Taliban Fragmentation: A Figment of Your Imagination?


In President Barack Obama’s first year in office, some members of his administration sought to execute a strategic policy shift in Afghanistan, hoping to build a path toward a political solution via a grab bag of different initiatives, including the disarmament of “reconcilable” Taliban fighters and even talks with Taliban representatives. The strategy was controversial in national security circles, members of which argued in favor of a military surge in tandem. This policy shift failed to gain traction. Some initiatives never took off, and others, like the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program and the High Peace Council, were weakly implemented and faced staunch resistance. But at the heart of this failed strategy’s multiple strands and justifications was a core concept: The Taliban, as a loose and fragmented organization, could be fractured, weakened, and rendered susceptible to talks.

The notion of the Taliban insurgency as a fractured entity, rife with internal strife, has lingered in much of the commentary and analysis on the Afghan conflict. This is in spite of the last five years, which have witnessed the Taliban pull out of its bloodiest internal crisis and achieve its strongest position since 2001. Long after the United States quietly abandoned its stated aim of “shattering” the Taliban, even Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani was said to refer to his long-term plan for ending the conflict as “fight, fracture, talk.” Most recently, the characterization of the Taliban as fragile has resurfaced in speculation that the group may splinter due to a hardliner rejection of a settlement with the United States. This concern assumes that more ideologically driven or disaffected fighters will drift to the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate or other extremist groups.

The likelihood of the Taliban’s potential fracture, especially into the arms of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, is overstated. In fact, as with its territorial gains, the group is at its most cohesive since the fall of its regime in 2001. This cohesion is the result of remarkable resilience and adaptation, due to the following factors: (1) Its leadership’s own fixation since 2015 on potential fragmentation, which it has consistently taken harsh retributive action to mitigate against; (2) the professionalization of its military and leadership structure; (3) its re-engagement with governance as a genuine shadow state; and (4) its shifting relationship with Pakistan. The group’s improved command and control, and the apparent importance of projecting unity while speaking with its enemies, makes the prospect of reaching and enforcing a deal more likely — but it also provides clues as to the Taliban’s parameters of what it will and won’t accept.

The Price of Harmony

This cohesiveness has not come without cost. Every instance of dissent and disunity in the last decade that the Taliban perceived as a threat was harshly, even brutally suppressed. The movement has eliminated factions of its former fighters, or foreign fighters hosted under Taliban protection, that openly defied its unity of command or pledged loyalty to the Islamic State. In 2015, Taliban forces famously killed hundreds of fighters loyal to Mansour Dadullah, a dissident who rejected Mullah Mansour’s succession after Mullah Omar’s death was made public. Similarly, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan was effectively dissolved after hundreds of its Central Asian members in Zabul pledged affiliation to the Islamic State, and were killed shortly thereafter by the Taliban. In 2018, the Taliban again crushed a former commander and his fighters in northern Jawzjan province who had broken away and flirted with joining the Islamic State.

While the Taliban has proven incapable of dislodging the Islamic State from pockets of eastern Afghanistan, it has made the extremist faction its number one military priority: More than one international conflict monitor I spoke to reported that the Taliban clashed with the Islamic State more often than with Afghan government forces in the first three months of 2019. Taliban leaders do not brook any perceived threat to its dominance over Afghanistan’s insurgent landscape (a trait also evident in its continued complicated relationship with al-Qaeda). Indeed, earlier this year, the movement was not only rounding up and questioning foreign fighters under its protection, but even clerics suspected of Salafist leanings.

The movement has hunted down dissidents who might signal internal fissures on a much more individual level, as well: One reason for the failure of the Obama-era attempts to turn Taliban fighters was a quiet campaign of killings of some of those who underwent reconciliation. The harsh suppression of even individual narratives that diverge from the Taliban’s official line has continued: Some Taliban commanders and fighters caught on camera fraternizing with government forces during 2018’s three-day ceasefire during Eid seem to have been assassinated.

This aggressive prosecution of perceived agitators has undergirded broader institutional changes. The scholar Anthony Giustozzi, among others, has chronicled the Taliban’s military development from a diffuse collection of leaders commanding individual loyalty, to an insurgency putting its guidelines for proper behavior into writing, to the creation of command hierarchies and even a “special forces” branch (with Pakistani assistance but also independently), to the movement’s growing assertiveness in managing its new structure. Researchers like Ashley Jackson have demonstrated that this decade of military adaptation was matched, in the last three or four years, by renewed emphasis on service provision to civilian populations under Taliban control — albeit unevenly, and still dependent on the Taliban’s exploitation of Afghan government and international infrastructure and funds. Amid all this, the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan has fundamentally changed, as its recruitment has organically shifted back into rural areas of Afghanistan. The Taliban’s leaders still live in refuge across the border, but a new generation of mid-level commanders and foot soldiers never have. More than anything, they bear resentment toward Pakistan for perceived influence over their leaders — and the Taliban’s most senior leaders are aware of this dynamic.

Insurrection in the Ranks? Relatively Little

Since the Taliban’s leadership council selected Haibatullah Akhundzada to replace the late Mullah Mansour as Amir al-Mu’minin in 2016, the Taliban has avoided the open leadership rifts that plagued his predecessor (and at least thus far, conveniently timed arrests by Pakistani authorities).

The apparent assassination attempt on Haibatullah earlier this month, although it went unclaimed, will doubtlessly feed speculation of renewed internal strife. But even if the attempt was the first step in an escalation from ideological tension to internecine power struggle, that would not necessarily break the Taliban’s strengthened command structure — nor the enforcement squads ruthlessly backing its authority. U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad’s optimistic announcements about reaching an agreement with the group two weeks later demonstrate the Taliban’s cohesion — hardly suggestive of a fragile movement.

Some analysts remained worried that hardline factions are so opposed to a peace roadmap that signing an agreement will split the movement as severely as the succession crisis after Mullah Omar’s death was made public. In particular, the notoriously anti-peace, anti-American, al-Qaeda friendly Haqqani Network attracts concern — the group is even alleged to share pipelines for suicide bombers with the Islamic State. Yet Sirajuddin Haqqani, the faction’s leader for 20 years, presides over the Taliban council responsible for combatting the Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan, and has served as the Taliban’s number two leader since 2015. At first, many predicted that he would come to dominate the movement and thus prevent any peaceful resolution to the conflict. It has not been as widely acknowledged that Sirajuddin’s accession to top levels of Taliban leadership was critical to bringing different factions of the group back into line, at a time of open dissent.

If the Haqqani Network was once a semi-autonomous hardline faction, operating under loose cooperation with the Taliban almost exclusively within a single region, it has since grown interdependent and enmeshed with the group. Sirajuddin Haqqani now exerts sway over a national insurgent movement poised to return to some form of legitimized authority in Afghanistan. It is an unlikely moment to abandon the Taliban, whether out of ideological purity or other motives.

It has become somewhat of a truism over the last year that the strongest evidence of the Taliban’s internal unity was its display of countrywide discipline during last year’s Eid ceasefire. It has also been counter-argued persuasively in these virtual pages by Jonathan Schroeden that such a display is not sufficient proof of organizational cohesion. Still, in spite of its multiple centers of power, tense debate ongoing at the highest levels of Taliban leadership, the continued survival of the country’s Islamic State affiliate, and intensified pressure from the last year’s international aerial bombardment, the Taliban movement is one of the more unified actors in Afghanistan. Even as the formal adoption of a draft agreement with the United States appears imminent, the Taliban are addressing any perceptions of weakness or compromise by mounting a series of offensives and suicide attacks this week.

The group’s stance during every phase of the last year’s talks with American diplomats and Afghan political opposition has remained remarkably consistent — projecting its victory narrative both in external messaging and reports of internal communiques. Even as the group slowly moves toward rhetorical acceptance of a ceasefire and power-sharing arrangement in return for a guaranteed American withdrawal, the insistence that victory is impending holds firm.

Opponents of a looming U.S. agreement with the Taliban argue that this consistency of messaging is proof of the Taliban’s untrustworthiness, evidence of its true ambition to march on Kabul — warnings worth heeding, if they do not necessarily justify rejecting efforts toward peace. But rarely is the group’s consistency acknowledged as corroborating the cohesion of Taliban leadership.

Parameters of Peace

The Taliban’s cohesion is actually good news for any potential outcome from the ongoing peace talks: A firmly united negotiating party is more capable of making and, if it is willing, enforcing its commitments.

Negotiators and policymakers in Washington and in Kabul should keep the Taliban’s preoccupation with unity — the appearance thereof, as well as its substance — in mind, especially as the process advances into discussion of the future of the Taliban’s fighters. The movement has been alarmingly opaque about the compromises it might be willing to make in a potential peace deal: Will there be a power-sharing arrangement? What will be insisted on? How will Taliban rank and file be disarmed, demobilized, and reintegrated, and when — or will they? Close observers of Afghanistan have been asking these questions since Khalilzad’s first meeting with Taliban representatives last year — at times, from directly across the table.

Most of those involved in negotiations thus far agree that the Taliban is unlikely to undergo immediate demobilization — if any at all. This is not a nonstarter. The latest conventional wisdom gained from conflict resolution around the globe is that some reintegration often needs to precede disarmament. Some, including elements of the U.S. military, have suggested that given the Taliban’s animosity toward the Islamic State, the movement could become a partner in operations against more extreme elements. Others are understandably skeptical. But the question is not whether the United States can bring itself to partner with the Taliban, but rather, whether Taliban leaders could sell such a partnership to their ranks.

This question, in the absence of explicitly stated positions from Taliban negotiators, can guide and set some assumed parameters for many elements of a post-peace settlement: How will the Taliban undertake proposal X, even if it is inclined or incentivized, in a manner that accords with the narrative of victory it consistently maintains? Suggestions that do not meet the “victory narrative” smell test are likely to be rejected — or should come under the greatest suspicion of being insincerely implemented. For instance, the group might agree to limited cooperation on counter-terrorism efforts, such as coordinating the timing of U.S. airstrikes and Taliban ground assaults against the Islamic State — but only on the condition that such collusion remain secretive and plausibly deniable.

The Taliban’s leadership has managed, at great cost, to make the movement into a coherent one. They are almost certain to reject any peace that (a) leaves a good number of its fighters dejected or demoralized, (b) strips them of their identity as an armed organic entity too quickly, or (c) reduces their ability to enforce unity among their own ranks.

A political solution to the Afghan conflict will not reduce the country’s staggering levels of crime, endemic corruption, or prevent bad actors (individuals, bands of bandits, or external influences — all of which Afghanistan has aplenty) from taking advantage of a period of transition. But understanding how and why the Taliban have grown more unified, as specialists who study the movement have suggested, could be the key to ensuring they stay that way, long enough to achieve a political solution at all.


Andrew Watkins is an independent researcher with over four years’ experience in Afghanistan. He deployed there as a member of the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, later returned as a liaison with local security forces and as a conflict analyst for the humanitarian community, and most recently with the United Nations this year. You can find him on Twitter @and_huh_what.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Tommy Bellegarde