During its nearly 20-year insurgency, the Taliban remained a largely coherent fighting force despite succession crises, competition from Islamic State-Khorasan, and a deadly war against foreign and Afghan forces.
But as the Taliban has attempted to transform from a guerrilla force into a functional government after seizing power in August, there have been mounting reports of infighting within the militant group.
A senior Taliban official last week became the first to openly criticize the Taliban leadership for its repressive policies in Afghanistan. Experts say the rare public rebuke has lifted the lid on widening rifts in the hard-line Islamist group.
“There are unprecedented differences within the Taliban leadership,” says Michael Semple, a former European Union and United Nations adviser in Afghanistan.
Experts say 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 say.
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.
"The differences in matters of policy and moderation are really secondary," says Semple, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast. “The more serious differences are squabbles over the division of powers and privilege. These are the real divisions that the Taliban worry about.”
But Sami Yousafzai, a veteran Afghan journalist and commentator who has tracked the Taliban since its emergence in the 1990s, says most of the rifts within the Taliban are merely differences of opinion and do not amount to factional infighting.
“The Taliban are very serious about their unity and cohesion,” he said. “If someone works or talks against their policies, they are isolated, pushed out, and even killed.”
Yousafzai cites the examples of former Taliban ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef, ex-foreign minister Abdul Wakeel Muttawakil, and moderate Taliban leader Agha Jan Motassim, all of whom were demoted for showing dissent. Meanwhile, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, who formed a splinter group in 2015, was killed in a suicide bombing last year.
“The Taliban are a complete dictatorship, and everyone within its ranks must accept this fact,” said Yousafzai.
Ruling With A ‘Baton’
Last week, the Taliban's deputy foreign minister, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, publicly criticized the Taliban leadership for banning girls from attending secondary school.
“We must aim for winning the hearts of our people rather than ruling over them with batons,” Stanikzai, the former head of the Taliban’s political office in the Gulf state of Qatar, said in a televised speech on May 22.
Semple says political figures like Stanikzai who support ties with the West and the inclusion of non-Taliban political figures in the government do not “have guns” and “don’t command the loyalty of fighters.”
Since returning to power, the Taliban has imposed a series of restrictions on women, including on their appearance, access to work and education, and freedom of movement. The rules are reminiscent of the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s, when the militant Islamists deprived women of their most basic rights.
In March, the Taliban dramatically backtracked on its pledge to reopen high schools for girls. It came after repeated promises to allow all girls access to education, a key demand from the international community for any future recognition of the Taliban-led government.
Observers said the policy reversal reflected rifts in the Taliban leadership. The U-turn was made by Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, who has the final say under the clerically led system. Akhundzada likely opted to appease ultraconservatives within the Taliban, experts said.
‘Talib On Talib’ Violence
Ibraheem Bahiss, an Afghanistan expert, says it is unusual for Taliban officials to publicly oppose the policies of the spiritual leader.
“The public opposition [from Taliban officials] to recent government decisions could be partly a way to figure out how to navigate intra-movement differences and influence policies," he said.
Bahiss says the Taliban is divided into two camps. He says one believes that restrictive decrees will make international recognition and sanctions removal harder to achieve. The other, he says, believes that compromises will not lead to better ties with the West and the group should instead focus on bolstering its Islamist credentials and consolidate its control.
“The Taliban appear divided in reemploying policies similar to their emirate of the 1990s or treading a new path still in line with their ideology,” he said.
But Semple says the infighting within the Taliban has moved beyond bickering over policies. He says he has documented regular cases of “Talib on Talib" violence in Afghanistan.
“Any idea that they are so united that they could never fight against each other is complete nonsense,” he said.