The Taliban have once again made international headlines, this time following reports of an internal dispute followed by a shootout in the Kuchlak area of Quetta in Balochistan. The shootout is reported to have killed or injured several Taliban members, including their controversial leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor. The Taliban vehemently deny the reports, standard procedure whenever a high ranking official is killed or a dispute emerges. Looking closely at the latest sequence of events, the recent targeting of a Taliban leader should not be that surprising.
First of all, many among the Taliban consider Mansoor as Pakistan’s best card to play in Afghanistan, while Mansoor considers Pakistan’s support his best chance to rule the Taliban. However, Mansoor proved to be too authoritarian, even by Taliban standards. It is known that he has been working his way up the Taliban hierarchy for the past nine years. During that time, he and his alleged patron, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are accused of killing or imprisoning several prominent Taliban leaders who might have stood in Mansoor’s way or who weakened Pakistan’s leverage over the Taliban. Compared to other Taliban members, particularly their deceased leader Mullah Omar, Mansoor seemed too self-centered, not an attitude appreciated among Taliban. Lacking support, he relied too heavily on ISI to succeed Mullah Omar as the group’s leader. Mansoor is alleged to have bought his way into the leadership by doling out cash in exchange for support and favor from Taliban members who were questioning his credentials, controversies, methods and tactics.
Second, Mansoor’s decision to launch the Kunduz assault to extend his writ over Taliban did not have unanimous support among Quetta Shura members. ISI allegedly had other thoughts, and is thought to have stepped up logistical support for the assault on Kunduz immediately following the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death as a sort of charm offensive to establish Mansoor’s legitimacy and give him and Pakistan leverage in any future potential peace talks.
Third, Mansoor’s close cooperation with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), and other militant outfits during the Fall of Kunduz infuriated some Taliban members. Compared to ISIS in Iraq and Syria, ISIS in Afghanistan is a rebranding of disgruntled Taliban members together with these regional terror outfits that have pledged allegiance to ISIS. Despite knowing that ISIS presents a significant challenge to the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor and ISI banked on their support for engineering the fall of Kunduz, something that irked many Taliban officials. They considered it too risky as it would provide Pakistan with the opportunity to ignite ethnic rifts in the North, a card that Pakistan is eager to play in pursuit of its interest in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the assault on Kunduz offered the IMU, IJU and LeT a chance to find sanctuary in North. At the same time, an assault on such an unprecedented scale always runs the risk of a public backlash, further marginalizing of Taliban in Afghan society. For the Afghan government, the Fall of Kunduz was in fact the breakthrough it needed to get rid of or at least marginalize militia and warlords reign in the North.
Fourth, the Taliban once again felt it was working for Pakistan, despite claiming to be at least partially independent in its decision making through its Political Office in Qatar. Pakistan exploited the Taliban and the Mansoor phenomenon to squeeze maximum concessions from the newly elected Afghan government under the banner of peace talks, while also trying to marginalize Taliban’s Political Office in Qatar. Last week, the Taliban announced that Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai would lead the Qatar Political office after its previous leader Tayyeb Agha stepped down in protest. Taliban cadres are aware of the price they have paid for political legitimacy in the form of the Political Office in Qatar. Several prominent Taliban, including Mullah Obaiduallah Akhund and Mullah Abdul Ghani Beradar have been killed or imprisoned for their efforts in establishing a political office outside Pakistan. Mansoor’s hasty decisions were to undo all the capital and efforts invested in creating an independent political presence in Qatar, and bring it under Pakistani control. It is worth mentioning that Pakistan tried to snatch the momentum after the Qatar Political Office had generated considerable goodwill by participating in several international conferences.
Fifth, the recent fighting in Zabul with the Taliban splinter group led by Mullah Rasool, which resulted in heavy losses on both sides, including the killing of Rasool’s main commander Mansoor Dadullah, proved a red line. It is worth mentioning that Mansoor is also held responsible for the killing of Mansoor Dadullah’s brother Mullah Dadullah, a notorious Taliban commander who enjoyed considerable respect and leverage among the rank and file. Several efforts were made to settle the dispute, but to no avail. Meanwhile, issuing a fatwa and launching an operation against Dadullah and Rasool’s group forced many of those Taliban who had remained neutral to reconsider their stance. They fear they are next in line to be eliminated or marginalized. Indeed, just recently several key members of Quetta Shura were replaced by people loyal to Mansoor. That was just the start of a further shake up by Mansoor to fully extend his writ over the Taliban Shura.
Finally, there is a feeling among Taliban who have more exposure to the world community that the U.S. is not sincere about peace in Afghanistan and the Afghan government has no feasible plan for peace. They therefore want to take the initiative. But with Mansoor in power and Pakistan once again trying to represent the Taliban and do the talking on its behalf, this was not going to be possible. Perhaps the shootout will now lead to the emergence of a third group of Taliban that will start working for peace, but not on Pakistan’s terms and not at Pakistan’s bidding.
In brief, Mansoor’s decision of keeping Mullah Omar’s death a secret for two years, his shady deals on peace talks on Pakistan’s behalf, the marginalizing of the Taliban Political Office in Qatar, the assault on Kunduz, and the fatwa against the rival Rasool faction – all bore the marks of controversy and betrayal. While the shootout and possible killing might raise some eyebrows, it is neither the first nor will it be the last such incident among the now fragmented Taliban.
We will need to watch and see how events unfold. One thing is certain, though: This will be a hard winter for the Taliban and for Pakistan.
Kyber Sarban has worked as an adviser in Afghanistan’s Independent Directorate of Local Governance. Follow him @khybersarban