The Taliban has descended into bitter in-fighting with so-called ‘moderates’ thought to be at war with terrorist hardliners as both vie for power in the vacuum left by America’s retreat from Afghanistan.
Mullah Baradar, a member of the Taliban old-guard who led negotiations with the Americans in Qatar, is thought to have been involved in a fight with Khalil Haqqani, a leader in the terrorist Haqqani Network and one of the FBI‘s most-wanted, in Kabul’s presidential palace as the pair argued over who had done more to drive US forces out.
Haqqani – who is the country’s new refugee minister – appears to have emerged the victor, with Baradar – the new deputy prime minister – now in hiding, with the Taliban forced to deny rumours that he was shot dead in the fight.
Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s supreme leader, a close ally of Baradar, and Emir of the new government, is also missing – with the Islamists insisting the pair are in Kandahar, though without providing convincing evidence.
The fighting is threatening to split the Taliban’s fledgling government between Baradar, Akhundzada and their allies – including the likes of Abdul Salam Hanafi and Mohammad Yaqoob – on one side, and the fearsome Haqqanis – including Khalil and his nephews Sirajuddin and Anas – on the other.
Up for grabs is a pot of $1.2billion in foreign aid which the UN has pledged to Afghanistan – $64million of it from the US – as well as a share of power in the new administration.
But the conflicts are also threatening to derail the fragile government even as the country’s economy teeters on the brink of economic collapse with millions facing starvation and many of the Taliban’s assets held or frozen by the West.
. Should the new administration collapse completely it could even plunge the country into civil war – creating a haven for terror groups to operate in.
Mullah Baradar, the Taliban’s deputy leader and Afghanistan’s deputy PM, is currently missing after reports of a punch-up with Khalil Haqqani, a leader in the fearsome Haqqani network that is vying for power in the new Afghan government with Baradar’s more-moderate allies
Afghanistan’s power-players: Who’s who now the US has withdrawn?
Formed during the Afghan civil war of the 1990s, the Taliban are a religious, political and military group made up of ethnic Pashtuns whose aim is to establish an Islamic nation that adheres to their strict interpretation of Sharia law.
Originally trained by the CIA to fight the Soviets, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996 when they seized the capital Kabul.
They were then ousted in 2001 in the US invasion in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.
After two decades of guerilla warfare against the US, the Taliban rapidly recaptured Afghanistan as US forces withdrew this year and now control more territory than at the start of the conflict.
Dating back to the 1970s, the Haqqani Network was founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani in order to fight the Soviets and received extensive training from the CIA.
The group continued to be a major force within Afghanistan after the Soviets departed, pledging allegiance to the Taliban in 1995 and forming part of their first government.
After the Taliban were deposed by the US, the Haqqani Network turned to terror attacks – leveraging connections with Al Qaeda and ISIS to carry out some of the biggest, deadliest and most-sophisticated attacks during the US war.
The US designated the Haqqani Network a terror group in 2012 and placed two of its senior leaders – Sirajuddin and Khalil Haqqai – on the FBI’s most-wanted list.
Sirajuddin has led the group since his father’s death in 2018, and is now Afghanistan’s interior minister
Another child of the Soviet-Afghan war, the terror group was founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden with the aim of ending all western influence in Muslim countries and establishing Islamic states based on strict Sharia law.
Jihadists trained and equipped by Al Qaeda have been responsible for some of the biggest and deadliest terror attacks of the last two decades, including the September 11 attacks.
Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan and close ties to the Taliban led to the US invasion in 2001, prompting Bin Laden to flee into northern Pakistan – where he was killed by American special forces in 2011.
Senior Al Qaeda figures have been seen heading back into Afghanistan following the Taliban’s take-over of the country, but its overall presence there is largely unknown and so-far it appears to have no role within the government.
The most-extreme of all terror groups operating in Afghanistan, ISIS-K was established in 2015 as a splinter group of ISIS while it was at the height of its powers in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS-K has been blamed for some of the worst atrocities in Afghanistan in recent years, including attacks on schools, hospitals and a maternity ward – during which pregnant women and newborn babies were killed.
Ideologically opposed to Al Qaeda, ISIS-K do have links to the Taliban via the Haqqani Network, and have collaborated with them to carry out attacks.
ISIS- K draws its members from Taliban ranks by picking off fighters who believe the group is not extreme enough, though its current strength is largely unknown.
It was behind the suicide bomb attack on Kabul airport last month that killed 170 including 13 US Marines.
Rumours of in-fighting between the two factions emerged when the Taliban announced its new government, with Baradar passed over for the prime minister’s job in favour of Hassan Akhund – a less-prominent figure who served as deputy PM during the first Taliban government in the 1990s.
That led to speculation that Baradar was demoted to appease the Haqqanis, who took a larger-than-expected role in the Cabinet – with Sirajuddin appointed Interior Minister.
Those rumours seemed to be confirmed on Tuesday when senior Taliban sources told the BBC that Baradar’s fight with Khalil Haqqani had been partly about the structure of the new government.
The fight had also been over who should take credit for the US retreat, with Baradar arguing that his diplomatic team in Doha should get the credit while Kahlil arguing his network of fighters did the heavy lifting.
‘Baradar and Khalil… exchanged strong words as their followers brawled with each other nearby,’ the source said.
Unsubstantiated reports of Baradar’s death then began to circulate including claims that the palace fight had ended in a gun battle in which he died, with the Taiban strongly denying that anything untoward had happened.
However, the Islamists have so-far failed to produce convincing evidence of Baradar’s whereabouts and safety.
The first ‘proof’ was nothing more than a handwritten note, signed by one of Baradar’s deputies Mawlawi Musa Kaleem, insisting there had had been no gun battle and that the leader is in Kandahar.
Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem then released the audio recording on Monday in which a man purporting to be Baradar accused ‘media propagandists’ of spreading false rumours about him
‘There had been news in the media about my death,’ Baradar said in the clip.
‘Over the past few nights I have been away on trips. Wherever I am at the moment, we are all fine, all my brothers and friends.
‘Media always publish fake propaganda. Therefore, reject bravely all those lies, and I 100 percent confirm to you there is no issue and we have no problem.’
Muhammad Suhail Shaheen, one of the group’s most-senior spokesmen who is based in Kabul, also rubbished the rumours.
‘Reports about Mullah Baradar Akhund being injured or killed are baseless and are not true, I categorically refute them,’ he said.
The Taliban has so-far given no reason as to why Baradar has not appeared in-person to deny rumours of his death. Akhundzada is notoriously camera-shy and has never appeared in public.
Further fuelling the speculation is the fact that the Islamists previously managed to conceal the death of their supreme leader Mullah Omar before it was uncovered by Afghan intelligence in 2015.
The Taliban subsequently confirmed that Omar had died in 2013, though to be from tuberculosis.
Taliban in-fighting is deeply unwelcome as Afghanistan faces severe food and cash shortages, with its economy near collapse after international aid dried up.
The UN warned today that 4million Afghans are facing ‘a food emergency’ with $36million urgently needed to ensure the planting of winter wheat and feed for livestock, along with cash assistance for vulnerable families, the elderly and the disabled.
Rein Paulsen, director of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Office of Emergencies and Resilience, told reporters at U.N. headquarters in a video briefing from Kabul that 70 per cent of Afghans live in rural areas and there is a severe drought affecting 7.3million Afghans in 25 of the country’s 34 provinces.
These vulnerable rural communities have also been hit by the Covid pandemic, he said.
Paulsen said 4million Afghans are facing a humanitarian emergency, characterized by ‘extreme gaps in food consumption, very high levels of acute malnutrition and excess mortality.’
Rumours that Baradar had been killed began circulating when he was absent from a high-level meeting between the Taliban and Qatar at the weekend (pictured), though the Islamists insist he is alive and well
The fighting reportedly took place at Kabul’s presidential palace, where just weeks ago gun-toting Taliban fighters had promised to restore peace and prosperity (pictured)
He said agriculture is ‘indispensable’ to the Afghan population – accounting for just over 25 per cent of the country’s GDP, directly employing some 45 per cent of the work force, ‘and most importantly it provides livelihood benefits for fully 80 per cent of the Afghan population.’
Many vulnerable families rely on livestock for food, he said, but 3 million animals are at risk as a result of the drought leaving inadequate pasture.
Paulsen said the winter wheat planting season – the most important in Afghanistan – is threatened by ‘challenges of the cash and banking system’ as well as challenges to markets and agricultural items.
Since the Taliban takeover on Aug. 15, fears have grown that Afghanistan could face economic collapse. Many banks have been closed, those that are open have limited cash withdrawals, and prices for staples have increased.
‘More than half of Afghans’ daily calorific intake comes from wheat,’ Paulsen said. ‘The crop is simply indispensable in food security terms’ and farmers must start to plant now.
‘FAO has resources in place to support an extra 1.25 million Afghans but much more is needed,’ he said. ‘The seeds can’t wait, the farmers can’t wait. This window is requiring an urgent scale and support for donors now.’
He said the FAO’s package of wheat, fertilizer and support for a single farmer costs $150.
‘For $150 a family of seven Afghans will produce 1.2 million tons of wheat – they’ll produce enough wheat to give them cereal and flour for an entire 12-month period,’ Paulsen said. That $150 is ‘incredibly impactful, very cost effective – and again, (it) underscores why it’s imperative that we don’t miss this winter wheat season,’ he added.
He also said more than 400,000 Afghans are displaced from their homes, mainly from rural areas, ‘and those numbers are rising.’ He said keeping farmers in their fields and herders with their flocks is critical to preventing a deepening displacement crisis.
If agriculture collapses further, Paulson warned, it will drive up malnutrition, increase displacement and worsen the humanitarian situation.
FAO in 2021 has supported nearly 2 million Afghans with livelihood and cash assistance, Paulsen said.
He said the $36 million that the FAO needs urgently for the winter farming season was part of the U.N.’s emergency appeal for $606 million. At a conference in Geneva on Monday, donors pledged $1.2 billion – double the amount sought, which Paulsen called encouraging.
FAO hopes the pledges will fully fund the $36 million needed, but Paulsen noted that they are only promises for now and donors need to quickly provide the cash.