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Behind the Scenes of the Taliban’s Internal Power Struggle

By Antonio Giustozzi, World Politics Review, Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021

The Taliban’s announcement earlier this month that it had formed an all-male “interim” Cabinet in Afghanistan comprising only the movement’s members—many of them veterans of the Taliban’s last stint in power in the 1990s—took many observers by surprise. Members of the notorious Haqqani network, which controls southeastern Afghanistan, were placed in influential positions. While the Taliban appointed several outsiders and members of ethnic minorities to some additional Cabinet positions this week, none of them were given important portfolios. 

The announcement of the main Cabinet lineup on Sept. 7 followed a trip to Kabul by Faiz Hameed, chief of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI. That led to claims from multiple quarters that Islamabad had asserted its control over the new Taliban regime, marginalizing more independent figures like Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban and one of its most internationally recognizable figures who was nonetheless given the relatively modest role of deputy prime minister in the new Cabinet. 

The reality, however, is somewhat more complex. If the ISI has full control over the Taliban and could dictate what their government should look like, why would it not force them to cut ties with the Pakistani Taliban, who are intensifying their raids into Pakistan from Afghan territory? 

Baradar, a co-founder of the Afghan Taliban, had been trying to negotiate a coalition deal with representatives of the old political elite in Kabul, such as former President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, the former head of the National Reconciliation Council. The negotiations had seemed to go well, but Baradar’s support within the political leadership of the Taliban was always shaky. After he was released from a Pakistani prison in October 2018, he never managed to rebuild a personal base of support comparable to what he had before Pakistani authorities arrested him in 2010. 

According to my team’s sources around Abdullah and Karzai, Baradar had gone as far as offering a 30 percent share of power to Karzai and Abdullah, but sources within the Taliban’s old guard deny that the Taliban Leadership Council, the group’s top decision-making body, ever authorized such a relatively generous offer. This suggests that Baradar may have gambled on first trying to reach a deal and then trying to sell it to the rest of the Taliban’s leadership. In any case, the negotiations broke down when Ahmad Massoud, a leading figure in the anti-Taliban resistance, refused to accept Baradar’s terms, demanding an equal share of power, among other concessions. At that point, tensions rose among Taliban factions over how to respond, to the point where the ISI’s Hameed intervened to mediate.

Although the media has been focused on the Haqqanis’ relatively strong representation in the government—and the fact that Sirajuddin Haqqani, who remains on the FBI’s most-wanted list, was given the powerful role of interior minister—their five appointees out of 33 top government positions announced on Sept. 7 do not appear to significantly over-represent them within the Cabinet. The faction of the Taliban that ended up over-represented are instead the Kandaharis, who got 12 appointees. The section’s leader, Mullah Mohammed Yaqoob, was appointed defense minister, while his uncle, Mullah Abdul Manan—whose family hails from the central Uruzgan province but who are effectively adoptive Kandaharis—was put in charge of the Public Works Ministry. Another four appointees, from the provinces of Zabul, Ghazni and Uruzgan, can also be considered closely linked to this group, meaning 16 ministers in total hail from the southern Taliban—almost half of the total.

Essentially, with one exception that I will discuss later on, the best-organized groups within the Taliban won out. Another group fared relatively well, thanks to its full support being sorely needed in Kabul due to the crisis in the northern Panjshir Valley: the ethnic Tajik Taliban of Badakhshan province, who got two appointments, including the key role of army chief of staff. 

The eastern Taliban, not linked to the Haqqani network, also got seven rather junior appointments, but this should not mislead: None of the appointees has a large following in the east, so the eastern Taliban do not have a leader in the Cabinet to forcefully lobby for their interests, apart from the Haqqanis, who have long been working to extend their influence from the southeast toward the east. Former members of the Hizb-i-Islami, a political party that has seen many of its members join the Taliban, were completely ignored despite having a strong and rather cohesive presence in several provinces.

The Taliban may be willing to withstand internal tensions for at least some time, in order to achieve their priority objective: cash.

The big losers, by quite a large margin, were the western and southwestern factions of the Taliban: Not a single one of them made it into the Cabinet. This is striking. To be sure, the western Taliban, like the eastern ones, do not have any figures of a high-enough profile to be obvious candidates for top government jobs. But nothing prevented the Taliban leadership from appointing a few sparse westerners, as they did with the eastern Taliban. 

Even more striking was the omission of the southwestern Taliban, the vast majority of whom are Helmandis. Not only did Helmand probably contribute more fighters to the Taliban than any other province, but it also produced high-profile military leaders, first and foremost Abdul Qayum Zakir and Ibrahim Sadr. Taliban sources told me that both of them were offered jobs as army corps commanders, but they refused as they expected to be appointed to ministerial posts. Ultimately, their grievances were addressed this week in the second wave of Cabinet appointments, when Zakir was appointed as deputy defense minister and Sadr as deputy interior minister. 

The original intention of the Kandaharis seems to have been to appoint a caretaker Cabinet just after the fall of Kabul, with little or no Haqqani representation. But according to Taliban sources, Serajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the network, went on a rampage and demanded a large share of the Cabinet, even asking to become prime minister, hence the need for the ISI to step in and mediate. The ISI convinced the Kandaharis to take in the Haqqanis and give them a roughly proportional representation within the Cabinet, despite concerns raised by many southerners that their presence would make it much harder to gain international recognition. 

It is much less clear, however, why the western and southwestern Taliban were kept out of the top Cabinet posts. Was it also the result of the ISI’s intervention? Sadr’s and Zakir’s names were circulating internally as ministers-in-waiting, so it is doubtful that the original intent was to give them deputy-level posts. One thing that may have played a role is the strong links that the western and southwestern Taliban maintain with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Given that reports emerged in the days leading up to the formation of the Cabinet of a thaw in relations between Saudi Arabia and the Taliban, theories were no doubt circulating in Tehran about a Saudi plot to limit Iranian influence in the new Afghan government in exchange for offers of much-needed cash for the Taliban regime. 

Although Baradar is popular among rank-and-file Talibs, he does not control many loyal followers. He is not in a position to challenge the leadership alone. The Helmandis, however, are. It is worth noting that aside from commanding many men, Sadr, Zakir and various other pro-Iran groups in the west also control the Taliban’s main sources of revenue right now: the smuggling of goods from Iran and of drugs out of Afghanistan. This only makes the initial decision to exclude them from the top echelons of the Cabinet harder to understand, unless there was some big trade-off—big enough to assuage any tensions and reward many. The leadership appears to have come under pressure over this and backtracked later, leading to its decision to appoint Zakir and Sadr as deputy ministers.

The prospect of a big coalition deal, as Baradar wanted to negotiate, seems to have been eclipsed for now. As the Taliban often do, they have placed Baradar “in reserve” until his diplomatic and negotiating skills are needed again. In an interview with Afghan state TV released on Sept. 15, Baradar was visibly upset while reading a pre-written statement in which he denied reports of intra-Taliban divisions and said that he did not meet with the foreign minister of Qatar, who had just made a trip to Kabul, because he was in Kandahar and was not informed of the visit. It was a clear statement by the Taliban leadership that Baradar has been sidelined. 

The Taliban had apparently lost hope in the prospect of early diplomatic recognition from the West even before the government was announced, so they probably thought there would not be much to lose by having the Haqqanis in the Cabinet. The real problem for them is that they must mobilize substantial financial support, and soon, if they wish to keep what is left of the Afghan state afloat. Cash-strapped Iran and Russia are out of the question, which leaves only wealthy powers like China, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Qataris have appeared hesitant to commit, as have the Chinese, despite their initial positive attitude. 

This, again, suggests there may be significant backdoor dealings going on with Saudi Arabia, which was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban-led government during the 1990s. Even if the Taliban manage to get support only from the Saudis this time, without short-term financial benefits, they can still hope to reinvigorate China’s and Qatar’s interest later on. Ultimately, they may be willing to withstand internal tensions for at least some time, in order to achieve this priority objective: cash.

Antonio Giustozzi is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the author of “The Taliban at War” (2019), among other publications.

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