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Taliban divisions deepen as hardliners seek spoils of war


By SJA Jafri + Bureau Report + Agencies

KABUL/ ISLAMABAD: There have been reports of divisions among the Taliban leadership, raising questions about the unity within the group which took over the country last month.

The public’s doubts about the group’s unity only increased earlier this month, when Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy prime minister, seemed to have disappeared from public view then reports came that he had been killed.

When he did reappear, it was with a pre-recorded statement. Baradar, clearly reading from some sort of a statement, said his fading from the public eye was the result of travel, and that the Taliban, “have compassion among ourselves, more than a family”.

In a final bid to ease suspicions about his death or injury, Baradar was photographed attending a meeting with United Nations officials on Monday. However, diplomatic and political sources have told media that the discord among the Taliban leadership is very real, adding that if the disharmony grows, it will spell further trouble for the Afghan people.

A writer and reporter who have spent several years covering the Taliban said the divisions are the result of a political-military divide. The hardliners, he said, “feel that they are owed things for 20 years of fighting”.

Awaiting the spoils of war

A political source who has had a decades-long relationship with the Taliban’s top brass agrees. He says the effects of that rift extend from the halls of power to the streets, where the Taliban fighters have been going through major cities and forcefully taking the belongings of former officials and their families.

“Right now, all they care about is taking people’s cars and houses.”

Families of former officials have told media that Taliban fighters have tried to seize their belongings, including homes they rented and their private cars.

This is despite the deputy minister of information and culture, Zabihullah Mujahid, saying two days after the Taliban took over the country that “we have instructed everyone not to enter anybody’s house, whether they’re civilians or military”. At that same August 17 media briefing, Mujahid went on to say, “There are a huge difference between us and the previous government.”

However, to those familiar with the situation, the current Taliban leadership is facing many of the same issues with factions as the government of former President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country the day the Taliban took Kabul.

Sources speaking to media said as with other Afghan governments, the divisions among the Taliban fall along personality lines. But unlike previous administrations, the Taliban does not just suffer from overly ambitious members or opposing political views, its split is much more fundamental.

Currently, the Taliban, said the sources, is made up of fighters still awaiting the spoils of war versus politicians who want to assuage the fears of the Afghan people and the international community.

Diplomatic recognition

Several nations have already publicly stated their unwillingness to accept a Taliban-led government in Afghanistan, with the five permanent UN Security Council members on Wednesday asking the Taliban to be more inclusive.

Afghanistan has been facing a liquidity crunch as the country is cut off from international financial organizations, while the United States froze more than $9bn in funds after the Taliban took over the country.

The reporter, who wished to remain anonymous due to security reasons, said that leaders like Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob, the current defence minister and son of the group’s founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, is one of the figures representing the hard-line, military-focused faction of the Taliban.

Others, like Baradar and Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, represent the more politically minded branches who wanted to create a more inclusive state.

Another point of contention for the two factions is the role of regional neighbors, Pakistan and Iran which have long been accused of supporting the Taliban during its 20-year armed rebellion.

Hardline faction

Many leaders of the hardline faction, who were arrested by Pakistan, are suspicious of Islamabad. Several of those have instead leaned towards supporting Iran.

Suspicions of Pakistan rose when the chief of Pakistani’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), visited Kabul just before the announcement of the cabinet. The reporter said General Faiz Hameed called for a more inclusive government, which would make room for Shia Muslims and women, but that the hardliners, already suspicious of Islamabad, refused.

When Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan also called for an inclusive government, a Taliban leader, Mohammad Mobeen, went on national television to criticize Khan, saying the group does not “give anyone” the right to call for an inclusive government, and that Afghanistan reserves “the right to have our own system”.

For weeks, the Taliban had been courting erstwhile officials like former President Hamid Karzai, former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and Gul Agha Sherzai, who served as governor of Nangarhar and Kandahar provinces.

At the time, many Afghans assumed these figures would be included in the much-promised inclusive government. However, a former diplomat said that hardliners in the group had said from the start that anyone who spent “even a day” in previous administrations would not be given seats in a new Taliban-run government.

This left only the group’s own ranks as choices to head various ministries and directorates.

To the outside world, the current government, which the Taliban referred to as “temporary”, is anything but inclusive. However, to people familiar with the matter, even with all of the mullahs and other scholars named as acting ministers and directors, the current structure is actually very accommodating to the various subsets within the Taliban. During his television appearance, Mobeen also said that the current administration was very inclusive.

“This is the best it’s going to get. The government won’t become any more inclusive,” the reporter said of the lack of ethnic diversity or inclusion of any democrats or technocrats in the administration.

The real power

On Tuesday, the group announced additional members of the cabinet, mostly deputy ministers, but went to great lengths to point out that the new appointments were meant to address questions of diversity and qualifications in their administration.

The selections included figures from Panjshir and Baghlan. Panjshir is home to the National Resistance Front, which launched a sole large-scale effort to try and keep the Taliban from taking over the entire country. Baghlan has also seen pockets of resistance in some districts over the last month.

The Taliban was careful to point out that three of the new posts would be given to residents of Panjshir, Baghlan and Sar-e Pol, provinces with considerable Tajik and Uzbek populations. Though the group has made room for Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen, there are still no Shias, Hazaras or any other minority group in their government.

The real power, said the sources, lies among a secretive shura (the advisory body) in Kandahar, where the group claims their current chief, Hibutallah Akhunzada, is based. This circle is seen as the real decision-makers in Afghanistan going forward.

“The government doesn’t have the power,” said the reporter.

Several Taliban leaders were apparently upset with their positions in the new administration.

Diplomatic and political sources said based on their current actions on the streets of Kabul, there are fears that regional and more personal feuds among the rank and file Taliban will lead to skirmishes or battles in the capital and other provinces.

“The battles for political seats are one thing, but when their soldiers start fighting based on their longstanding feuds, nowhere will be safe.”

Meanwhile, be realistic. Show patience. Engage. And above all, do not isolate. Those are the pillars of an approach emerging in Pakistan to deal with a fledgling Taliban government that is once again running Afghanistan next door.

Pakistan’s government is proposing that the international community develop a road map that leads to diplomatic recognition of the Taliban – with incentives if they fulfil its requirements – and then sit down face to face and talk it out with the group’s leaders.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi outlined the idea on Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s meeting of world leaders.

“If they live up to those expectations, they would make it easier for themselves, they will get acceptability, which is required for recognition,” Qureshi told the AP.

“At the same time, the international community has to realise: What is the alternative? What are the options? This is the reality, and can they turn away from this reality?”

‘Be more realistic’

Qureshi said Pakistan “is in sync with the international community” in wanting to see a peaceful, stable Afghanistan with no space for terrorist elements to increase their foothold, and for the Taliban to ensure “that Afghan soil is never used again against any country”, “but we are saying, be more realistic in your approach,” Qureshi said. “Try an innovative way of engaging with them. The way that they were being dealt with has not worked.”

Expectations from the Taliban leadership could include an inclusive government and assurances for human rights, especially for women and girls, Qureshi said.

In turn, he said, the Afghan government might be motivated by receiving development, economic and reconstruction aid to help recover from decades of war.

He urged the United States, the International Monetary Fund and other countries that have frozen Afghan government funds to immediately release the money so it can be used “for promoting normalcy in Afghanistan”.

And he pledged that Pakistan is ready to play a “constructive, positive” role in opening communications channels with the Taliban because it, too, benefits from peace and stability.

This is the second time the Taliban has ruled Afghanistan. The first time, from 1996 to 2001, ended when they were removed by a US-led coalition after the 9/11 attacks.

During that rule, Taliban leaders and police barred girls from school and banned women from working outside the home or leaving it without a male escort.

After their rule was overthrown, Afghan women still faced challenges in the male-dominated society but increasingly stepped into powerful positions in government and numerous fields but when the US withdrew its military from Afghanistan last month, the government collapsed and a new generation of the Taliban resurged, taking over almost immediately. In the weeks since, many countries have expressed disappointment that the Taliban’s interim government is not inclusive as its spokesman had promised.

While the new government has allowed young girls to attend school, it has not yet allowed older girls to return to secondary school, and most women to return to work despite a promise in April that women “can serve their society in the education, business, health and social fields while maintaining correct Islamic hijab”.

‘Let the situation evolve’

Pakistan, which shares a long border with Afghanistan, has a long and sometimes conflicted relationship with its neighbor that includes attempts to prevent terrorism there and, some say, also encouraging it.

Islamabad has a fundamental vested interest in ensuring that whatever the new Afghanistan offers, it is not a threat to Pakistan.

That, Qureshi says, requires a steady and calibrated approach.

“It has to be a realistic assessment, a pragmatic view on both sides, and that will set the tone for recognition eventually,” the Pakistani minister said.

The good news, he said: The Taliban is listening, “and they are not insensitive to what is being said by neighbors and the international community”.

How does he know they are listening? He says the interim government, drawn mostly from Afghanistan’s dominant Pashtun ethnic group, made some additions on Tuesday. It added representatives from the country’s ethnic minorities, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, who are Shia Muslims in a Sunni-majority country.

“Yes, there are no women yet,” Qureshi said. “But let us let the situation evolve.”

He stressed that the Taliban must make decisions in coming days and weeks that will enhance their acceptability.

“What the international community can do, in my view, is sit together and work out a road map,” Qureshi said.

“And if they fulfil those expectations, this is what the international community can do to help them stabilize their economy. This is the humanitarian assistance that can be provided. This is how they can help rebuild Afghanistan, reconstruction and so on and so forth.”

He added: “With this road map ahead, I think an international engagement can be more productive.”

‘Positive sign’

On Wednesday night, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said after a meeting of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council that all five nations – the US, China, Britain, Russia and France, want “an Afghanistan at peace, stable, where humanitarian aid can be distributed without problems or discrimination”.

He also hoped for an “Afghanistan where the rights of women and girls are respected, an Afghanistan that won’t be a sanctuary for terrorism, an Afghanistan where we have an inclusive government representing the different sectors of the population”.

Qureshi said there are different forums where the international community can work out the best way to approach the situation.

In the meantime, he asserted, things seem to be stabilizing.

Less than six weeks after the Taliban seized power on August 15, he said, Pakistan has received information that the law and order situation has improved, fighting has stopped and many internally displaced Afghans are going home.

“That’s a positive sign,” Qureshi said.

He said Pakistan has not seen a new influx of Afghan refugees, a sensitive issue for Pakistanis, who are highly motivated to prevent it.

A humanitarian crisis, a foundering economy and workers who return to jobs and school but are not getting salaries and do not have money could cause Afghans to flee across the porous border into Pakistan, which has suffered economically from such arrivals over decades of conflict.

Qureshi prescribed patience and realism. After all, he says, every previous attempt to stabilize Afghanistan has failed, so do not expect new efforts to produce immediate success with the Taliban.

If the US and its allies “could not convince them or eliminate them in two decades, how will you do it in the next two months or the next two years?” he wondered.

Asked whether he had a prediction of what Afghanistan might be like in six months, Qureshi turned the question back on his AP interviewer, replying: “Can you guarantee me the US behavior over the next six months?”

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