Emerging Faultlines within the Taliban: Implications for Afghanistan & Pakistan




The continuing closure of girls’ schools in Afghanistan, in spite of the promises made by the Taliban, is one of the many issues which have brought deep factionalism among the former insurgents. The Kandahar-based conservatives have been able to dominate so far. However, it may only be a matter of time, before power equations between the conservatives, the Haqqani network and the minority pragmatists change.     

(Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Baradar Mullah Baradar (centre) with a group of Taliban officials in September 2021. Image Courtesy: Al Jazeera.)


The Taliban captured power in Afghanistan in August 2021. The ‘Islamic Emirate’ has more or less resembled the regime the group had established between 1996 and 2001. Its policies towards girls, women and minorities have remained mirror images of the earlier regime, and so are its linkages with global and regional terror groups. This runs counter to the expectations that Taliban 2.0 could be a reformed version of its earlier avatar. A major part of this is linked to the deeper fractures among former insurgents and the current domination of the conservative hardliners within the group over a minority of pragmatists, who favour moderating the group’s worldview in hopes of achieving international recognition and economic assistance.  

Divisive Issues

The common objective of unseating the civilian government and driving away the foreigners (infidels) had kept factionalism within the Taliban-led insurgency under wraps. However, fissures started showing up immediately after the capture of Kabul. The hardliners were emphatic that the military muscle of the Taliban was instrumental in the victory, whereas the moderates saw this as a triumph of a prolonged period of peace negotiations with the United States (US). 

Thereafter, forming of the cabinet brought the Haqqani Network (HN) and the moderates into a fistfight situation. Guns were reportedly fired during the meeting in the Argh (Presidential palace) and an injured Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar went underground for several weeks, fueling speculations that he might have been killed. Baradar subsequently confirmed his well-being through an audio message, before reappearing in person. He reportedly refused the security cover provided by the Ministry of Interior and chose to employ his own guards.   

The 31 July 2022 killing of al Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri was another episode bringing to light the schism between policy and publicity-seeking statements of the group. Zawahiri reportedly lived in a house reportedly owned by the Haqqani group in Kabul’s Shirpur locality, not far away from the Argh. The Taliban further embarrassed themselves with a statement feigning ignorance and deniability of Zawahiri’s presence in the country.              

While these episodes have been in the realm of Apocrypha, the policy over girls’ education confirms the existence of multiple factions within the Taliban and the deep divisions between them. In March 2022, the Islamic Emirate decided to overturn its own decision to open the girls’ schools by an overnight ban. It highlighted the lack of teachers and school uniform issues for its revised decision. The UN had previously agreed to pay the salaries of the teachers. As girls turned up the next morning at their schools, they were told to go home. In spite of subsequent promises by the Taliban the same month that plans for opening the schools are afoot and will be implemented soon, the indefinite ban continues.              

The Kandahar Council of Mullahs

The centre of the ideological power of the Taliban regime is located in Kandahar, whereas Kabul merely hosts nominal political power. Taliban Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada is based in Kandahar, and so also his inner circle, the Rahbari-e-Shura, which so far has exercised extreme control over the Islamic Emirate’s policies. They are relatively unconcerned about the outrage different hardline edicts cause domestically as well as globally. 

Prominent members of the inner circle include Chief Justice Abdul Hakim Haqqani. Haqqani, unrelated to the Haqqani Network, was a close aide and confidante of the former Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar. Other prominent members of the circle are acting Prime Minister Hasan Akhund; Mullah Nur Muhammad Saqeb, acting minister of Islamic affairs (Hajj and Awqaf); and Sheikh Khalid Muhammad, minister for the propagation of virtue and prevention of vice. Acting Prime Minister Akhund is ideologically against girls’ education. Taliban sources have described him vowing not to ever allow girls to attend schools in Kandahar province. 

On 21 September, 68-year-old Habibullah Agha, a staunchly conservative judge during the first regime of the Taliban between 1996 and 2001 and a member of Hibatullah Akhundzada’s inner circle, was named the new education minister in a reshuffle announced by the government. Agha replaced Noorullah Munir, who was in charge when the government announced the reopening of girls’ schools in March. Munir was downgraded to head of the Central Directorate of Education. Agha told the media, “I will act according to the instructions given by the supreme leader.”

Incidentally, the majority of the Haqqani Network represented by Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, Khalil Haqqani, the Minister of Refugees; and a member of the Taliban’s Qatar office Anas Haqqani, had supported the opening of girls’ schools, but reportedly decided to maintain silence fearing more divisions emerging within the group. Whether such subservience could be indefinite, however, remains a question. Hibatullah Akhundzada’s continued installation of loyalists and moves to centralise the administration could create fissures between Kandahar and the Haqqani Network. In August 2022, the Taliban released a video of the Haqqanis plotting a suicide attack against the US troops in 2010. There are multiple ways of interpreting this move. It could be a statement of defiance vis-à-vis the US by a confident Taliban leadership. Or, it could be the Taliban’s attempt to undermine the Haqqanis by pointing at their past deeds.     

There is a realisation across all the factions which allows for sufficient cohesion to avoid more serious leadership differences is the simple determination to retain the hold on power. After all, at present, the greatest threat to the regime’s survival is possible internal dissent.    

Long Shadow over Pakistan-Taliban relationship

Since coming to power, numerous decisions taken by the Islamic Emirate have displeased Pakistan. Issues such as Islamabad’s move to fence the Pakistan-Afghanistan border (Durand line) and the statement of the Pakistan Prime Minister expressing his concern about the safe haven Afghanistan provides to terrorists have ruffled the Taliban’s feathers. On occasions, differences have gone beyond verbal umbrage to armed contestation involving the deaths of security force personnel belonging to both countries.  

In September 2022, at least three Pakistani soldiers were killed after the Taliban intervened to stop the Pakistan army from building a security post at their border, in Paktia province on the Afghan side and Pakistan’s Kurram region. An unspecified number of Taliban fighters too got killed. Similar clashes between forces of both countries had taken place earlier in the Spin Boldak in Kandahar province. In October, the Pakistan Army resorted to mortar firing across the border after movement by some local Afghans from villages near the border to the Pakistan side. The Afghan side registered their protest saying that these movements are within the ambit of a bilateral agreement. In September, Pakistan’s foreign ministry wrote to Kabul asking it to locate and arrest Pakistan’s Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) chief Masood Azhar, who it had sought refuge in Afghanistan. Taliban rejected the claim. 

Reports from the field have indicated that Taliban leadership could be growing suspicious of the Pakistani move to sabotage the Islamic Emirate politically and diplomatically. It has increased vigil around the Pakistan missions in the country to neutralize any such attempt and curtail suspicious persons’ movements around Pakistan’s embassy in Kabul and the consulate in Jalalabad.  

The Haqqani Network is closer to the power centres in Pakistan. In November 2021, the interior minister of the Islamic Emirate, Sirajuddin Haqqani played a key role in establishing a truce between the TTP and Islamabad, which unfortunately lasted only for a few weeks. The Haqqani network was once described by former US Admiral Mike Mullen as a ‘veritable arm of the Pakistani ISI’, and it remains so. Hence, any power imbalance in favour of the Kandahar Shura is bound to inconvenience Islamabad. In the medium term, Islamabad would like the balance to be restored and the Haqqanis to be given preeminence in running the government. Nothing short of that would benefit Pakistan’s strategic interests in Afghanistan.

Options for the Pragmatic Moderates

As opposed to the reclusive and hardline old guard, the younger and pragmatic Taliban leaders feel the necessity to engage with the world and gain legitimacy. The most well-known faces of the ‘moderate’ faction are deputy prime minister Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the movement’s founders and Deputy Foreign Minister Sher Abbas Stanikzai. Baradar had voiced support for all girls to return to school. There are others too. Abdul Salam Zaeef, one of the group’s founding members and long-term Taliban diplomat, has criticised the ban, insisting that girls should return to school “as soon as possible”. It needs to be mentioned that while members of this group are flexible, their moderation in itself could be equally conservative. For instance, they might be willing to allow girls to attend secondary schools but insist on a curriculum that rules out anything but a heavily religious education, or set conditions for attendance that severely limit the number of girls who can actually enrol. 

However, the challenge for the moderates possibly is the lack of numerical strength and influence. The ‘moderates’ somewhat stand in between the Kandahar and the Haqqanis and realise that undermining Kandahar would merely mean the pendulum swinging towards the Haqqanis. It’s not a win-win situation for them, for now, and even in the future. 

Ill health and possible demise or incapacitation of some of the old guard too may open up small windows for reforming the Taliban. Prime Minister Akhund’s poor health has been reported on multiple occasions. In March 2022, Akhund did not meet Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during the latter’s day-long trip to Kabul. However, the possibilities of a change in guard due to incapacitation are extremely remote. Taliban are good at not disclosing the death of their leaders to avoid any leadership struggle and consequent loss of control over their cadres.         

The option for the pragmatists, therefore, is to work silently, as any attempt to rock the boat could endanger their own existence. Unnamed moderate Taliban officials have told the media that they sometimes resist the edicts passed by Kandahar and ignore them, without bringing much attention to themselves. However, such a silent revolution has its limits and is virtually powerless as far as big-ticket attitudinal changes to bring back girls to schools are concerned.  

The Future Trends

The future, therefore, appears quite bleak for the girls, who hope to return to school. The current domination of the conservative bloc within the Taliban can be expected to continue in the short and medium term. While the Islamic Emirate is yearning for international recognition, the old guard could be considering the same a matter of right and not a privilege granted by the international community in return for policy revisions. They could be willing to play a waiting game hoping for certain countries to see the wisdom in not just engaging the de facto rulers of Afghanistan, but accepting them as de jure. Embassies of several countries including India are operating in Kabul. China and Russia never fully closed their embassies. 

Earlier, the American CIA held discussions with the Taliban about cooperation against Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP) and al Qaeda, but the Taliban refused to come on board. They had also rejected a request to allow a residual anti-terrorism force in the country. On 8 October, the CIA negotiated with the Taliban head of Intelligence in Doha, possibly on counter-terrorism. The Taliban claimed that it was able to extract a promise from the US side that the latter would not fund any anti-Taliban resistance group within Afghanistan. Such claims appear highly doubtful. In Doha, a few months back, the US discussed with the Taliban the means to funnel the US$3.5 billion in frozen assets in a fashion that could contribute to economic stability but would bypass the Kabul government coffers. No agreement resulted from the meeting. Nevertheless, such rounds of engagement could assuage the Kandahar-based elders that the world continues to need them more than the opposite, and they could manage with the absence of formal recognition or legitimacy for some more time. This does not portend well for Afghanistan and the region at large.


Ali M Latifi, “How deep are divisions among the Taliban?”, Al Jazeera, 23 September 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/23/how-deep-are-divisions-among-the-taliban

Andrew Watkins, “One Year Later: Taliban Reprise Repressive Rule, but Struggle to Build a State”, United States Institute of Peace, 17 August 2022, https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/08/one-year-later-taliban-reprise-repressive-rule-struggle-build-state

Barnett R Rubin, “Afghanistan Under the Taliban: Findings on the Current Situation”, 20 October 2022, https://www.stimson.org/2022/afghanistan-under-the-taliban-findings-on-the-current-situation/

Stefanie Glinski and Ruchi Kumar, “Taliban U-turn over Afghan girls’ education reveals deep leadership divisions”, The Guardian, 25 March 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/mar/25/taliban-u-turn-over-afghan-girls-education-reveals-deep-leadership-divisions-afghanistan

(Dr. Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is the President and Founder of Mantraya. Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is the Director of Mantraya. This analysis has been published as part of Mantraya’s ongoing “Mapping Terror & Insurgent Networks” and “Fragility, Conflict, and Peace Building” projects. All Mantraya publications are peer-reviewed.)