Akhundzada’s Challenges Bigger than his Predecessor

By: Imdad Hussain

Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada faces multiple internal and external challenges; internally, his movement is marred by differences and rebellion by smaller factions.

The rebuttal of Taliban talks with the Afghan government and then its senior members’ private confirmation does show the desperate state of affairs inside the movement.

Firstly, some of the Taliban senior leaders are opposing the idea of talks with Kabul as they dub the Afghan government as a US puppet. According to them, such a move could negatively affect the morale of their foot soldiers who are fighting against the government in Kabul. The Taliban breakaway faction, Mullah Rasool group, is opposing the talks openly and any move of negotiations with Kabul could push the disgruntled members of Taliban toward him. The Rasool’s group does not the government in Kabul and has been opposing the current Taliban leaders for differences with them since the days of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor to whom it never pledged allegiance and opposed his selection as the Taliban Chief. Several Taliban commanders including Manan Khan Niazi were angry with Mansoor for concealing Omar’s death and issuing statements for two years in his name.[1] They finally gathered and appointed Rasool as their Chief. Rasool was later on reportedly arrested in Pakistan.[2]

Secondly, Akhundzada’s fighters are literally unable to hold to a territory for longer periods of time because of the lethal US air force.

Thirdly, Taliban sources said that some of their leaders are war-fatigued and would like to find a way out of conflict the way Hezb-e-Islami’s Hekmetyar did. The loss of local support base probably is another big challenge.

Regional dynamics is also in play right now; China and Pakistan, too, are eager to realize the dream of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that will not be possible if militancy continues in Afghanistan.  Iran, too, is eager to expand its economic linkages through Pakistan to China and India. All this is putting pressure both on Kabul and Taliban to resume peace talks.

The regional countries overtly and covertly launched efforts for restarting talks between Kabul and Taliban. The Taliban delegation’s recent visits to Pakistan, China and Iran are a manifestation of secret efforts towards resuming the peace process in Afghanistan. The Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) process, which was stopped after the fourth meeting in Kabul, and the Heart of Asia conferences repeatedly called upon the Afghan warring groups to restart negotiations for peace. Pakistan and China were actively involved in the QCG process along Afghanistan and the US.

Though the internal and the regional situation has motivated the leadership of the Taliban for secret talks with the Afghan government held in October in Doha; yet the Taliban’s in-house differences over negotiations and factionalism faced them with dilemmas as well. [3]

The protracted war and the presence of US troops for training and strategic purpose in the country have made Taliban understand that they cannot recapture Kabul nor can they continue the occupation of certain districts in Helmand and Kunduz presently under their control, for long. The same is true for the opposite side as well; Kabul and the US are convinced that the conflict could not be ended by the use of military means alone.

It was in this backdrop that the secret talks in Qatar were held in the presence of a representative from the US.

For Kabul and the international community bringing Taliban to the table was a difficult task. Nevertheless, the move towards the peace process with Kabul is a challenge for Taliban as well.

Last year in July, the first round of talks between the representatives of Afghan government and Taliban were held in Murree with the facilitation of Pakistan. The talks were opposed by certain Taliban commanders including Abdul Qayum Zakir.[4] Amid the differences, a report pertaining to the death of Taliban Supreme leader Mullah Omer was leaked. [5] The news of Mullah Omer’s death not only caused the suspension of the peace process but also triggered divisions/factionalism within Taliban.

Rival Groups:

A dissident faction, believed to be the first public and official split of the Afghan Taliban since the group was formed in the 1990s, announced that Mullah Rasool was chosen as the unanimous leader of the new faction in July.[6]

A big headache for Akhundzada is the group of Mullah Rasool. Rasool’s group is presently led by Manan Khan Niazi. In a message to CRSS, Niazi said, “We consider Hibatullah and Ashraf Ghani as the same; they both are slaves. We have no contact with them.”

The challenges of Hibatullah Akhundzada are greater than his predecessor as the major concern of the naïve chief is his internal effectiveness while stopping further division in Taliban. He inherited factionalism from his predecessor Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, [7] During his almost one year long reign, Mullah Mansoor clashed with Taliban groups like the one led by Mansoor Dadullah and another by Mullah Mohammad Rasool.[8][9]

Sami Yousafzai, an expert on militancy in Afghanistan, told CRSS that internally Mullah Mansoor group is strong. “Initially Mullah Ibrahim Sadr, recently declared as the military commander by Taliban, had differences with Akhundzada over ties with the neighboring countries,” he added.

Though Akhundzada succeeded in attracting some leaders of Mullah Rasool, yet he has so far failed to win over the factions as a whole.[10][11]

Akhundzada was also able to attract Mullah Omer’s family and appointed one of his sons Mullah Yaqoob as his deputy.[12] The presence of Mullah Omer’s brother Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund in Doha talks also reveals his closeness to the family.

There were rumors that the Haqqani Network opposed the talks with Kabul, which were later on rebuffed by the group Chief Sirajuddin Haqqani.[13] And Niazi openly opposed the talks.[14]

Taliban sources said that they are wishing to hold talks with Kabul in the presence of representatives from the US to make the process effective.

One of the important conditions for peace in Afghanistan would be putting pressure on Taliban to shun ties with Al-Qaeda as it was demanded several times by the US officials in the past as well. The US wants the Haqqani Network to stop supporting Al-Qaeda as a precondition for talks. Al-Qaeda has historical ties with important figures in Taliban. Al-Qaeda vowed allegiance to Akhundzada after his accession as the Taliban Chief. [15] Resolving the issue of Al-Qaeda could become a complex task for the leadership of Taliban.

The author Imdad Hussain is a senior Research Fellow at the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS).

 

[1] https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/15517-breakaway-group-names-mulla-mohammad-rasool-as-leader

[2] http://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2016/03/22/national/afghan-talibans-top-dissident-mullah-rasool-arrested-in-pakistan/

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/18/taliban-afghanistan-secret-talks-qatar

[4] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-taliban-idUSKCN0PI0DX20150708

[5] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-33703097

[6] https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/15517-breakaway-group-names-mulla-mohammad-rasool-as-leader

[7]  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/21/us-airstrike-taliban-leader-mullah-akhtar-mansoor

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/10/dozens-killed-clashes-rival-taliban-factions-afghanistan-herat

[9] http://www.pajhwok.com/en/2015/12/05/%E2%80%98taliban%E2%80%99s-zabul-infighting-killed-and-wounded-hundreds%E2%80%99

[10] http://nation.com.pk/international/15-Aug-2016/taliban-splinter-faction-pledges-allegiance-to-maulavi-haibatullah-akhundzada

[11] http://tribune.com.pk/story/1070273/in-custody-afghan-talibans-top-dissident-detained-in-pakistan-front-page/

[12] https://www.geo.tv/latest/106574-Afghan-Taliban-announce-new-leader-confirm-Mullah-Mansours-death-hebatullah-akhundzada%3A+geo%2FwUIl+(Geo+World+-+Geo+TV+Network)

[13] http://www.khaama.com/sirajuddin-haqqani-says-taliban-open-to-talks-in-line-with-sharia-01262

[14] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-taliban-talks-idUSKBN0UL1PI20160107

[15] http://edition.cnn.com/2016/06/11/middleeast/al-qaeda-taliban-allegiance/

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