Rumors about the internal division of the Taliban began soon after their return to power in 2021. Power struggles among the regime’s top-tier military and political leadership—confounded by personal ambitions as well as tribal and ideological fault lines—reportedly drives internal splits, with the regime’s ban on female education and employment further increasing the rifts. Monopolizing decision-making power in the hands of the regime’s supreme leader in Kandahar, Hibatullah Akhundzada, who entertains a dystopian and ultraorthodox outlook, is assumed to have antagonized the more pragmatic political leadership of the group in Kabul. The reported splits led to concomitant predictions regarding potential power-change scenarios within the regime, including an internal putsch against the supreme leader or a shift toward more consensus-based decision-making processes.
Despite such speculations and predictions, the Taliban regime has maintained its cohesion and demonstrated unshaken resolve in imposing its draconian rule. Since its establishment, the regime has effectively enforced its’ decisions, which is a rarity throughout the history of Afghanistan given its unruly terrain and complicated ethno-tribal social fabric.
This cohesion also runs counter to the Taliban’s history of heterogeneity. Since its establishment in the 1990s, the movement has never been a monolith, but rather a collective of militant groups with distinct regional and tribal affiliations, contrasting political attitudes (radical, ultraorthodox, reactionaries, and some moderate), and different ideological and sectarian orientations.
This heterogeneity allows the Taliban to unite groups with different social and political ideologies toward a shared fundamental mission that is beyond mundane politics—the obligation of establishing the rule of the divine. The existence of various militant groups pragmatically creates a balance of power and deters the consolidating of military force in the hands of a few. Various military groups within the regime provide a counterweight to each other in a power equilibrium, which ensures the survival of the regime in the face of various threats, including internal factions and fault lines.
A Political Mission Beyond Politics
The raison d’être of the Taliban is to establish a “true” Islamic order driven by the supremacy of the divine. Unlike the rights-based obligation of the Westphalian state to protect individual rights and the common good of the people, the Taliban regime seeks the salvation of people on the path ordained by God. As such, instead of rationalizing the rights-based relationship between the state and the people, the Taliban has mandated its regime to enforce divine (Sharia) rule and ensure that the people follow the “righteous” and “true” path. Hence, the fundamental mission of the state is celestial, not mundane politics.
Internalizing such a mission shapes the ideological contours and behavior of the regime. Externally, it aligns the regime with other like-minded actors, including al-Qaeda and the Tahrek Taliban of Pakistan (TTP). Internally, the divine mission serves as a unifying moral and religious rationale for an array of diverse constituent groups to converge on a single “divine” mission, whose arbiter is the supreme leader.
Before their designations, none of the three Taliban’s supreme leaders was known for mundane qualities such as political leadership, military/strategic vision, or social influence. Although these traits are crucial for political and administrative functions, the group identifies its leaders primarily through spiritual/religious attributes such as piety, devotion (to Sharia), righteousness, and poise. The Taliban considers their supreme leaders as revivers, who have realigned politics in the service of the divine mission. Such an extraordinary portfolio places their supreme leaders above politics. Any political disagreements or ideological and identity-based variations become secondary to the divine obligation of the supreme leader. And any norm or practices repugnant to his obligations is deemed corrupt and void.
Heterogeneity as a Stabilizing Factor
The Taliban regime’s military is composed of various militant groups with distinct regional, tribal, and ideological affiliations. These groups, commanded by individual Taliban military leaders, balance one another’s power. Such power dynamics minimize strategic instability within the regime. The lack of a centralized and unitary military formation prevents the accumulation of power in the hands of a few, thereby reducing the probability of individuals revolting against the regime.
The constituent military groups within the regime vary in mandated geographic scope and tactical capabilities. Smaller groups, mostly affiliated with the larger ones, have command in districts and less strategic provinces. Larger groups with broader geographic control, well-trained personnel, and access to sophisticated capabilities reside in regional centers and larger cities, including Kabul. Independently, however, none of these groups has the power to explicitly challenge the integrity and cohesion of the regime.
A handful of powerful military groups comprise the core of the regime’s military strength. The Haqqani Network, headed by Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, is an elite force of the Taliban. Maintaining a semi-autonomous status within the Taliban since its establishment in 1994, the network cultivates close ties with Pakistan and global Jihadi networks, including al-Qaeda. It has considerable influence on the regime’s suicide bombers’ brigade and its elite special forces/Badri Unit. With an Islamic fundamentalist orientation, the group has reportedly adopted a more pragmatic attitude since the Taliban’s return to power in 2021.
At the Ministry of Interior, Haqqani’s authority and power is balanced by the forces of his deputy, Ibrahim Sadr, a senior Taliban military figure since the 1990s. Sadr is one of the key figures of the Helmand Council, once led by the second Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mansur Akhtar, who was killed by a U.S. drone attack in 2016. Unlike Haqqani, Sadr has an ultraorthodox ideological attitude. He established closer ties with the regime in Iran and Al-Qaeda and reportedly has influence over foreign fighters and a deep-running involvement in the Afghan opium trade.
Defense Minister Mullah Yaqoob Mujahid controls another sizable portion of power within the regime. Mujahid commands Taliban fighters from and in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Urozgan. He replaced Sadr as the Taliban’s miliary chief in 2020. His charismatic personality and his status as the son of the movement’s late founder Mullah Omar have made Mujahid the face of the Taliban’s new generation. Because of his increasingly nationalistic inclinations, Mujahid’s relationship with the supreme leader has become strained due to the latter’s draconian rulings. He has also kept his distance from Pakistan. According to rumors among the Taliban, he has established initial links with India.
Mujahid’s power is similarly balanced by his deputy, Abdul Qayum Zakir, another hardliner with cordial ties to the Taliban supreme leader. With a radical and extremist ideological attitude, Zakir is one of the key military strategists of the Taliban and reportedly the most brutal one. He is currently heading military operations in the north against the National Resistance Forces (NRF). Ahmadullah Muttaki, the former commander of the elite Badri Unit and currently the deputy of the prime minister, also has close relationships with the Haqqani Network and Tahrek Taliban of Pakistan (TTP).
Among the non-Pashtun, Qari Fasihudin Fitrat has noticeable military power in the regime with fighters from the northern provinces, mainly Badakhshan and Takhar. An ethnic Tajik, Fitrat is the regime’s chief of staff and has close links with Lashkar-e-Tayeba, a regional terrorist group in Pakistan focused on Jihadi terrorism in India. Sources in Kabul have revealed that Fitrat has established closer ties with China. He recently warned the United States against violating Afghanistan’s airspace, a concern China has previously expressed after U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021.
Despite reports that it built a centralized national army after retaking power, the regime has yet to reconstitute its military structure from a group (militia)-based configuration to a unitary formation. Among other reasons, including the lack of financial and technical capabilities, the Taliban have deliberately avoided the centralization of military forces to prevent potentially destabilizing challenges from military figures pursuing personal, political, and/or strategic agendas. Conversely, the absence of centralization serves the regime in maintaining a balance of power among its various military leaders.
A Possible Avenue of Change
Despite maintaining internal cohesion and successfully enforcing its dystopian rule across Afghanistan, the Taliban regime does experience internal rifts along spiritual, military, and political lines. External pressures, namely economic, financial, and diplomatic sanctions, seem to have divided the Taliban’s top-tier leadership into two competing blocs: the pragmatists and the ultraorthodox.
The former is reportedly composed of the regime’s political and diplomatic elites in Kabul, including those with considerable military power, including but not limited to the Haqqani Network and Mullah Yaqoob Mujahid. This group demands a more mainstream and rights-based domestic policy as well as normalized relations with the world. On the opposite end of the spectrum are radical military and political leaders, including the supreme leader and his ultraorthodox ideologues and clergy, who view governance exclusively through the prism of implementing a “true” religious order. The fundamental question is whether the rifts will lead to an internal revolt or a change of power within the regime.
Although such scenarios are possible, they seem unlikely, at least in the short term. The balance of power among various military groups renders political or military takeovers highly risky. No military group can effectively challenge the integrity of the regime. However, such strategic stability could change over time, if not immediately then through alliance-building among the powerful military groups. In addition, ambitious Taliban military and political leaders can change internal power dynamics through clandestine efforts to sabotage and liquidate their internal rivals.
Politically, consensus-based changes to depose or replace the current supreme leader or challenge his authority are unlikely. The Taliban have not developed guidelines for deposing a ruling supreme leader, who is essentially above political accountability. However, this does not mean that the protected status of the supreme leader is definite or eternal.
Lacking military power and leading a reclusive existence with little to no interaction with the public and media, the supreme leader is vulnerable to unidentified potential threats. He could be the target of internal sabotage or foul play, as was the Taliban’s founder and first supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. Recent news from Kabul and Kandahar suggests that the supreme leader has accelerated steps towards consolidating military and political power in Kandahar, including shifting the regime’s spokespersons from Kabul, misappropriating funds from the ministry of finance, and forming his own military group. These efforts, which could reduce Akhundzada’s political and military vulnerabilities , are also indicative of a deepening rift within the regime. In addition, the continued draconian decrees from Kandahar, the latest of which is the ban on women working with UN agencies in Afghanistan, demonstrates the supreme leader’s despotism.
The pragmatists, though, will not give up their military and political power without a fight. Although armed resistance and revolt are unlikely, clandestine efforts from within seem more feasible. Currently, there is no viable military or political opposition to the Taliban. Any changes in the regime’s behavior and governance depend on internal developments. Being cornered by the hardline leadership can make the pragmatists more open to external influence, which can in turn motivate them to stir the internal process of change. Furthermore, supporting popular and civil resistance in the country, mainly of women, can be an effective tool to embolden the pragmatists to pursue change.