The drone attack that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has plunged the Taliban into an internal crisis. The group has been humiliated by a unilateral US military action and its relentless claims that it has denied space to “terrorists” have been exposed as lies.
This imperils two core, and contradictory, Taliban goals: Maintaining the legitimacy of the group’s rank and file, which includes hardened armed fighters and religious ideologues and securing badly needed financial assistance from an international community already reluctant to fund the Taliban because of concerns about its “terrorist” ties.
Initially, the Taliban are likely to respond to the raid on al-Zawahiri with defiance, insisting they were not harbouring a terrorist and hardening their resistance to addressing longstanding international demands, from letting older girls return to school to forming a more inclusive government. They may also take a harder line on sensitive negotiations with Washington on the delivery of humanitarian supplies and the unfreezing of Afghan Central Bank assets.
But over the longer term, al-Zawahiri’s killing could exacerbate existing fissures within the group. Such internal churn could provide openings for the emergence of factions espousing more conciliatory and practical views but it could also lead to dysfunction and danger that affect governance and raise questions about the viability of the Taliban’s future political control.
For nearly a year, the Taliban have celebrated their expulsion of foreign military forces and pledged to never let them return. That is why the drone raid was such an embarrassment for the Taliban leadership but also for the battlefield commanders and fighters that fought US forces for nearly 20 years. Since their takeover, the Taliban have made clear just how much they prioritise maintaining legitimacy from those constituencies: They have hosted ceremonies honouring the families of suicide bombers, and held military parades that showcase US weaponry, even while alienating common Afghans by limiting girls’ education and cracking down on journalists and activists. The group will need to appease an angry rank and file; simply shrugging off the raid and moving on will not cut it.
The Taliban could also face new threats from Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), if they do not take a hard line towards the US. ISKP, a Taliban and al-Qaeda rival, has already benefitted from the al-Zawahiri killing because one of its most senior nemeses has been eliminated. But it can also gain propaganda mileage by accusing the Taliban of failing to anticipate the raid, or even of being complicit in it. ISKP fighters are clearly galvanised; this week, they attempted attacks on Shia observing the Muharram holiday.
The raid on al-Zawahiri also risks alienating the Taliban’s other hardliner allies present in Afghanistan, from the Pakistani Taliban to Lashkar-e-Taiba, all of which are aligned with al-Qaeda. These groups are united in their hatred of US military forces, especially when deployed on the soil of Muslim countries. Ironically, new Taliban tensions with fighters could strengthen the group’s narrative that it is distancing itself from “terrorists” – but they also raise the risk of these groups turning their guns on the Taliban.
Furthermore, in the immediate term, Washington will not be keen to engage with the Taliban. It is furious that al-Zawahiri lived in central Kabul, and believes some Taliban leaders knew he was there. With the US taking a tough line on the Taliban, and in no mood to discuss expanding assistance or unfreezing Afghan bank funds, the Taliban have little incentive to contemplate a more conciliatory position. US-Taliban relations, awkward and uneasy before the al-Zawahiri raid, are poised to become downright toxic.
But relations within the Taliban could become toxic, too. The group’s internal divisions are well known: There are differences between the fighter ranks and the civilian representatives long based in the Taliban political office in Doha; between ideologically-driven mullahs and more practically minded leaders who support more international engagement; and between the Haqqani network faction and Taliban authorities from Kandahar, the group’s birthplace.
An individual close to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban interior minister, reportedly owns the home that sheltered al-Zawahiri. This is unsurprising, given the especially deep ties between the Haqqanis and al-Qaeda. According to scholars Don Rassler and Vahid Brown, the Haqqani network has functioned within al-Qaeda “as an interdependent system.”
Many Taliban leaders likely are not happy that al-Zawahiri took shelter in Kabul. Others are likely furious that his presence has subjected the group to deep humiliation and a potential internal legitimacy crisis. And others likely fear someone within the group’s ranks shared al-Zawahiri’s location with the CIA. Al-Zawahiri himself once reportedly confided to al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden that he did not trust Taliban leaders and they did not trust him.
The missile attack humiliated the Taliban. They also face the ire of the group’s rank and file. And they will now face even more difficulty in securing international support to address raging humanitarian and economic crises driven in great part by sanctions that prevent money from flowing into the country. This state of play means that those factions that support more pragmatic and conciliatory positions may have an opportunity to make a power play. And yet, the ideologues and hardliners will not bend. They hold some of the leadership’s top positions, and they embrace ideologies that reflect the Taliban’s fundamental identity.
In the past, the Taliban’s supreme leadership successfully suppressed internal revolts, often with force. That may happen this time, too. But that was easier to do when the group was an armed uprising, with much less stress, without the heavy responsibilities of governing and addressing immense policy challenges, without a galvanised rival like ISKP, and without an external event that could cause such dramatic internal shocks. Institutional divisions were previously casual distractions; today, they could become corrosive dangers. If these internal tensions become all consuming, governance and political control could face threats and provide openings for new armed opposition groups. This would mean the risk of renewed violence and civil war. In the most extreme scenario, the missile that tore through al-Zawahiri could tear apart the Taliban.
For now, the Taliban appear to be buying themselves time as they consider how to proceed: They refused to confirm al-Zawahiri was killed and instead promised an investigation. In the immediate term, the Taliban are likely to talk tough, condemn the raid, and double down on the same policies that have provoked international sanctions and prevented the inflow of much-needed overseas funding.
But eventually, the Taliban could face an inflexion point as they grapple with humiliation, a traumatised rank and file, more international opprobrium, and intensifying internal divisions – all of which will further tax their already-overwhelming governance responsibilities. Over their nearly 30 years of existence, the Taliban have never experienced such a serious crisis.
Michael Kugelman is deputy director and senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.