‘They Can’t Overcome This’: Why The Taliban Can’t Agree On Anything

A year after they seized power, the Taliban is plagued by internal arguments about what an Islamic government in Afghanistan should look like, and girls’ education is the biggest casualty.
taliban afghanistan factions
PHOTO: AP Photo/Felipe Dana
VICE World News marks the first anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, from the devastating consequences that ensued to the millions of lives that were transformed.

A year after they toppled the US-backed Afghan government and promised a unified, rock-solid leadership, the upper echelons of the Taliban are riven with internal disputes as powerful factions squabble in a quest for dominance.

The Islamist group gave the impression of being a cohesive military and political unit as it completed the lightning-fast takeover of Afghanistan that stunned the world last August, ending a 20-year period of Western-backed governments post-9/11. 


But the Taliban is actually made up of a series of factions, ranging from the – in Taliban terms at least – relatively pragmatic clergymen in Qatar to the extremist Haqqani Network, whose leaders are still among the world's most-wanted terrorists despite now being Afghan government ministers. Senior figures from the Pashtun tribes from southern Afghanistan also make up a large chunk of Taliban leadership.

This factionalism has led to an inability to make basic decisions and enforce rules in areas of everyday  life. The area where it’s most apparent? Whether girls should be allowed to go to school.

In March this year, girls in Kabul aged 11-18 eagerly packed their backpacks and put on their uniforms, ready to resume learning after being banned for six months. The Taliban’s Education Ministry said they could go back before the start of the new academic year. But just hours after the schools were open, all girls were sent home, with another announcement overruling the initial decision from the same ministry, citing an edict from the group’s central leadership that said the girls should not be at school. The fresh decree was issued because the girls’ uniforms were apparently not modest enough, despite including a head covering. The Taliban says it is still working on a plan “in accordance with Islamic and Afghan cultural values.”  


A mother and father of three girls told VICE World News from Kabul that “it might be too late” for the Taliban to let girls attend high school classrooms again.

“We’ve been waiting for a long time for good news, and so have our daughters, but what we hear is only rumours, and there isn’t much that we can do about it,” the mother said, speaking anonymously for security reasons.

The girls are still languishing at home. 

“People need a clear idea of what will happen, but what we’ve heard so far from the Taliban people is to wait, and that everything is under control and in order,” said the father, who also asked to hide the identity of his family for fear of reprisals.

The school fiasco is just one example of a series of confusing edicts and institutional dysfunction. Universities were allowed to take female students in gender-segregated classes, but the decision put the Taliban leaders in Kabul against the more conservative figures from Pashtun tribes from Kandahar, a stronghold and unofficial capital of the Islamist group. 

Vague announcements by the group on dress codes have also caused confusion, as the feared Ministry for Virtue and the Prevention of Vice recommended in May that women should be covered from head to toe, initially not enforcing it but later bringing in punishments for women who broke the rule. The group's top leaders have openly said women should stay home, while others boasted about allowing some Afghan women to continue their work, primarily in the healthcare sector and a handful in the security forces. 


As the Taliban factions bicker over what an Islamic government should look like, the country is enduring an economic meltdown, with millions of Afghans plunged into poverty and a dire humanitarian crisis unfolding. 

Some Taliban leaders – notably those from the Qatar-based delegation – have tried to project a different, friendlier image of their organisation to encourage other countries to cooperate with Afghanistan. But the group’s dismal record on human rights, in particular women’s rights, means it’s still estranged from the rest of the world.  

The organisation is now split among regional groups that gained power in different provinces. When the Islamists took over Kabul a year ago, the new government was made up of senior figures and commanders from different groups within the Taliban, each with their own vision for the future of the country. 

The Taliban’s most senior figures are drawn from the Haqqanis – a group notorious for suicide bombing and kidnappings – as well as the Qatar-based leadership, who led the withdrawal negotiations with former US president Donald Trump’s administration, putting a friendly face on the supposedly amended Taliban and distancing the organisation from its brutal rule in the 1990s. The other part of the movement's top brass is made up of men mainly from the factions based in Kandahar represented by the senior religious figures from the southern Pashtun tribes. Some other senior posts are also filled by leaders from a smaller and less powerful faction of ethnic Tajik and Uzbek commanders, who are based mostly in the north of the country.


Ibraheem Bahiss, an analyst with Crisis Group's Asia Program, described unity as one of the major focuses of the current Taliban leadership. “Taliban leadership seems divided between those that seek a return to the 1990s and those that want to tread a different path,” he told VICE World News. 

The eleventh-hour rule-change on girls’ schools was because “the Taliban as a group hadn’t achieved an internal consensus on the issue, and they found it easy to default to the non-reopening of schools until they reach consensus,” Bahiss said. 


Girls leaving school in May. PHOTO: AHMAD SAHEL ARMAN/AFP via Getty Images

He added: “They are trying to build consensus on issues that they never really thought about in the past 20 years in a way that won’t antagonise its own important commanders in case these guys rebel against their government. This has been another key challenge for the Taliban, and one that they haven’t overcome yet as far as we can tell.” 

The Taliban was founded by Mullah Omar, a notoriously ferocious fighter who lost an eye during the Soviet-Afghan War. The Taliban was born out of the embers of a brutal civil war in the aftermath of the Soviet occupation, with Western-backed militants who fought in the conflict against the USSR forming groups based on tribal and ideological allegiances. These groups fought over the spoils of power, and the Taliban eventually came out on top during the civil war. They took over Afghanistan in 1996.


The movement led by Mullah Omar marked its reign with terror. His government closed down schools for girls, banned music, and forced women to stay indoors. Taliban soldiers were notorious for beating people up if they found people failing to follow the Islamist’s rules, such as unaccompanied women walking on the street or men failing to attend prayers five times a day.

After the 9/11 attacks, a US-led military invasion toppled the Taliban in a bid to dismantle al Qaeda and deny the group a base of operations in the country. Together with Afghan groups spearheaded by the Northern Alliance, the Western coalition brought in a new era, with a Western-backed government in Kabul. However, this, too, was tainted by corruption and factionalism, with warlords competing to snatch lucrative government and military contracts, making the country one of the most corrupt in the world.

After 2001, the Taliban was forced to withdraw to rural areas of Afghanistan and into neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan, where they ran a two-decade insurgency until resuming power over Kabul once again.  

In the 20 years since the US-led invasion, successive Afghan governments have been notable for little except endemic corruption. One of the only policy successes that came out of the invasion has been the number of girls getting an education, which grew from almost zero to 2.5 million in those two decades. 

The final decision is yet to be made by the Taliban on the issue of secondary schools for girls, but it would need the group to overcome opposition within its own ranks before causing any serious split in the well-knitted alliance. Despite the assurance given by a number of the Taliban’s top leaders on the issue, multiple reports suggest that the acting prime minister, Hibatullah Akhundzada, is strongly opposed to girls being educated. 

“For the Taliban, retaining its own coherence and preventing fragmentation of its movement seems paramount,” Bahiss said. “Even if it comes at the cost of depriving millions of girls from secondary education.”