Hope in disunity?
Rifts between hardliners and moderates are a cause for concern within the Taliban leadership, but could offer a glimmer of optimismfor the people of Afghanistan. Arshad Yusufzai reports
Stuck between religious and cultural limitations on one hand and domestic and international politics on the other, the Afghan Taliban remain divided – at least over key issues such as girls’ education and female empowerment. The pro-women rights leaders of the country, therefore, expect a long battle of words with the hardline Mullahs from at least five southern provinces of Afghanistan.
Religious leaders in Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Nimroz and Farah have been vigorously opposing girls’ education and the possibility of women working in any field, including the development and humanitarian sectors. In the words of a very senior level Taliban leader, ‘The religious leaders in those provinces do not even want to talk about women going outside their homes, let alone allowing them to school or work.’
However, as a result of continued debate between the ‘moderate’ and ‘hardline’ leaders of the Taliban, there are faint signs of gradual progress towards softening the religious leaders. One recent example of this is the Amir al Momineen (supreme commander of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, or IEA), Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada himself. In a shift from his previously harsh approach, the Amir apparently advised a high-level delegation of moderate Taliban visiting him in Kandahar to use moderate religious leaders to convince the hardliners through discussion and religious citations debates.
The delegation, consisting of some key interim ministers and senior Taliban leaders, was invited by the Amir to Kandahar in the last week of February to discuss the issues of girls’ education and female empowerment over the next two weeks, after a number of respected and powerful Taliban leaders openly criticised the ‘unpopular’ decisions emerging from Kandahar. It is understood that the Amir, whom some moderates in the interim government believe is acting on the advice of a few very senior hardline Taliban leaders on these matters, wanted to listen to the grievances of the moderate leaders, who held public forums to openly criticise internal issues.
In the first quarter of 2023, several important figures in the IEA publicly expressed their displeasure and disappointment over the continued ban on girls’ education and on women working in the public sector. However, it was in late 2022 that the powerful Defence Minister, Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob, became the first high-profile person to speak out against the ban on girls attending school. The Amir al Momineen, reportedly unaware of the distress his decisions were causing among his trusted subordinates, met Mullah Yaqoob soon afterwards to discuss the matter. Unfortunately, the Defence Minister’s outburst made no positive impact. In fact, unfounded rumours quickly circulated regarding a failed coup by Yaqoob, and that he had been fired for criticising the leadership.
Nonetheless, the young minister’s act gave courage to other moderate leaders,who patiently continued their efforts to correct the Taliban’s course by emphasising the need to allow more freedoms for girls and women. Acting First Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the most high-profile Taliban leader, also expressed his frustration about the way some matters were handled by the Kandahar-based spiritual leadership.
Although Mullah Yaqoob and Mullah Baradar expressed their concerns privately, Deputy Prime Minister for Administrative Affairs Abdul Salam Hanafi and Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai took the game to another level when they publicly spoke against the continued ban on girls’ education. Hanafi, in his usual polite and diplomatic tone, urged the leadership to share a fitting solution in the wake of a decree banning girls’ education. On the other hand, Abbas Stanekzai straight forwardly expressed his views about the ban and backed his stance with the teachings of shariah regarding disobeying an order by the Amir if it was not in line with shariah. Thus he hinted that the command was not the final word and it could be challenged under shariah.
Then came the most surprising outburst. In early February, arguably the most powerful Taliban leader, the Minister for Interior Affairs, Sirajuddin Haqqani, lost his trademark patience at a massive gathering of students at a convocation ceremony at a religious seminary in Khost province. Haqqani strongly condemned the way some decisions by the Taliban leadership were alienating the common Afghan people, and warned that violating people’s rights through power and authority was not sustainable for long.
Many among the Taliban see Sirajuddin Haqqani as a top advocate for female rights. A large number of the Taliban and the Afghan people took to different social media platforms to praise and back Haqqani for breaking his silence.To them, it means senior Taliban leaders are opening up to criticise issues that are hurting ordinary Afghans. Common people in Afghanistan who could not openly talk about such issues were encouraged by Haqqani’s comments, and they too started demanding that the IEA government become more flexible on issues including women’s empowerment and girls’ education.
However, not everyone viewed the interior minister’s speech positively. As happened after Mullah Yaqoob’s speech, Sirajuddin’s comments were also followed by rumours that the mighty interior minister had been fired following his ‘outrageous criticism of the Amir’. Similarly, anti-Taliban activists on social media termed Sirajuddin’s comments as proof of serious divisions between different factions of the Taliban, particularly the so-called Haqqani Network and the Kandahari group.
The Taliban have always refuted the existence of any factions among their ranks. But many foreign states and experts classify the Taliban under the command of Sirajuddin Haqqani, hailing mainly from his native Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces, as members of the Haqqani Network, while those from Kandahar, Helmand, Nimroz, Zabul, Farah and Uruzgan provinces are often referred to as members of the Kandahari group. Yet the Afghan Taliban insist they are one united entity gelled by the same ideological and political cause.
To add fuel to the fire, a press conference by IEA Deputy Minister for Information Zabihullah Mujahid, intended to warn media members against criticising the Amir without any basis and without giving the Taliban perspective, was falsely used by anti-Taliban elements as a direct threat from Mujahid to the Minister for Interior Affairs.
Defending his comments after a venomous propaganda campaign, Zabihullah Mujahid told the media that his comments were in no way linked to Sirajuddin’s speech and had been taken completely out of context.
‘My comments were in response to the media sources criticizing the IEA rule and its leadership,’ said a spokesperson for Zabihullah Mujahid.‘We have asked them to keep things directly to those they have complaints against. However, even if they talk openly against us, we will openly accept their allegations and will listen to those complaints without giving any trouble to those media persons.’
The spokesperson also denied claims of divisions among the Taliban, saying that differences of opinion were needed for a healthy and constructive political environment. He said such differences were‘important since every Muslim has a moral duty to criticise and highlight issues they see in the policies of their government. This is, in fact, doing a favour to the government. Similarly, Sirajuddin Haqqani has also highlighted the counterproductive practices in the government of which he is also an important part’.
Different Taliban leaders have often argued that internal unity under one leader is one of their key strengths, and while there were continued efforts by enemies to sabotage the Taliban unity, the group took pride in resolving issues through discussion rather than internal fighting and bloodshed.
Yet it is hard not to notice increased stress among those in different camps of the Taliban. Some experts see political and ideological divisions in the IEA government, arguing that members of the group who used to meet representatives from the US and Europe in Doha believe they should have more say in political decisions as they are more accepted by the West, while the Taliban who fought the actual war on ground feel they deserve to run the country. Furthermore, the battle-hardened Taliban, who have spent their lives in the mountains and villages during the two decades of war,feel deprived when the more open-minded Taliban, who mostly lived in the cities and had more educational opportunities, gain better positions in the IEA government.
The writer has covered the Afghan conflict and terrorism in Pakistan, worked as a communication expert with the ICRC in Pakistan, and advised the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue-Geneva on Afghanistan