Friday, September 17, 2021

Friction intensifies between hardline and pragmatic Taliban

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Friction between pragmatists and ideologues in the Taliban leadership has intensified since the group formed a hard-line cabinet last week that is more in line with its tough rule in the 1990s than its recent promises of inclusion, said two Afghans familiar with the power struggle.

The dispute has taken place behind the scenes, but rumors quickly began to circulate about a recent violent clash between the two camps at the presidential palace, including claims that the leader of the pragmatic faction, Abdul Ghani Baradar, was assassinated.

The rumors reached such intensity that an audio recording and a handwritten statement, both allegedly from Baradar himself, denied that he was killed. The Pashtun-language letter bore a stamp from the office of Baradar, who had served as the lead negotiator during the talks between the Taliban and the United States.

Those negotiations had 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 of Kabul.

Shortly after Kabul’s takeover, Baradar had been the first senior Taliban official to raise the possibility of an inclusive government, but those hopes were dashed with the formation of a group of men and Taliban last week.

In a further sign that the hard line had prevailed, the white flag of the Taliban was raised over the presidential palace, replacing the Afghan national flag.

A Taliban official said leaders have yet to make a final decision on the flag, and many are inclined to eventually fly both banners side by side. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss the internal deliberations with the media.

The two Afghans familiar with the power struggle also spoke on condition of anonymity to protect the confidentiality of those who shared their discontent with the Cabinet lineup. They said a cabinet minister toyed with rejecting his post, angered by the all-Taliban government that rejected the country’s ethnic and religious minorities.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has denied divisions in the leadership. On Tuesday, Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqi dismissed those reports as “propaganda.”

Despite the negatives, Baradar has been conspicuously absent from key functions. He was not at the presidential palace earlier this week to receive Qatari Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdur Rahman Al-Thani, who is also Foreign Minister.

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

Several officials and Afghans who are familiar with 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 relatives he had not seen in 20 years of war.

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

“We have seen over the years that despite the disputes, the Taliban remain largely a cohesive institution and that important decisions are not seriously set back after the fact,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the program for Asia at the Washington-based Wilson Center.

“I think the current internal dissent can be managed,” he said. “Still, the Taliban will be under a lot of pressure as it tries to consolidate its power, gain legitimacy and address major political challenges. If these efforts fail, a stressed organization may well see more and more serious infighting.”

However, the Taliban’s divisions today will be more difficult to resolve without the heavy-handed rule of the group’s founder, the late Mullah Omar, who demanded unquestioned loyalty.

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