Taliban infighting complicates Afghanistan policy risks

'Talk of Taliban fracturing, however, shouldn’t be overstated,' one expert told lawmakers

A Taliban fighter walks past the Eid Gah mosque where a blast struck a day before, in Kabul on Monday. U.S. experts warn there is infighting within the group.  (Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images)
A Taliban fighter walks past the Eid Gah mosque where a blast struck a day before, in Kabul on Monday. U.S. experts warn there is infighting within the group. (Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted October 5, 2021 at 6:15pm

The sudden Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is causing significant growing pains within the leadership ranks of the terrorist organization, and one former senior U.S. diplomat says the Biden administration should be extra cautious about the group.

Retired ambassador Ryan Crocker, a career diplomat, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday he sees the current period in Afghanistan as akin to the early days of the Iranian Revolution.

“As a point of comparison, the Taliban takeover in the mid-90s is not analogous to what we’re looking at now,” Crocker told the panel. “I think a closer parallel would be the Iranian Revolution of 1979 in which we were told by Iran’s civilian leadership in the fall of ’79, ‘Now is the time to come back in as the U.S.’ They misread it because they had no idea what was going on in the inner circles of Ayatollah Khomeini. I think that’s what we’re looking at now.”

Following the initial overthrow of the shah in early 1979 by an ideologically diverse group of Islamists, secularists and Communists, the Islamic fundamentalist forces controlled by Khomeini had moved by the end of the year to consolidate power by purging other ideological elements and rivals who wanted to pursue a more moderate approach. It was in November 1979 that a group of radicalized Iranian college students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, touching off the Iranian hostage crisis, from which the two countries' relations have never recovered.

In recent weeks, there have been reports of infighting — including physical fights — between Taliban factions.

A more pragmatic element within the Taliban leadership, which has been involved in international talks, seeks diplomatic recognition and a continuation of the foreign humanitarian assistance. That aid is a lifeline for a majority of the country’s population. But that group reportedly is at odds with the overwhelmingly ethnic Pashtun hard-line faction.

The hard-liners dominate the Taliban's security services and have the support of many rank-and-file Taliban foot soldiers who have engaged in years of bloody battles.

“If reports of internal tensions are accurate, such strains could well intensify in the coming weeks, with the Taliban under great stress as it tries to consolidate power, gain domestic and international legitimacy, tackle an ever-worsening economic crisis, and fend off a terrorist threat posed by its Islamic State Khorasan rival,” said Afghanistan and South Asia analyst Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center think tank in a recent op-ed for the German news organization Deutsche Welle. (He was referring to the terrorist group widely known as ISIS-K.)

“Talk of Taliban fracturing, however, shouldn’t be overstated,” Kugelman warned. “We lack definitive proof about the alleged squabbling. Caution is also in order because, in the past, when the group confronted dissent within its ranks, it acted brutally to squelch it before it could become a serious threat.”

House Foreign Affairs ranking member Michael McCaul said he sees no reason to believe a more enlightened and moderate Taliban has claimed power.

“There’s this talk of a new and improved Taliban that we can normalize relationships with them, we can legitimize their government. When I look at the makeup of the leadership, it’s the same old cast of characters with strong ties to terrorism and al-Qaida,” the Texas Republican said.

Despite worries by McCaul and other senior Republicans, the Biden administration has given little indication it might recognize the Taliban as the legitimate ruler of Afghanistan, even as administration officials have acknowledged the fundamentalist organization is in de facto control of the country after former President Ashraf Ghani fled in the middle of the night in August.

'No limit'

Nonetheless, the Biden administration does need to make some decisions soon about what kind of an approach it will take toward the Taliban. Afghanistan is facing a possible economic meltdown, experts warn.

“Despite the difficulties created by the Taliban sanctions, I’ve heard no serious considerations that the entity should be removed from the sanctions list, and rightly so,” said Adam M. Smith, a former senior adviser to the Treasury Department on sanctions policy during the Obama administration, at a Tuesday Senate Banking Committee hearing.

“Consequently, U.S. sanctions policy must continue to work to limit flows and benefits to the Taliban and other sanctioned parties," he added. "However, it must also work to ensure that tens of millions of Afghan citizens are not victimized twice over: once by being subjected to the brutality of the Taliban and the second time by being denied access to basic needs.”

Smith outlined three sanctions approaches the Biden administration could take: One would be to treat the Taliban essentially as the United States currently treats the military junta in Myanmar following this year’s coup. While several senior figures involved in the military coup, government and major Burmese economic interests are under targeted sanctions, neither the Burmese government nor the Burmese nation state is sanctioned.

The second proposed approach would be to treat the Taliban similarly to the Maduro regime in Venezuela. In that case, the Afghan government, like the Venezuelan government, would be placed under sanctions — but not the Venezuelan state. The third and final option would be to treat Afghanistan similarly to Iran, in which case the whole of the Afghan government and the Afghan economy would be placed under sanctions.

In any case, said Smith, it would be essential that the Treasury Department provide clarification as to what kinds of humanitarian and other types of “benign” transactions are allowed with Afghanistan, or else expect massive human suffering there.

“The administration needs to leverage the flexibility of sanctions. There’s fairly no limit, regulatory or precedently, about the creativity of how one can implement sanctions," he said. "And doing so is not just a moral approach, but very much an approach that we need to do in order to achieve our other foreign policy and national security aims."