What’s Next for the Taliban’s Leadership Amid Rising Dissent?

Since their takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban have moved to restrict social freedoms, with a persistent focus on the rights of women and girls. Two edicts issued in December 2022, indefinitely banning Afghan women from attending universities and prohibiting working in NGO offices, constitute the most extreme restrictions yet — orders that were expanded this week to apply to women working for the U.N. as well.

The bans, as shocking as they are, were not a surprise to close observers; diplomats covering Kabul had flagged well in advance that these policies were imminent. Western and regional governments had warned the Taliban that such moves would only isolate Afghanistan further, and remove any hope for the foreign assistance and economic investment the country desperately needs.

Perhaps more surprising has been evidence of Taliban opposition to the edicts issued by the emir, Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada. Ever since he overruled the Taliban cabinet’s decision to permit girls to resume secondary education in March 2022, a growing number of their leaders seem to disagree with the emir’s overall policy agenda. A fundamental divergence has grown between Taliban elites over their visions for the future.

Dissenters Emerge

From the group’s inception, the Taliban have famously tended to their movement’s cohesion. But since the 2021 takeover, internal disagreements have spilled into public view as international condemnations have rolled in, humanitarian aid has been disrupted and as the U.N. paused all operations. Since February, some of the most important Taliban leaders have openly criticized the country’s trajectory — if not the Taliban’s first instance of public criticism from within, certainly the most prominent.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, acting minister of interior and leader of the notorious Haqqani network, said the Taliban’s “monopolization” of power was “defaming” their entire system. He did not name the emir, but in context his criticism was clear. Mohammad Yaqoub, acting defense minister and son of the movement’s revered founder Omar, said days later the Taliban must always listen to “legitimate demands of the people.” A deputy prime minister and several other ministers offered similar remarks. In response, the emir’s defenders chided critics and called for obedience. One diplomat referred to these leaders — who were once seen as rivals jockeying for power — as an emerging camp of “dissenters.” Their frustrations exist, and are growing, on two different planes. One is rooted in policy differences, concerns over the future direction of the country and what their state looks like; the other is about contestation for power and how the state will apportion it.

Media and Afghan popular discourse obsessed over this rare public display of internal tensions. Commentators described an “intense” power struggle and explored the potential for political upheaval. Rumors spread of a coup plot against the emir, the emir’s counterplots, and Taliban factions breaking into open conflict. In early March, the emir called for a cabinet meeting in Kandahar, in which Hidayatullah Badri, acting minister of finance and a representative of key tribal and factional interests, allegedly tried to resign in protest of the emir’s management of the country’s affairs. Some gossip suggested the entire “dissent” camp had attempted the same.

Yet weeks passed, with no major disruptions to the Taliban’s governance modus operandi, which has plenty of everyday dysfunction. The Islamic State managed to assassinate a senior official, but this merely reinforced an existing difficulty containing the terror group (ever since, Taliban security forces have responded with an expansive series of raids). By the end of March, it was announced that Badri would be reassigned to helm the country’s central bank — hardly the outcome of an explosive revolt against the emir’s authority.

The Emir Asserts Himself

Does the reclusive emir possess unchallenged, “godlike” authority? Or are Taliban leaders plotting to overthrow him? Are Taliban policy debates really just raw struggles for power?

With the virtue of hindsight, the past year of Taliban politics offers some clarity. For most of their insurgency, the group’s leadership council determined policy via obscured consensus, hidden from even their own fighters. In propaganda and in theory, the emir always retained the final say, yet military imperatives dominated the movement’s decisions. But, after the military takeover, the emir began gradually to assert a more robust definition of his authority. The March 2022 decision on girls’ schools was his return to the Taliban’s center stage. From then on, his interference in ministries’ daily affairs increased steadily. By year’s end, the emir’s office had effectively taken over most official appointments, a historical source of patronage and authority in many Afghan governments, including the highly sensitive security ministries. This was a direct challenge to powerful figures like Haqqani and Yaqoub, who already disagreed with the emir’s agenda of domestic social policy and foreign isolationism.

The emir’s overreach, including his December decrees, should be understood as deeply political, and as preoccupied with internal politics as with a harsh vision of a gender apartheid society. One apparent motive for these bans grew out of an increasing concern that the emir’s policies weren’t being enforced strictly enough. Reports gradually made their way to Kandahar of mass disregard for the girls’ school ban and other gender-based restrictions. Obedience, the cornerstone of the movement’s strength, was faltering.

Understanding the Taliban

These internal divisions and Akhundzada’s effort to consolidate power provide several critical takeaways for U.S. policymakers attempting to understand the Taliban today:

  • The emir’s increasingly frantic micromanagement of governance appears prompted in part by perceptions of rampant disobedience; he can either accept being undermined, or double down. In this light, it seems the emir is issuing ever-harsher edicts from a place of weakness, not unquestioned supremacy. This assessment is bolstered, inter alia, by his establishment of ulema councils in every province — which seem to function as the emir’s eyes and ears, like a nationwide “neighborhood watch” for loyal clerics to report violations among the Taliban’s own officials.
  • Dissent against the emir’s agenda is real, but even as a growing number of Taliban seem to believe the emir is overreaching, dissenters aren’t necessarily all in agreement, or even working toward the same objectives, which will make it difficult for them to act in concert.
  • Dissenters, who seem to want to develop the economy and engage with the outside world without betraying their militant roots and ideals, assume a more complicated stance than the emir. More than anyone, Haqqani embodies this struggle between former identities and aspirational new ones: He is an ambitious state builder yet believed responsible for hosting al-Qaida’s former chief in Kabul.
  • The emir, in contrast, offers consistency. In one of his rare public speeches, he said the jihad or struggle did not end when foreign military forces withdrew and the Afghan republic collapsed. The struggle continues to this day, with purification of society as its aim (and with enemies still set against them).
  • Having built a movement based on obedience, with the emir notionally anchoring their organizational discipline, attempting to sideline or overthrow him would pull the rug out from under their own feet. The leadership’s Byzantine decision-making process lacks any solid mechanism for challenging the emir, who for the past 20 years — across different leaders — had almost always deferred to the group’s consensus. Too direct of a challenge to the emir’s authority, and local commanders could quickly lose faith in the movement.
  • Public criticisms are a creative attempt among dissenters to fight back against the emir’s overreach, and perhaps lay the groundwork for a move against him. But it is yet unclear if these critiques are the opening salvo in an impending contest, or acting more like a pressure release valve, allowing leaders to blow off steam while they bide their time.
  • Dissenters are caught in what some political scientists term the moderates’ dilemma, or what some analysts in Kabul call the Taliban’s “propaganda trap.” To prove resilient against a superpower’s military might, the Taliban radicalized their fighters (many practically from birth) and flooded them with extremist propaganda. To shift away from the insurgency’s narratives too suddenly, to ramp up diplomatic engagement and moderate social policies, would be a betrayal to many Taliban fighters. It would cast the leadership as just another “puppet” regime, beholden to foreign interests — exactly what they fought against. As the dust settled after the takeover, which was so sudden and shocking that most of the state was kept running by the republic’s bureaucracy, there was grumbling among rank and file that the Taliban’s government seemed just like the last one, only now wearing turbans and beards. Amid this atmosphere lingers the local branch of the Islamic State, tempting Taliban members with propaganda disparaging the Taliban for meeting with foreigners, compromising on public policy and betraying the purity of the jihadist cause.
  • The above reflection suggests an ominous conclusion. The emir, rather than being portrayed as a fanatical recluse, may be continuing to operate in the same style that won him the job in 2016: a careful listener, deferential to other views and interests. It must be considered a possibility that the emir is not implementing a harsh gender apartheid regime solely out of personal zealotry, but out of firm belief that core constituencies in the Taliban zealously demand it.
  • If true, policymakers shouldn’t hope for too much “moderation” from dissenters, even if they manage to gain the upper hand against the emir and his camp. Even the most pragmatic Taliban figure, elevated to supreme leadership, would be bombarded by the same internal expectations and pressures. The militancy boiling within the movement has not yet cooled.
  • Finally, the Taliban is made up of many different interests and factions, not easily labeled but very easily oversimplified, in a way that can catch policymakers off-guard. In the first days after their takeover, much was made over a spat between the “Haqqanis and the Kandaharis,” in which Haqqanis were painted as dangerous hardliners and Mullah Baradar, former chief of the political office in Doha, supposedly represented moderates and all of southern Afghanistan. Over time, it became clear that Haqqani and Baradar were both far more pragmatic than the emir — so “Kandahar” became shorthand for the supreme leader’s circles. But newer binaries like “Kabul versus Kandahar” obscure the fact that the emir has loyalists based in Kabul and discontents next door.

For the first six months of their rule, observers fixated on Kabul and barely noticed the center of gravity emerging in Kandahar. As the emir flexed his authority over the past year, observers fixated on him and his role. But Taliban politics are churning with dozens of entrenched interests. We are likely not paying enough attention to the next dynamic that could dominate the movement.

What’s Next for the Taliban’s Leadership Amid Rising Dissent?