The two rival Afghan Taliban factions have increasingly been fighting each other in Afghanistan since the collapse of efforts by pro-Taliban clerics to mediate between them.
Twice in the last few months, the fighters loyal to Mulla Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, head of the mainstream Taliban faction, and his rival Mulla Mohammad Rasool have fought pitched battles in Herat province. The factional fighting continued for five days in Shindand district of Herat before it subsided.
Afghan officials in the area daily gave a rundown on the fighting, but the Mansoor faction downplayed the happenings. The Rasool faction, however, alleged that the rival faction initiated the fighting without any provocation.
There were even reports that Mulla Raz Mohammad Nangyal, the top Rasool faction commander in Shindand had been killed in the fighting against Mulla Samad of the Mansoor group. The Rasool faction denied the reports and sent to the media an audio recording of Mulla Nangyal’s voice to prove that he is alive.
The Mansoor faction spokesmen have been claiming that Mulla Nangyal and other commanders of the Rasool faction were being backed by the Afghan government or have joined hands with Daesh. They even condemned their rivals as criminals and robbers.
The tribal elders and clerics who earlier in December 2015 brokered a ceasefire between the two factions in Shindand didn’t make any real effort to stop the violence. The two factions earlier fought against each other in Zabul and Farah provinces with the Mansoor faction gaining an upper hand everywhere. In Paktika and Faryab provinces, they nearly came to blows when commanders shifted allegiance from one faction to the other.
While the Afghan government watched in anticipation the weakening of the Taliban due to the factional fighting, the violence blocked roads, caused injuries to fighters and civilians, resulted in property losses and displaced people in Zer-e-Koh area of Shindand. Afghan government officials maintained that around 100 fighters from the two factions were killed in the fighting. However, the Rasool faction conceded losing a small number of fighters while the Mansoor faction claimed it didn’t suffer any losses.
The fighting led to a bizarre situation as the Mansoor faction alleged that the Rasool faction had links with the Khurasan chapter of Islamic State (IS), or Daesh, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Rasool faction which calls itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Aali Shura, denied the allegations and accused the Mansoor faction of fabricating the charge to justify its unprovoked war against it.
The Rasool faction even said it was opposed to militant groups with a global agenda such as Daesh and al-Qaeda because it wanted to confine its activities to Afghanistan to achieve its objectives of expelling all foreign forces and enforcing Shariah. It is the first time that a Taliban faction distanced itself from al-Qaeda as in the past the Taliban regime gave refuge to Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan. It also refused to expel bin Laden as demanded by Washington after the 9/11 attacks on the US.
The far more powerful Mansoor faction has yet to publicly dissociate from al-Qaeda even though their relationship isn’t as warm as in the past. In fact, many Taliban seem to be of the view that they have sacrificed enough for al-Qaeda and bin Laden and in future should refrain from harbouring foreign militants. However, it remains to be seen if this view would be reflected in the Taliban policies for the future.
The reason the Rasool faction was and is still believed to be close to the IS was the role of one of its late commanders, Mansoor Dadullah, who had developed ties with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and helped it to relocate to the Khak-i-Afghan district in Zabul province after getting uprooted from Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region as a result of the military operation, Zarb-e-Azb, in 2014-2015. Mansoor Dadullah’s elder brother, Mulla Dadullah Akhund, who was a top Afghan Taliban commander and was killed in Helmand province in fighting with US-led forces, was also close to al-Qaeda, IMU and other foreign militants and all of them were based at the time in Waziristan. Mansoor Dadullah was killed recently in fighting with the fighters of Mansoor faction in Zabul. The IMU too suffered heavy losses in the same round of fighting against the Mansoor group.
However, it seems the relationship was primarily between the IMU and Mansoor Dadullah and not between him and Daesh. As the IMU had announced allegiance to Daesh, this meant that Mansoor Dadullah also established links to the Islamic State through the IMU. Also, after the death of Mansoor Dadullah and defeat of IMU in Zabul at the hands of the Mansoor faction, the relationship between Mansoor Dadullah’s men and Daesh also broke down.
Daesh is now restricted to the eastern Nangarhar province where Mansoor Dadullah’s fighters and Rasool faction have no presence. It is under attack from not only the Afghan government forces and US drones, but also the Afghan Taliban. The IMU too has been fatally weakened and some of its fighters surrendered to the Mansoor faction in Zabul.
Moreover, the Rasool faction has realised that making an alliance with Daesh would put it in a difficult situation and make it a target of not only the Afghan government, but also the US and other countries and damage its relations with Pakistan. This could be the reason that the Rasool faction publicly announced its opposition to Daesh, al-Qaeda and other global militant groups.
The Mansoor faction is bitterly opposed to Daesh and the two have fought each other in Afghanistan. It considers Daesh a threat to its dominance as some Afghan Taliban commanders joined it earlier. There is no chance of reconciliation between them. The Rasool faction too cannot gain anything by forming an alliance with Daesh as the latter is weak and has little prospects of gaining strength because it is considered an alien organisation in the Af-Pak region. Daesh is an intruder in Afghanistan and is disliked by the Taliban, the al-Qaeda and other militant groups.
However, the diminished strength of Daesh, al-Qaeda and IMU doesn’t mean that the Mansoor and Rasool factions of Taliban would be able to reconcile with each other. Rather, their fighting has been intensifying to the dismay of many Taliban fighters.