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Friction among Taliban pragmatists intensifies hardliners

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The rift between Taliban-led pragmatists and ideologues has intensified since the group formed a…

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Friction between Taliban-led pragmatists and ideologues has intensified since the group formed a tough Cabinet last week; Afghans are familiar with the power struggle.

The debate took place behind the scenes, but rumors of a recent violent confrontation between the two camps in the presidential palace have quickly circulated, including the alleged murder of the pragmatic faction’s leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar.

The rumors were so intense that an audio recording and handwritten testimony, both alleged by Baradar himself, denied he was killed. The Pashto letter was stamped by the office of Baradar, who served as the chief negotiator in talks between the Taliban and the United States.

These negotiations paved the way for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which was completed in late August, two weeks after the Taliban invaded the capital, Kabul.

Shortly after the Kabul takeover, Baradar became the first senior Taliban official to suggest the possibility of an inclusive government, but the formation of an all-male, all-Taliban cadre last week disappointed those hopes.

A white Taliban flag was hoisted over the presidential palace, replacing the Afghan national flag, in another sign of the Conservatives’ victory.

A Taliban official said the leadership still hasn’t made a final decision on the flag, with many eventually inclined to fly both banners side by side. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss internal negotiations with the media.

The two Afghans familiar with the power struggle also spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect the privacy of those who shared their dissatisfaction with the Cabinet ranking. They said a Cabinet minister who was angry at the entire Taliban government, which excludes the country’s ethnic and religious minorities, was playing around with rejecting his post.

Taliban Spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid denied the disagreements in the leadership. On Tuesday, Taliban foreign minister Amir Khan Mutaqi called such news “propaganda.”

Analysts say the conflict may not pose a serious threat to the Taliban for now.

“Over the years, we’ve seen that, despite conflicts, the Taliban remained a largely cohesive institution and major decisions were not seriously backed down after the facts,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy Asia program director at the Washington-based Wilson Center.

“I think the current internal strife can be managed,” he said. “Still, the Taliban will come under a lot of pressure as they try to consolidate their power, gain legitimacy and address major policy challenges. If these efforts fail, a stressed organization may see more and more serious internal conflict.”

Despite the denials, Baradar was markedly lacking in important functions. Earlier this week, Qatar’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdur Rahman, was not at the presidential palace to receive Al-Thani.

This was the highest-level foreign visit since the Taliban’s takeover and Baradar’s absence was staggering as Baradar had hosted him for years as head of the Taliban political office in Qatar’s capital, Doha.

Several officials and Afghans who knew and were in contact with Baradar told the Associated Press that he was in the southwestern provincial capital of Kandahar to meet with Taliban leader Haybatullah Ahunzada. Another Taliban figure said Baradar visited his family, whom he had not seen in 20 years of war.

However, today’s Taliban divisions would have been more difficult to resolve without the harsh rule of the group’s founder, Mullah Omar, who demanded unequivocal loyalty.

“Since the death of Mullah Omar, the Taliban have struggled to find a leader who can bring the entire group together and lead unquestioned loyalty everywhere,” Kugelman said. “This could become a huge responsibility in the coming months.”

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