With the wreckage of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s taxi only just beginning to cool in southern Pakistan, the Wall Street Journal revealed on Sunday that Afghan and U.S. intelligence were providing financial and military support to a “breakaway” Taliban faction in southwestern Afghanistan led by veteran insurgent commander Mullah Mohammed Rasool.
In the piece, U.S. and Afghan officials claim that this faction is more likely to engage in peace talks, a wishful sentiment contradicted by Rasool himself. In an interview in February, he comes across as very eager to see Mansour out of the picture and equally intent on ensuring that his long time foreign patron, Iran, whose intelligence services are more active inside Afghanistan than at any time since 2001, has a greater say in future peace talks. Since late last year, his faction has been linked to the Islamic State—a charge Rasool denies, though he is on record as supporting his Daesh “brothers” as long as they remain out of Afghanistan.
So who is Mullah Rasool? What does he want? And what is the United States getting itself into?
An insurgent with an ax to grind
According to the UN Security Council’s Consolidated Sanctions List—which counted Rasool a member as of last week—he is in his mid-50s and hails from Spin Boldak, a barren but strategic border district that links Kandahar City to Quetta and Karachi in Pakistan. What the list doesn’t say is that, as a child, Rasool is believed to have attended religious school in Kandahar with former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. This early connection with the man who would one day become amir ul momineen (leader of the faithful) likely facilitated Rasool’s rise within the ranks of the Taliban regime in the 1990s and created a rare relationship of equals with Omar. As someone who knew Rasool during this time told me, “Not even Mullah Omar could command Mullah Rasool.” This history made Mansour’s rise to the top of the Taliban following Omar’s death all the more bitter; a fact Rasool did not hide when he called Mansour “the real murderer of Mullah Omar” last November.
When the Taliban swept to power across southern Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, Rasool was appointed governor of Nimruz, a province even dustier and more remote than his home of Spin Boldak. Like Spin Boldak, though, Nimruz was the location of one of Afghanistan’s few international border crossings—this one into Iran. During his tenure, locals told me, Rasool applied a strict interpretation of sharia law—“he ordered executions when he should have just been cutting off hands”—married into a local family to consolidate his power, and ran the province with minimal oversight from Taliban leadership in Kandahar. Throughout the 1990s, no one was more wary of the Taliban presence in Afghanistan than Iran. Rasool seems to have allayed these fears, and formed a lifelong alliance, by relocating the provincial capital of Nimruz 75 miles further away from Iran, and strictly limiting the Taliban presence in the border areas.
In 2001, Rasool fled across this border into Iran following the collapse of the Taliban regime. The timeline is unclear but at some point he was handed over to Afghan officials and imprisoned in Kabul. In 2007 or 2008, he was released, allegedly with the help of the then-governor of Nimruz. Soon after, he returned to southwestern Afghanistan and rejoined the insurgency, where he struck an agreement to keep his Taliban forces away from the border in return for Iranian weapons and a cut of cross-border heroin smuggling profits. From about 2009 to 2011 he served as shadow governor of Farah province until Mansour, who was by then calling the day-to-day shots within the Taliban, had him replaced.
Rasool’s area of influence in 2011—Farah, Herat, and Nimruz—remains mostly unchanged today. He commands a loyal faction in these areas, profits from the narco-trade that traverses these deserts, maintains close ties with Iran, and was instrumental in setting up the so-called Mashad Shura as a counterweight to the Quetta Shura. Yet his reach remains limited and his forces mostly confined to southwestern Afghanistan, with limited reach even into neighboring Helmand province.
The UN sanctions list also notes that Rasool is from the Nurzai tribe. Whereas Mullah Omar was from a relatively smaller and less powerful tribe, and so pursued a “de-tribalized” policy as far as possible. The heirs to his emirate hail from three of the most populous tribes in the South, all with considerable landholdings and stakes in the narco-economy. Though no official numbers exist, the Nurzai are likely the largest Pashtun tribe in southern Afghanistan, with territory stretching from Rasool’s birthplace of Spin Boldak in Kandahar westward to his area of operations in Farah and Herat. The other dominant tribes in southern Afghanistan are the Ishaqzai, Mansour’s tribe, and the Alizai, the tribe of the Taliban’s long time military commander Abdul Qayum Zakir.
The United States has consistently overemphasized or misinterpreted tribes and tribal conflict in Afghanistan and its efforts to broker security agreements along these lines have mostly failed. The Taliban, by contrast, have been able to mitigate or at least mask the tribal conflicts that have periodically flared up within their ranks since 2001. This may be changing as leaders with large geographic and tribal constituencies jockey for control. We could be entering a new, even more fractured landscape in the months and years to come—one in which alliances within the insurgency may have less to do with stated support for peace talks than self-interested defense of tribally defined areas of economic influence, particularly in the Taliban’s southern heartland. Despite or maybe because of the possibility for this type of fragmentation, the Afghan intelligence officials I spoke to in Kabul in February were just as blunt with me as they were with the Wall Street Journal. “Everything we are doing in southern Afghanistan is to divide the insurgency,” one official said. “That’s our goal.”
Division’s the Easy Part
It is worth remembering that when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, the Communist regime in Kabul hung on for another three years. While it is often noted that the continued flow of aid from Moscow provided life support, the real reason the center held was that the state intelligence agency had become ruthlessly efficient—infiltrating and co-opting the mujaheddin, flipping commanders into state-sponsored militias, and carrying out assassinations in safe-havens across the border in Pakistan. It’s a positive sign that Afghanistan’s intelligence agency—the National Directorate of Security—is today retaking the initiative.
But even if this strategy begins to weaken the insurgency, it will be hard to say that any of this is a step in the right direction. The communists obviously didn’t hold on forever, and when the mujaheddin finally seized Kabul they were already so divided that they too soon collapsed.
Another reminder that in Afghanistan, division, like drone strikes, is the easy part.
Casey Garret Johnson is a researcher and analyst focusing on violent extremism and insurgency in Asia. From 2008 to 2016 he was based in Afghanistan, researching insurgent networks and local governance for an Afghan peacebuilding organization, as governance adviser with the United States Agency for International Development in Kandahar, and as a Senior Program Officer with the United States Institute of Peace. His writing and photography has appeared in Foreign Policy, the New York Times, and National Geographic.