The friction between pragmatists and ideologues in the Taliban leadership has intensified since the group formed a hardline cabinet last week that is more in line with their hardline rule in the 1990s than their latest promises of inclusion, said two Afghans familiar with the power struggle.
The quarrel has taken place behind the scenes, but rumors quickly began circulating about a recent violent confrontation between the two camps at the presidential palace, including allegations that the leader of the pragmatic faction, Abdul Ghani Baradar, got killed.
The rumors reached such an intensity that an audio recording and a handwritten statement, both alleged by Baradar himself, denied that he had been killed. The Pashto language had a stamp from Baradar’s office, which had acted as chief negotiator during talks between Taliban and that United States.
These negotiations had paved the way for US troops to withdraw Afghanistan, which was completed in late August, two weeks after the Taliban overran the capital, Kabul.
Shortly after taking over Kabul, Baradar had been the first senior Taliban official to hold out the possibility of an inclusive government, but such hopes were dashed by the formation of an all-male, all-Taliban line-up last week.
In a further sign that the hardline companies had won, the white Taliban flag was raised above the presidential palace and replaced the Afghan national flag.
A Taliban official said the leadership had not yet made a final decision on the flag, with many leaning towards eventually flying both banners side by side. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss internal discussions with the media.
The two Afghans, who are familiar with the power struggle, also spoke on condition of anonymity to protect the confidentiality of those who shared their dissatisfaction with the cabinet’s line-up. They said a cabinet minister was playing with refusing his post, outraged by the all-Taliban government that avoided the country’s ethnic and religious minorities.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has denied leadership shortcomings. On Tuesday, Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqi dismissed reports as “propaganda”.
Despite denials, Baradar has been noticeably absent from key functions. He was not at the presidential palace earlier this week to receive Qatar’s Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdur Rahman Al-Thani, who is also foreign minister.
It was the highest-level foreign visit since the Taliban takeover and Baradar’s absence has shaken him since Qatar hosted him for several years as the Taliban’s political office in Doha’s capital, Qatar.
Several officials and Afghans known and in contact with Baradar told the Associated Press that he was in the southwestern provincial capital of Kandahar for a meeting with Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhunzada. Another Taliban figure said Baradar was visiting a family he had not seen in 20 years of war.
Analysts say the friction could not pose a serious threat to the Taliban – at the moment.
“We have seen over the years that despite disputes, the Taliban remain largely a cohesive institution and that major decisions do not become serious aftermath,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia-based Wilson Center-based Asia program.
“I think the current internal disagreement can be dealt with,” he said. “Still, the Taliban will be under a lot of pressure as they try to consolidate their power, gain legitimacy and face major political challenges. If these efforts fail, a stressed organization may well see more and more serious fighting.”
However, the divisions of the Taliban today will be more difficult to resolve without the tough management of the group’s founder, the late Mullah Omar, who demanded undeniable loyalty.