Afghanistan’s presidential palace has seen its fair share of bad-tempered quarrels between politicians. In recent years the castle-like building in the centre of Kabul was the site of bitter spats between the irascible former president, Ashraf Ghani, and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah. Mr Ghani is said to have taken anger-management classes. At one point he and Dr Abdullah held rival inauguration ceremonies as they disagreed over who should rule. Yet even by those fractious standards, the Taliban’s recent bust-up seems to have been heated.
The trouble kicked off in mid-September, just days after the Taliban announced the make-up of their interim government. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the group’s founders and now a deputy prime minister, is said to have been dismayed that the cabinet was stuffed with conservatives from the old guard and military hardliners from the Haqqani network, a leading faction in the Taliban’s tapestry of allegiances. Khalil Haqqani, minister for refugees and a senior member of the Haqqani clan, countered that it was those very military hardliners who had delivered victory and should therefore be rewarded. Most accounts concur that the disagreement descended into angry words. Some suggest it went further: coming to scuffles, punches and even gunfire as the leaders’ retinues brawled. Mr Baradar, who is seen as one of the movement’s moderates, relatively speaking, lay low in Kandahar for a few days, leading to speculation that he had been wounded.
The Taliban deny there was ever any clash. Mr Baradar is now back in Kabul conducting official business and apparently unhurt, though he seems to have lost the argument. But the reports shone fresh light on the internal politics of a group whose leadership has for decades operated in the shadows, and whose dynamics could be outlined only imperfectly by intelligence agencies and Talibanologists.
Disputes like the palace row should come as no surprise considering the diversity within the Taliban, says Antonio Giustozzi of King’s College London. As the group prospered and grew beyond its roots, it swallowed, attracted or co-opted all sorts of militant networks and commanders, of which the Haqqani clan is only the best known. That resulted not in a Maoist-style centrally controlled insurgency, but a coalition of commanders bound by some core beliefs.
The Taliban’s secrecy during their 20-year insurgency hid some of this disagreement, but a notable flare-up occurred in 2015, two years after the death of the movement’s original leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. The appointment of his successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who has since been killed, was rejected by several senior figures including Omar’s son. The Taliban were briefly in turmoil as competing factions jockeyed for power. There are also continuing ideological divisions. These vary from how heavy-handed the group should be in enforcing its social policies to whether to cut ties with foreign jihadists such as al-Qaeda, whom many fighters consider comrades. Whether to work with other domestic political forces is also a thorny topic.
Given these differences, what is perhaps most remarkable is not the Taliban’s feuding, but their cohesion. “Their greatest skill,” says Mr Giustozzi, is to “keep all of this together despite constant friction and constant argument.” That stems from hard work, says Haroun Rahimi of the American University of Afghanistan. The group might be known for issuing authoritarian edicts to Afghans, but it goes out of its way to seek consensus internally. There is deference to clerical seniority and battlefield experience, but controversial matters are laboriously debated in large councils known as shuras. Factions such as the Haqqanis have been allowed some latitude in how they operate. Pakistan’s security forces are also thought to have mediated on occasion.
Such deliberation may salve tensions, but it can also make the organisation conservative and indecisive. Policies are pitched at the group’s lowest common denominator to preserve concord. That makes it difficult for the Taliban to change. Indeed early policy moves appear to show no great evolution, despite vows that the Taliban had moved on from the repressive regime they ran in the 1990s. Harsh sharia punishments such as public hanging and chopping off thieves’ hands are back. Women are being purged from the workplace. Such policies may explain why even Pakistan, which formally recognised the Taliban the last time around, has not yet done so again (see box).
Power has brought new challenges to the Taliban’s internal order. During the 1990s, lingering domestic resistance, which they never completely vanquished, helped maintain unity. But the Taliban now rule the entire country, almost uncontested. Thousands of fighters steeped in a culture of militancy are twiddling their thumbs. Not every commander will win a position in the new government. There is little money for those who do. “I think that disagreements within the top leadership are distracting us from the pressure that the Taliban movement is under from below, from their fighters,” says Mr Rahimi.
Tamim Asey, who heads the Institute of War and Peace Studies, a think-tank in the Afghan capital, describes what he calls “jihadi anarchism”. The Taliban’s branches in some provinces show signs of questioning the writ of Kabul. “The transformation from a militia to a government is costing them, and it appears to be painful,” he says. Some fighters are returning to civilian life. Others appear nostalgic for their campaigning days and admit peace is a bit of a drag. “Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to become a martyr,” moans a Talib guarding the shuttered British embassy.
The new defence minister recently rebuked fighters for their indiscipline, complaining of reprisals, which are forbidden under the Taliban’s declared amnesty for officials of the former regime. He also admonished footsoldiers for inadvertently giving away secrets as they pose for selfies in ministries. “Such hanging out and taking snaps and videos will not help you in this world, or in the hereafter,” he said.
Hints of splits within the Taliban might once have gladdened the hearts of the Western spooks and soldiers arrayed against them. No longer. Serious divisions could pitch the country into civil war, exacerbating a humanitarian crisis and prompting a surge in refugees. A rift would also encourage defections to other militant groups and embolden terrorists like Islamic State. For now, at least, even the Taliban’s erstwhile enemies are hoping the group can keep it together.