The Taliban war machine is in full-swing. Insurgents are grabbing more land in the Afghan countryside while pulling off sophisticated attacks in the cities.
The insurgent violence has intensified despite snow covering the Hindu Kush Mountains, which has traditionally heralded a lull in fighting during the harsh winter.
The Taliban, however, are unlikely to convert their battlefield advantage into solid political gains, as the insurgents grapple with a complex and deepening leadership struggle.
This month various Taliban factions issued lengthy fatwas, or Islamic religious edicts, either challenging or defending Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur's right to succeed the Taliban’s founding leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. Omar’s death was confirmed by insurgents in late July, more than two years after his actual death in April 2013. Following the announcement, Mansur assumed the Taliban leadership in a hasty transition.
The former aviation minister was said to have already been the de-facto Taliban leader in the years preceding Omar's death, and he managed to tighten his grip on power by appointing loyalists to key posts in the Taliban leadership council. But his formal appointment in July divided the council, with some leaders and commanders forming separate factions and others resigning from their posts.
In the latest blow to Mansur's legitimacy, former top Taliban military commander Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir has questioned his leadership. In a letter attributed to Zakir posted by a website run by a former Taliban leader, Zakir accused Mansur of making a power grab after the news of Mullah Omar's death was made public this summer.
In the Pashto-language letter published December 9, Zakir claims that he boycotted the deliberations to choose Omar's successor after his suggestion to consult key Taliban field commanders and all leadership council members were rejected.
"As a result, today we see that the Taliban movement is divided into many factions. Many Taliban members have been killed and scores injured in infighting among these groups," he wrote.
Zakir claims that he knew of Omar's death back in 2013 and didn't object to the changes in the leadership council that began months after his death. "For the sake of Taliban unity, I conveyed my advice to Mansur secretly, but it was never accepted," he wrote.
Such festering disagreements between fugitive Taliban leaders boiled to the surface this summer.
Hundreds of fighters have died in clashes between Mansur's supporters, who sill identify themselves by the movement's formal name, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and former Taliban commanders and leadership council members.
Mullah Masoor Dadullah, the younger brother of the late Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, has been the most prominent casualty of Taliban infighting so far. Dadullah, his elder bother Haji Lala, and many members of their families and loyalists were killed during fierce clashes in the southern Afghan province of Zabul last month.
Mansur's faction also claims to have crushed the Central Asian fighters affiliated with the Islamic State militants and allied with Dadullah. The predominantly Uzbek fighters were previously associated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
A least a hundred more fighters were killed this month in clashes between Mansur's supporters and militants loyal to a rival faction led by Mullah Mohammad Rasul in the western Afghan province of Herat.
Zakir is now calling on all factions to stop fighting. "If you are fighting for your name, ego, weapons, home region, tribe, or personal benefits, then how can you claim to be different than the [anti-Soviet] mujahedin [whose infighting and atrocities] prompted Mullah Mohammad Omar and the Taliban movement to rise up against them [in the 1990s]," he said.
Zakir was a key military commander during the Taliban stint in power in the 1990s. He spent seven years in the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay after the demise of the Taliban regime in 2001. He rose through the Taliban ranks after his release in 2009. As a deputy to Mullah Omar and the top military commander, he led a Taliban counter-offensive after the U.S. and NATO troops surged to nearly 150,000 in 2010.
Zakir emerged as Mansur's key rival in 2013, but went into isolation after he was sacked by Mansur in 2014. While claiming to remain neutral in the Taliban leadership struggle so far, Zakir now appears to getting even with Mansur.
In the closing sentence of his letter, Zakir backed a recent fatwa by former leading pro-Taliban clerics who questioned Mansur's status as Amir al-Muminin, or Leader of The Faithful, the formal title of the Taliban leader.
The 15-page fatwa makes complicated theological arguments and cites Sunni Islamic texts extensively to challenge Mansur's selection in July.
"We do not have a legitimate Amir al-Muminin compliant with Sharia law in Afghanistan today," the fatwa declared. "We don't have anyone whose orders are obligatory, so the mujahedin [Taliban] should not declare each other rebels."
In a direct challenge to Mansur's leadership, the fatwa calls on the Taliban to stop obeying a leader whose pronouncements do not comply with the teaching of Sharia.
In addition to eliminating dissidents, Mansur's supporters are using the formidable insurgent propaganda machine to forcefully counter theological arguments questioning his leadership.
Muhammad Ismail Rahmani, a senior Taliban cleric issued a lengthy rebuttal to the fatwa. In the 40 minute audio recording posted on the Taliban Voice of Jihad website on December 9, Rahmani says that 25 clerics choose Mansur as Mullah Omar's successor in July.
"His [Mansur's] appointment is absolutely inline with [the teachings] of Islamic Sharia law," Rahmani claimed. "He meets all the requirements of a Muslim leader. He is a [true] Muslim [believer]. He is independent, wise and capable and he is learned in Islamic [theological] studies and has successfully braved many crises."
Rahmani argues that obeying Mansur is obligatory for all Taliban members. "Those who oppose him are wrong," he claimed. "If anyone has doubts, I am ready to sit with them and try to convince them in the light of [religious] texts."
A lengthy essay on a pro-Taliban website mocked some of the 30 clerics who signed the anti-Mansur fatwa. It call some of the clerics "habitual conspirators."
"They are posing as if they are trying to prevent infighting and bloodshed among Muslims but instead they are provoking a grand rebellion," the essay said.