The chronic failure of governance and unyielding attachment to regressive values notwithstanding, the Taliban’s hold over Afghanistan appears to be consolidated. Initial hopes that the Taliban 2.0 would be a different species have been belied. Even the anticipation that a contestation between the moderates or dissenters and the hardliners within the group would weaken it and possibly force it to revisit its policies has also not materialized.
To an outsider, it appears that the divergent factions within the former insurgent group are choosing cohesion over discord. However, internally, the consolidation is the product of an iron-hand policy of dissent management.
The supreme leader of the Taliban, Haibatullah Akhundzada, has made only three public appearances since the Taliban took power in August 2021. His reclusive existence, disrupted mostly to dispel doubts about his health, has not stopped him from building Kandahar as the real power center of the regime, protected by a 40,000-strong military force comprising of loyalists, which was allegedly created by spending 60 billion Afghanis. In October 2023, Akhundzada appointed Abdul Ahad Talib, the former governor of Helmand and the former commander of the Taliban suicide squad, as his “Special Forces Commander.”
The enormous power enjoyed by Akhundzada has been inversely proportional to the influence of the moderates and dissenters within the Taliban, who have been systematically sidelined. For instance, in September 2022, Akhundzada ousted the acting education minister, Noorullah Munir, who was replaced by the head of Kandahar’s provincial council, Maulvi Habibullah Agha. Munir himself represented the old school and was known for public statements dismissing the importance of higher education. But his apparent support for opening school to girls did not go down well with the top leadership. Kandahar-born Agha, on the other hand, is known to lack formal education himself, although he functioned as a judge in the first Taliban regime between 1996 and 2001. Agha began his tenure by announcing, “Open criticism of the Islamic Emirate officials is forbidden.”
International media have repeatedly pointed out the divisions within the Taliban movement, which tests its ability to stay united. However, there is every reason to believe that the hardliners have managed to have their way and the moderates have acquiesced, for fear of being reduced to complete irrelevance. The Taliban leadership’s strategy rewards those who toe the hard-line position. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the country’s second deputy prime minister for economic affairs, was once hailed as a moderate. However, Baradar continues to hold on to his position due to his expressed loyalty to Akhundzada. Another influential leader, Kandahar-born Foreign Minister Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi, has been promoted to the deputy prime minister position, replacing ailing moderate Maulavi Abdul Kabir, who interestingly in May 2023 had been appointed as the caretaker prime minister of the country in place of Mullah Akhund.
The Haqqani Network, which controls important ministries including the interior ministry, remains powerful and has occasionally expressed dissent with the Islamic Emirate’s policies. In February 2023, Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani criticized Akhundzada for “monopolizing power,” adding that the “situation can no more be tolerated.” To extract loyalty, Kandahar has provided him with significant operational freedom to quell domestic dissent, which has translated into significant leeway available to low and mid-level Taliban commanders and operatives to frequently detain, arrest, and in some cases orchestrate the disappearance of elements associated with the previous Republican regime and perceived dissenters. Haqqanis have also been credited with quelling Panjshir, which was the heart of the anti-Taliban resistance post-August 2021. During his first-ever visit to Panjshir in the last week of September 2023, Sirajuddin Haqqani called for trust-building between the people of Panjshir and the interim government and assured them “rights under the Shariah.”
The dominance of Kandahar continues to result in seemingly united and dissent-free Taliban policies, including those that banned women from attending universities and from working for international organizations. The draconian edicts to this effect passed by Akhundzada in December 2022 received no more than muted opposition. The Taliban have made clear that reversing the decision is not a priority.
On the issue of relations with Pakistan, the Taliban have remained united. In spite of the known pro-Pakistan leanings of some of the Taliban leaders, the group has maintained a strong position on its neighbor with regard to issues including the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the international border (known as the Durand Line) between the two countries, and bilateral trade. Ministers have talked tough in rebuffing Islamabad’s charges of sheltering the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorist group on Afghan soil.
Similarly, demands that an inclusive government be established in Afghanistan by the international community, as well as regional countries, have been completely ignored by the Taliban. In August 2023, while addressing a religious scholars gathering in Kabul, Foreign Minister Muttaqi dismissed the idea. Without naming Iran directly, which has also voiced its support for an inclusive government, Muttaqi reportedly ridiculed Tehran’s human rights record. “In your country, thousands have disappeared, yet nobody dares to ask about it,” he said. “Do you have an inclusive government?”
The specter of the Taliban’s implosion seems improbable in the near term. While the hardliners within the movement have consolidated their position, the Taliban may encounter, in the medium to long term, slowly growing discontent within the Pashtun belt, stoked by the Islamic Emirate’s misgovernance, lack of economic opportunities, retributive violence against women and opposition groups, and the plight of common Afghans.