Divisions within the Afghan Taliban: An Opportunity for Peace?

Over the past 17 years of war in Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban has suffered several splits and realignments. The Taliban’s internal divisions have become especially evident after news of its founder and leader Mullah Omar’s death broke out in 2015. Since then, the Afghan Taliban has witnessed a severe leadership crisis and growing indiscipline within its ranks. U.S. officials have identified “signs of friction and disagreement” within the Taliban leadership, field commanders have defied the orders of top leaders, and high-level officials have resigned.

This internal fragmentation in recent years has provided the Afghan government with opportunities to exploit the Taliban’s differences and weaken the group militarily and psychologically. Despite these opportunities, the Afghan government has so far been unsuccessful in dividing and breaking the Taliban insurgency, largely due to its own internal fragmentation and insufficient security capabilities. However, last month’s Eid ceasefire has exposed further discontent within the Taliban’s ranks, presenting another chance for the Afghan government to gain an upper hand in this decades-long conflict. At a time when the Afghan Taliban controls much of the country and has established an efficient shadow government, the Afghan government must act soon if it hopes to exploit the Taliban’s internal divisions.

A Resurgent but Divided Taliban

Recent reports write of an increase in the Afghan Taliban’s strength and influence. According to a 2017 assessment by the Long War Journal, the Taliban controls or contests 45 percent of Afghan districts. The extent of Taliban control in Afghanistan is also reflected in a report published in June by the Overseas Development Institute, according to which the Taliban has built a successful shadow government in several parts of the country. The report notes that even in areas where the Taliban may not formally be in control, government officials are often in direct contact and cooperation with the Taliban. Additionally, the Afghan Taliban has promoted itself as a solution to the government’s perceived inefficiency and corruption, particularly in rural areas, where it has established what many Afghans see as a swift and fair justice system.

The Afghan government’s previous efforts to take advantage of these rifts within the Taliban and push its leaders towards peace talks by supporting breakaway factions have not yielded significant results.

However, the Taliban’s gains in territory and power have also been accompanied by internal fragmentation and division, particularly after the news of Mullah Omar’s death in the summer of 2015. A report published by Conciliation Resources in June features interviews with representatives of five regional Taliban “caucuses,” some of whom express criticism of other factions and the central Taliban leadership. Between the news of Omar’s death and December 2017, there were at least 60 recorded incidents of open combat between rival Taliban factions. Additionally, the forces of the Islamic State-Khorasan Province, which competes with the Taliban for power in the country’s eastern regions, include a number of former disgruntled Taliban commanders.

The Afghan government’s previous efforts to take advantage of these rifts within the Taliban and push its leaders towards peace talks by supporting breakaway factions have not yielded significant results. For example, the government’s decision to choose sides and aid the followers of Mullah Rasool, who broke off from the main Taliban group in 2015, turned out to be a temporary move and not a long-term strategy. The “Mullah Rasool group” has since lost its initial vigor and appeal in relation to the wider Taliban movement.

The Eid Ceasefire

Despite the Afghan government’s previous failures in capitalizing on the Taliban’s divisions to persuade it to join peace talks, narratives surrounding the recent Eid ceasefire between the government and Taliban indicate prospects for the Afghanistan peace process. In various news reports, Taliban fighters and mid-level commanders spoke about how exhausted they were with the war, and – much to the dismay of the Taliban leadership – openly mingled with Afghan government forces during the ceasefire. These dynamics indicate a possibility of escalating friction between the Taliban and its leadership, and they could potentially increase the number of voices in favor of peace talks. Such a scenario presents the Afghan government with a renewed opportunity to exploit the Taliban’s differences and weaken its hardline elements, who believe that a military victory is possible.

However, it is important to note that many Afghans – civilians and Taliban fighters alike – also view the government unfavorably, describing it as corrupt, ineffective, or favoring one ethnic group over another. Even as some Taliban factions express the desire to become autonomous, they also refuse to surrender to or negotiate with government forces, suggesting that the government has failed to establish trust with factions who might actually be interested in peace. As a result, despite internal divisions, the Taliban’s hardliners have been able to sustain the insurgency.

Moving Forward

While the Eid ceasefire may have exposed discontent and frustration within Taliban ranks, any further delay on the government’s part could yet again diminish the possibilities for peace. Apart from improving its quality of governance, particularly in rural areas, the Afghan government should engage in meaningful confidence-building measures, such as the recent ceasefire, peace proposals, and prisoner exchanges. Such exercises would embolden the Taliban members who support negotiations, and would also enable to them to garner support of other leaders of the group.

While the Eid ceasefire may have exposed discontent and frustration within Taliban ranks, any further delay on the government’s part could yet again diminish the possibilities for peace.

Additionally, prospects for peace in Afghanistan are further complicated by the financial support given by regional powers such as Russia, Iran, and China to various Taliban factions. This financial support from foreign governments has arguably eliminated any incentive for Taliban factions to work with the Afghan government. Thus, any effort by the Afghan government to negotiate with the Taliban’s numerous factions would also require a consensus among regional actors to cease their support for the Afghan Taliban.

Finally, the Afghan government must remain cautious of the gains made by the Taliban, in terms of territorial control and influence among Afghan citizens. Further victories have the potential to place the Afghan Taliban on a higher pedestal and reduce incentives for its members to break away or surrender. In such a scenario, it would be too late for the Afghan government to exploit the Taliban’s divisions and engage with factions who are genuinely interested in peace. If the Afghan government hopes to succeed, it must act now.

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Image 1: U.S. Marines Photo by Cpl. Logan E. Riddle via Flickr

Image 2: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP via Getty

Posted in , Afghanistan, China, Geopolitics, Internal Security, Militancy, Pakistan, Peace, Russia

Neha Dwivedi

Neha Dwivedi

Neha Dwivedi is an SAV Visiting Fellow, July 2018. She holds a Master’s degree in Geopolitics and International Relations from Manipal Academy of Higher Education in Manipal, India. Her research interests include Afghanistan, emerging geopolitics of the Middle East, refugee crises, Islam and identity politics, and regional aspects of human rights. Previously, she was associated with the Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development (CSIRD) in Kolkata as a research intern. She has also contributed articles for The Diplomat magazine. Formerly, she worked as a journalist at the online news platform, Saddahaq.

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One thought on “Divisions within the Afghan Taliban: An Opportunity for Peace?

  1. Neha:
    Well done.
    We in the US need help figuring out the Taliban.
    It’s good to host you at Stimson–
    MK

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