Afghan Taliban Factions and the Future of Their Internal Strife

Published January 17th, 2022 - 11:51 GMT
Mullah Fazel Mazlum; one of the Taliban leaders, has also claimed that the presence of a Punjabi guest has sparked controversy and worsened the situation .
Taliban fighters pose for pictures while riding rental horses during a snowfall at the Qargha lake in Kabul on January 3, 2022. (Photo by Mohd RASFAN / AFP)

By Farzad Ramezani Bonesh

Following the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan, whispers of internal rifts in the group over power were heard. Clashes between the two main Pashtun factions in the Taliban and the absence of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and his departure from Kabul at the beginning of their presence in the city marked the beginning of a multidimensional conflict between the Taliban’s members. However, Mullah Baradar assured that the Taliban's internal conflict was not real.

But despite the Taliban leaders' extensive efforts to cover up divisions within the group and the level of tension, various rumors and news were leaked.  Mullah Fazel Mazlum; one of the Taliban leaders, has also claimed that the presence of a Punjabi guest has sparked controversy and worsened the situation .

In the past years, despite Taliban officials' insistence that all middle-class and Taliban commanders obey the decisions of key leaders, there have been many signs of disagreement over important intellectual, political, security, and economic issues. These gaps and military-security rivalries between the Haqqani-Kandahari, Eastern-Southern or Ghilji-Durrani and non-Pashtun-Pashtun between the Taliban leaders are due to ethnic and Pashtun or Pashtunwali tribal customs and their differences of opinion and approach to various issues.

The gap between the moderate and the extremist wings

In general, since the beginning of the Taliban's presence in the 1990s, there have been practically two main factions, moderate and extremist, among the Pashtun Taliban. This has also fluctuate due to various developments in the last three decades. However, these two types of thinking and attitudes have become more prominent in recent years, especially after their presence in Kabul.

Historically, the numerous Pashtun tribes are island powers that occasionally clash with each other due to various differences. In previous years, the Taliban had tried to resolve the Ghilji-Durrani dispute with the presence of Ghilji members as the Taliban's deputy leader. However, the existence of numerous councils, the presence of a large number of leaders in Pakistan, and the performance ability of powerful groups such as the Haqqani Network, had led to a kind of widespread rivalry between military, political, and second-class leaders.

The most prominent and influential figures of the Durrani faction (Moderate) within the Taliban are Mullah Baradar, and on the other side, the Ghiljis (extremist faction), are Sirajuddin Haqqani. 

Thus, the Pashtun Taliban is full of differences of taste and ethnic and tribal views, and part of the Taliban's internal divisions have also taken place on the basis of ethnic divisions. In recent months, this rivalry and difference between the moderate and extremist factions has increased. It seems that in the military-security rivalry in the Taliban, the Haqqani has had the upper hand and the extremist Taliban so far has been in a superior position.

Pashtun-non-Pashtun gap in Taliban

The third side within the Taliban is the non-Pashtun Taliban. For the past two decades, the Taliban presence in the northern provinces of Afghanistan has been one of the group's strategic goals. After 2001, the Taliban were forced to recruit non-Pashtun Taliban in non-Pashtun areas to localize the war and provide more space for non-Pashtuns to gain a foothold in northern Afghanistan.

Tajiks, especially from Badakhshan, joined the Taliban, and in the Uzbek-majority provinces of Faryab and Sar-e-Pul, the Taliban gained significant territory against the government. For example, more than 3,000 Taliban fighters in Faryab were all locals. In fact, non-Pashtun and northern members of the Taliban played an important role in capturing the country.

However, the clashes between some Pashtun-non-Pashtun Taliban commanders in Panjshir, Faryab, Badakhshan, Balkh and Bamyan  provinces over the past few months are in fact an important and new stage in the Pashtun-non-Pashtun Taliban divide. Recently, Makhdoom Alam Rabbani, the senior Uzbek Taliban commander, was arrested in the city of Maimana, and Uzbek Taliban fighters revolted against the Taliban and within a few days took control of some areas, creating major concerns for the Taliban.

Although the Taliban says it has obtained "evidence" that Makhdoom Alam was involved in the (kidnapping) and that his arrest had nothing to do with his people. There were other reports of the arrest of some other non-Pashtun commanders.  

Some Afghan politicians in reacting to the people’s protest in Faryab, described it as popular uprising. In fact, the Pashtun-non-Pashtun Taliban divide has widened in recent months after the Panjshir war and military developments.

It also appears that the expulsion of nearly 3,000 Taliban members. The Taliban purge commission is related to the group’s internal tensions, as well as Pashtun-non-Pashtun tensions and the elimination of non-Pashtuns.


Power in the Islamic Emirate or the Taliban is multiple and a kind of jelly.Three main factions of the Taliban, including the extremist faction (mostly Eastern and Haqqani Network), the moderate faction (mostly southern and Kandahari) and the non-Pashtun Taliban (various Uzbeks, Tajiks, etc.) have different views and perceptions in the Political Commission, Military Commission, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior Affairs, and new and parallel institutions.

These perceptions and differences of opinion about the Taliban's amnesty policy, the type of repression of the opposition, the Durand Line, governance, the economy, the recognition of the Taliban government and the inclusive government are still prominent. Divergence and differences over domestic issues, the share of ethnic groups, reforms, the future, political change, the constitution, the structure of government, etc. are also increasing.

Although, the Taliban recently announced that Maimana, the capital of Faryab province, was under their control, but the Faryab incident could be the beginning of the ethnic protests and the wide gap between the Pashtun-non-Pashtun Taliban.

Although some moderate Taliban leaders see the presence of non-Pashtuns in symbolic government structures as a sign of ethnic diversity in their government, many non-Pashtun Taliban, like Uzbeks, are unhappy with being ignored in the Taliban government. Ethnic issues in Afghanistan are deep-rooted. In recent decades, ethnic warfare within regimes has led to their downfall and weakness in Afghanistan.

Therefore, non-Pashtun Taliban may rise up against the Pashtun leaders of the Taliban Islamic Emirate, different countries may use the gaps in the Taliban body, and as spring approaches, non-Pashtun Taliban may consider cooperating with the opposition, the Afghan National Resistance Front And other groups.

 There have been mixed reactions to the Taliban foreign ministry chief's meeting with Ismail Khan and Ahmad Massoud in Tehran. The Taliban’s moderates applaud the move, but hardliners oppose any compromise on power-sharing and government concessions.

Hardliners and the Haqqani network oppose the talks, arguing that the time for further power-sharing is over and that the opposition must accept the new realities. This is while the mainstream Taliban is unprepared for sweeping change, and the non-Pashtun Taliban do not accept minor change and a symbolic presence in power. Therefore, the Pashtun Taliban cannot eliminate all non-Pashtun Taliban, including some cabinet officials and local commanders.

In the short term, the role and position of the extremist Taliban among the group still seems to be more prominent than that of the other factions. It should be noted that the scope of conflict between the extremist Taliban and non-Pashtun Taliban is greater.

Also, the possibility of convergence and cooperation in two cases (extremist and moderate part of Pashtun Taliban) and (more moderate part of Pashtun Taliban with non-Pashtun Taliban) is more likely. Wider cooperation between the moderate part of the Taliban and non-Pashtun Taliban can reduce the power of the extremist Taliban (Haqqani Network, etc.). Wider cooperation between the extremist part and the more moderate part of the Taliban could also weaken the non-Pashtun Taliban .

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