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The Looming Coup Within The Taliban

File photo of the Taliban’s Qatar office spokesman Muhammad Naeem.
File photo of the Taliban’s Qatar office spokesman Muhammad Naeem.

As China braces itself to host the second round of direct peace talks between the Afghan government and its Taliban enemies, the hard-line insurgents are struggling to contain a budding rivalry among their top ranks.

Taliban insiders say the first direct meeting between their leaders and Afghan government representatives in Pakistan on July 7 has divided their movement into two camps.

One group, including the top current leader of the Taliban, supports peace talks and bowed to Pakistani pressure to participate in meetings with Afghan officials.

The other faction opposes negotiations and is positioning itself to claim the leadership of the ultra-conservative Islamist movement that has previously shunned major divisions.

The more than decade-long absence of the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, doesn't help these divisions, as disgruntled Taliban members, small splinter groups, and former jihadist allies now openly question whether he is even alive.

Biannual policy statements are still issued in his name. In the latest such message, released to mark the end of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, Omar endorsed peace talks with Kabul.

While Afghan President Ashraf Ghani welcomed the July 15 statement, the insurgent ranks viewed it with heavy skepticism.

Taliban sources in southern Afghanistan have questioned the veracity of the latest statement from their supreme leader.

"Mullah Omar is either dead or in Pakistani detention. He had no control over the Eid message that was issued under his name," a senior Taliban figure told me. "If Loy Mullah Sahib (Pashto for senior religious leader) really wanted to, he could have sent a video or audio message to refute the claims of his death."

For years the Taliban have failed to produce audio or video recordings of their leader.

Taliban commanders are looking at Omar's current and former top deputies as competitors for the overall leadership of the former student militia that captured most of Afghanistan in the 1990s and has largely remained united during nearly 14 years of fighting against Western and Afghan troops after the demise of their regime in late 2001.

The Taliban's current deputy leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, tightened his grip over the group's leadership council last year by sacking Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir, the top Taliban military commander.

Mawlawi Amin (name changed), a confidant of Zakir's, said Mansour wrote the Eid message to endorse peace talks with Kabul. Earlier this month, Afghanistan's deputy foreign minister, Hekmat Khalil Karzai, who led the government delegation in talks with the Taliban, confirmed that Mansour had authorized the Taliban negotiators to present insurgent demands in the July 7 meeting in Murree, a mountainous resort near Islamabad.

Mansour has long been accused of seizing power and taking advantage of Omar's absence. He is seen as backing peace talks because of promises from Afghanistan and pressure from Pakistan. In addition, fears that his rivals are growing stronger within the Taliban and would eventually challenge his leadership are also seen as influencing his political calculations.

"Mansour is leading the show, and so far he is playing well," Amin said. "By sending such messages under Mullah Omar’s name, he aims to strengthen the pro-peace negotiations position within the Taliban so that no one can dare to rebel against him."

Amin said that Mansour controls the Taliban propaganda machine and was behind removing articles critical of peace talks and Pakistan's role from the Taliban website.

On July 9, the Taliban published a hard-hitting English-language commentary on its website, Voice of Jihad. Titled A Pakistani Roulette: Pakistani-Brokered Peace Talks, the commentary warned that "the high stakes gambit" could prove "catastrophic" for Pakistan.

The article, however, was removed four hours after it was posted.

Hinting at a looming coup, Amin said Zakir would not allow Mansour to "sell mujahedin" to Pakistan or the Afghan government. He warned that progress in peace talks will prompt Taliban fighters and commanders to support Zakir against Mansour.

Likewise, members of the Taliban's political office in Qatar are not happy with the Pakistan-brokered talks and refrained from participating in the Murree meeting.

A vague statement by the Taliban on July 8 emphasized that its political office has the "sole responsibility" to "conduct or postpone, in light of Islamic principles and national interests, negotiations with internal and foreign parties." But it refrained from acknowledging that the Qatar office is currently in charge of executing such initiatives.

An Afghan source familiar with the details of the Murree meeting said the Mansour-led leadership council had assigned Mullah Jalil, a former Taliban deputy foreign minister, to mediate between them and the Qatar office. The leadership is often called the Quetta Shura after the southwestern Pakistani city where it is believed to be based.

In May, the source said, Jalil and two colleagues, Mullah Hassan Rahmani and Abdul Razaq, held secret talks with Afghan officials in China. Jalil's former Taliban colleagues accuse him of having "close ties" with Pakistan's spy service, the Inter-service Intelligence (ISI). Rahmani, Taliban sources say, has been serving as the Quetta Shura's liaison with Pakistan for years.

Pakistani officials hope the next meeting would include members of the Qatar office. With Jalil's efforts, some Taliban officials working in the Qatar office might now defect to Mansour.

But Tayyab Agha, the head of the Qatar office, and his comrades would side with Zakir. Taliban and Afghan officials say Agha turned against Islamabad because Pakistani intelligence agents mistreated his family members in recent past.

Many Taliban are skeptical of Pakistani intentions. A source close to the Taliban leadership council recently told me that, like Kabul and the Taliban, Islamabad is also divided over Afghan peace negotiations.

"One group within the powerful Pakistani military establishment is pushing us to negotiate while others oppose them," he said.

The source said the anti-peace lobby in the Pakistani establishment now has the upper hand. "Some of our colleagues were arrested not because they opposed negotiations with Kabul but for actually supporting peace talks."

Afghanistan's Pajhwok news agency reported on July 23 that Pakistani security forces have detained the chief of the Taliban's Ulema Council. Composed of senior clerics, the body is responsible for justifying insurgent actions by issuing religious edicts.

Islamabad has not commented on the alleged arrest of Sheikh Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai.

In a sign of the growing rift, the source said a majority of Quetta Shura members have demanded that Mansour should take their representatives to meet Mullah Omar.

The China meeting can now prove a defining moment for separating the Taliban members who support peace talks from those who opposed to it. Kabul is expected to push Islamabad to go after Taliban leaders not willing to participate in the peace process.

Hekmatullah Azamy (@HekmatAzamy) is a research analyst with the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies (CAPS) in Kabul, Afghanistan. These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.