Pakistani Talban.