The Afghan Taliban claims its members are students of divine inevitability: swords of justice establishing God’s order on Earth. Within the Taliban, this narrative seeks to unite fighters in sustaining purpose. Externally, it serves to weaken Taliban enemies by fostering a belief that the group will never yield. But the Taliban has a problem: Its former leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, is officially dead, and its unity is crumbling in his absence.
As Mushtaq Yusfzai and Fazul Rahim report, the Taliban is deeply divided about its new leader, Akhtar Mansoor. Selected by the Quetta Shura — the Afghan Taliban council in Pakistan — Mansoor appears to have the support of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service, the ISI. (Indian officials believe Mansoor’s links with the ISI are longstanding.) But some in the Taliban favored Omar’s son, Mohammed Yaqoob, as successor, and their number includes proven battlefield commanders who have influence and power. As Mullah Omar shaped the Taliban, personal loyalty defines organizational loyalty, and Mansoor lacks personal loyalty.
For the Taliban, this isn’t just a military challenge. Since Mansoor’s appointment, the Taliban’s top political officer in Qatar has also resigned — a move that will isolate the group from Doha’s cash and political cover. It couldn’t come at a worse time for the Taliban, which currently faces serious competition from the Islamic State (ISIS). Actively recruiting jihadists to its global banner, ISIS is winning allegiance from Taliban commanders infuriated by the Afghan Taliban’s hesitant steps toward peace negotiations. A similar fragmentation is underway in the Pakistani Taliban.
America can exploit these fractures.
For a start, as Taliban commanders and facilitators come out of the shadows to express support or disapproval for their new leader or join the Islamic State, the U..S will be able to target those militants who are irreconcilable to peace. A more comprehensive strategy could allow the U.S. to refocus its efforts on commanders who adopt the ISIS banner.
A versatile American strategy can and should be decisive in guiding Afghanistan toward a better day.
As the Taliban divides, so too will its lines of communication. Forced to establish new networks and alliances, Taliban commanders will become more vulnerable. This instability will encourage Taliban logistics agents on the periphery of the organization to reassess their allegiances. This is especially true in Pakistan, where logistics agents will be wary of maintaining relationships with a sub-faction that the ISI opposes. The U.S. can aid this effort by confronting logistics agents who support irreconcilable factions.
As the U.S. escalates against the irreconcilables, undecided Taliban commanders will face a clear, binary choice: fight alongside a weakened Taliban sub-faction or the Islamic State in a perpetual, ideologically pure war, or compromise. It’s a choice of reality. After all, Taliban officers amenable to peace are negotiating not because of war-weariness but because they’ve realized that they cannot win back control of Afghanistan. Though Afghan security forces are stretched in manpower and still patchy in leadership, the Taliban cannot overwhelm them. Afghanistan’s economy is slowly improving, and 66 percent of the country’s population is under 25. With Afghanistan’s continuing educational empowerment and economic and political development, the Taliban’s nihilist ideology will be relegated to shadow governance and intimidation.
To be sure, a brighter future for Afghanistan is not guaranteed. Significant elements of the Taliban will remain a threat for now. Continued American military support — most specifically in training, intelligence, aviation, and logistics — will be needed to mitigate this threat. Yet as Taliban commanders decide whether to re-banner with the Islamic State, or establish sub-factions, or pursue meaningful peace, a versatile American strategy can and should be decisive in guiding Afghanistan toward a better day.