One year after toppling the internationally recognized Afghan government and seizing power, the Taliban has consolidated its tight grip over the war-torn country.
The extremist group has monopolized power, sidelining many ethnic and political groups. It has also jailed and beaten journalists and rights defenders who have protested the Taliban’s severe restrictions on women’s rights and press freedom.
The small, albeit sustained, resistance to Taliban rule has failed to make significant inroads. Meanwhile, the militants have waged a bloody war against the rival Islamic State- Khorasan (IS-K) extremist group. The Taliban’s campaign has blunted, but not defeated IS-K, which has continued to stage deadly bombings in major cities.
Experts said the biggest threat to the Taliban is growing disunity. Rifts have widened as rival factions tussle for political power and economic resources.
No country has recognized the Taliban. But Western powers keen to soften its harsh policies and avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan have maintained dialogue with the extremist group. Allegations that the Taliban harbored Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul, has jeopardized the group’s aim to gain international legitimacy and aid, observers said.
Armed And Unarmed Opposition
"For the Taliban, it is a very big deal that their current government is the only regime in Afghanistan's past four-decade history that controls the entire country," said Sami Yousafzai, a veteran Afghan journalist and commentator who has tracked the Taliban since its emergence in the 1990s.
The Taliban’s territorial dominance, he said, will likely prevent a civil war like in the 1990s when neighboring countries armed rival Afghan factions that each held ground in different parts of the country. Even after the Taliban prevailed in the civil war in 1996, it was unable to conquer all of Afghanistan before it was toppled from power after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
“Afghanistan’s neighbors have been surprised at the military strength of the Taliban, despite their economic vulnerability," said Yousafzai. “They all know that another civil war in Afghanistan will not resolve anything but will open up a new Pandora’s box.”
A handful of small armed groups have opposed Taliban rule in different regions of the country. But they remain weak, divided, and have no sanctuary or outside help, experts said.
“They pose mostly an annoyance, not a threat to the Taliban regime,” said Marvin Weinbaum, the director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington.
The most potent anti-Taliban group is the National Resistance Front (NRF), led by Ahmad Masud, son of former mujahedin commander Ahmad Shah Masud, who used his native Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan as a base to fight Soviet forces in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s.
The NRF has staged deadly, sporadic attacks against the Taliban but has been unable to wrest control of the valley. The militant group has used brute force to quell the resistance, including the alleged killing and torture of resistance fighters and the detention and beating of civilians.
Weinbaum said Afghanistan’s neighbors and foreign powers are uninterested in igniting a broader civil war by arming resistance groups.
“They would prefer there to be a government in Kabul stable enough to facilitate international efforts to deal with a humanitarian crisis that could unleash a flood of refugees,” he said, adding that the international community also wants to contain the threat posed by transnational militant groups like IS-K in Afghanistan.
The Taliban has also violently suppressed peaceful opposition to its rule.
Human rights campaigners have accused the Taliban of carrying out extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture, and forced confessions as part of its effort to crush dissent. The militants have targeted human rights defenders, women activists, journalists, and intellectuals.
WATCH: A year after Taliban forces entered Kabul and seized control of the Afghan capital, questions remain about what exactly happened. The accounts of three key players offer differing perspectives: former U.S. special representative Zalmay Khalilzad, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, and ousted Afghan president Ashraf Ghani.
The Taliban has violently dispersed peaceful protests staged by women demanding their basic rights. The once vibrant Afghan media has also been largely silenced through the intimidation, detention, and beatings of reporters.
Experts said the biggest threat to the Taliban is internal divisions. As the Taliban has attempted to transform from an insurgency into a functional government after seizing power, there have been mounting reports of infighting within the militant group.
Squabbles over the distribution of power and economic resources have even spilled over into violence. The Taliban waged a deadly military campaign against a dissident commander in northern Afghanistan in June. Observers said the fighting was over the control of lucrative coal mines.
Experts said the Taliban, made up predominately of Pashtuns, is divided along ethnic, regional, and tribal lines. There are also differences among the militant over policy, they said.
There is believed to be growing competition between the Haqqani network -- a Taliban faction based in the east -- and a faction of Taliban co-founders in the south of the country. There is also a smaller and less powerful faction of ethnic Tajik and Uzbek Taliban commanders who are based in northern Afghanistan.
There have also been rifts between the Taliban's relatively pragmatic political figures, hard-line field commanders, and radical clerics who are bent on implementing their fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law.
Weinbaum said there have been strong disagreements between rival Taliban factions. But he said the faction led by southern Taliban leaders has the final say.
“There seems a conscious effort to avoid the kind of fractures that could undermine the regime’s grip on power and therefore a strong incentive to reconcile differences,” he said.
'Spanner In The Works'
Experts said the July 31 killing of Zawahri in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul could prove to be a tipping point for the Taliban.
In the wake of the killing, the United States accused the Taliban of harboring Zawahri, in violation of the 2020 Doha agreement. Under that deal, which paved the way for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban pledged to deny sanctuary to the terrorist network. The Taliban claimed it did not know about Zawahri's presence in Kabul.
The United States invaded Afghanistan after the Taliban refused to hand over the Al-Qaeda leaders that Washington held responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"The discovery of Zawahri in downtown Kabul throws a spanner in the works for Taliban efforts to gain legitimacy and help from the Western world," said Asfandyar Mir, a senior analyst at the United States Institute of Peace think tank in Washington. "I think that will be a major challenge for the Taliban going forward."
Graeme Smith, an Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the “over-the-horizon” U.S. operation that killed Zawahri was likely a one-off. He does not envisage a broader U.S. military campaign against terrorists based in Afghanistan.
Smith added that Zawahri’s killing has complicated Western cooperation with the Taliban. He referred to the suspension of talks between U.S. officials and the Taliban over the $3.5 billion in frozen Afghan central bank reserves that Washington indicated it could release to support macroeconomic stability in Afghanistan.
“Mistrust deepens when the Taliban are not at all honest about the Al-Qaeda threat on the ground,” said Smith.