US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu speak after the signing of a US-Taliban agreement in the Qatari capital Doha on February 29, 2020. Photo: AFP

The evidence that the Taliban are divided into different groups and networks is based on two hypotheses. The first assumption is that the organization is run by the Taliban leader or its foreign supporters. In this view, the Taliban’s majority and minority factions are organically linked.

The second and more plausible assumption is that the Taliban are indeed embroiled in organizational divisions.

Charismatic leaders

After the death of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar in 2015, the power struggle over his succession sparked a rift among senior members, and so the group became divided.

After the death of Mullah Omar, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was elected as the new head of the mainstream, or majority faction. His election was met with mixed reactions, and a minority faction led by Mullah Muhammad Rasool was formed. In this regard, some of the Taliban’s elites considered the theory that Mullah Omar had been murdered.

It appeared that Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, Mullah Abdul Manan, Mawlawi Muhammad Yaqub and some others did not accept Mullah Mansour. During Hibatullah Akhundzada’s leadership over the mainstream, these oppositions changed, but Hibatullah also never managed to emerge from Mullah Omar’s charismatic shadow. This has led to continued divisions between the majority and the minority among the Afghan Taliban.

Peace process

Since the start of peace talks between the Taliban and the United States in Doha, the capital of Qatar, the minority faction led by Mullah Muhammad Rasool has stated its opposition to the talks and any possible peace agreement. After the signing of an agreement between the Taliban and the US, Mullah Rassoul’s faction, expressing serious opposition to the agreement (which they believed was a form of Pakistani-US collusion), continued to fight with Afghan and foreign forces.

What is clear is that since the main faction is part of the peace process, the minority considers itself left out, and is opposed to the approach of the majority. In addition, despite the support of prominent Taliban members for Hibatullah’s approach and policies as the Taliban leader, there seems to be room for dissatisfaction with the peace process among the military body, which paved the way for more divisions.

Role of the Kabul government

While the minority wing and dissidents are considered a threat to the Doha agreement and the intra-Afghan process, the removal of senior members of the splinter group could be one of the main plans of the Taliban and Kabul to eliminate the opposition.

Also, following the peace process could help the Taliban join the Afghan government and bring together many scattered individuals under the umbrella of the main group. This itself could lead to differences among the Taliban.

Also, if the Taliban leader’s support for peace talks, the moderates may negotiate with Kabul and come to power, but the minority or Rasoul group will oppose the talks and continue the armed conflict.

Also, if Kabul does not meet with people from different walks of life, some of the commanders and members of the main Taliban, dissatisfied with Hibatullah’s approach, may return to the Rasoul faction.

Activity of extremist groups

Islamic State (ISIS) has no chance of victory in Afghanistan as long as the Taliban-led majority is united under Hibatullah. But as in previous years, some Taliban commanders and senior members may become members of ISIS because of political, intellectual and financial differences.

If there are internal disputes over intra-Afghan talks and peace in the future, ISIS could attract some dissenters and fuel the Taliban’s internal divisions.

 Foreign actors

Pakistan’s role in the peace talks has become more prominent. Over the past year, Pakistan has had a good relationship with the Qatari office, prompting criticism from the Rasoul faction.

 In fact, the increasing role of Islamabad could actually help keep the Taliban divided. On the other hand, the direct and indirect role of regional and international powers in maintaining the Taliban’s divisions is important.

In this circumstance, the foreign actors, considering their own interests, may follow and pursue some specific policies in Afghanistan. As a result of these policies, they could provide a platform for the continuity of segregation in the group.

Other factors

Apart from the above factors, other elements are also affecting the loyalty of the Taliban’s field and local groups to either the main faction or the minority. In the meantime, for many insurgents, war has become a source of income and livelihood, and a change in these conditions through peace may lead to a change in the loyalty between the factions.

Greater cohesion in main faction

From the point of view of some people, the Quetta Shura, the Peshawar Council, and the Haqqani Network are just different names for parts of the Taliba operating in different areas. But the reality is that the Taliban minority branch is active in the southwestern provinces, and in recent years has consistently fought the main faction led by Mullah Hibatullah, and sometimes killed hundreds.

These clashes led to the assassination of Hafez Ahmad, the brother of Mullah Hibatullah, in Pakistan, and the Rasool branch has claimed responsibility for his assassination.

Meanwhile, the main flow of the Taliban believes that the mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate must make their ranks more orderly, active and strong. In this regard, the Taliban Leadership Council appointed Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, as head of the group’s military commission.

With this approach, Mullah Hibatullah wants to show his power to domestic rivals and the minority faction of Mullah Rasoul, and to reduce the discontent among the middle and opposition bodies of the negotiations.

Also, in addition to the presence of the Taliban leader’s brother and the son of Mullah Omar, Mullah Yaqoob, further monitoring of the political office in Qatar is also possible. In addition, Mullah Yaqoob’s new role is a message to military commanders to be more cohesive in the peace agreement with the United States and in the intra-Afghan dialogue.

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Farzad Ramezani Bonesh

Farzad Ramezani Bonesh is a researcher and analyst of international affairs. He is chief editor of the International Center for Peace Studies based in Iran and the UK.