Taliban divisions inflamed by sweeping restrictions on women

Taliban members viewing a picture of their supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada in Kabul in August 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – The Taliban’s sweeping orders to restrict women’s rights have exacerbated divisions in the militant group to the point where rival factions are surrounding themselves with loyal troops, according to sources.

The Taliban last week prohibited women from attending university or working in non-governmental organisations, adding to directives in 2022 banning them from visiting gyms, amusement parks and public baths – as well as curbing their ability to travel more than 70km without a male escort.

The moves sparked outrage among Afghans and the international community, with even some friendly Islamic countries expressing opposition.

The conservative decrees were ordered by the militant group’s rarely seen Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, who rules from the southern city of Kandahar and issues edicts via a religious council of Taliban clerics, said the sources, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive matters. 

Sources said a group of Taliban leaders is pushing back against Mullah Akhundzada, led by Defence Minister Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of the group’s late founder Mohammad Omar, and Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani Network, who is on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most-wanted list for terrorism.

Their attempts to meet the Supreme Leader to discuss the matter have so far been rebuffed, the sources said.

Tensions are so acute now that both factions are gathering loyal personnel in case the conflict escalates into fighting, the sources said.

Mullah Yaqoob and Mr Haqqani hold fort in the capital Kabul, while Mullah Akhundzada’s base is Kandahar – where the Taliban movement arose in the early 1990s. 

While Afghanistan has a national army made up of Taliban soldiers and some troops from the US-trained force that was defeated in 2021, many top ministers in the current government are former warlords or militia leaders that still command the loyalty of thousands of fighters. 

Due to their positions in government, the younger Taliban leaders – Mullah Yaqoob and Mr Haqqani – have access to billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment left behind by the American military.

Mullah Akhundzada’s loyalists are mostly drawn from local armed militias in Kandahar and like-minded religious leaders who have fighters of their own, sources said. 

Mr Bilal Karimi, a spokesman for the Taliban-run government, denied any “disunity and discord among Taliban leaders” over the orders on women, and said he was not aware of any attempts by Mullah Yaqoob and Mr Haqqani to meet Mullah Akhundzada.

“Every member of the Islamic Emirate respects and obeys the Supreme Leader’s orders,” Mr Karimi said in a phone call. “The power of obedience is unbreakable.” 

Still, Mullah Yaqoob and Mr Haqqani have expressed a difference on issues of women’s rights.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Mr Abdul Nafi Takor, said by phone that Mr Haqqani “wants a resolution to the issue of female education and employment, and the creation of a pure Islamic environment in which girls and women can study and work”. 

Defence Ministry spokesman Enayatullah Khwarizmi declined to comment on Mullah Yaqoob’s views on the latest restrictions on women.

In an interview with National Public Radio in August, Mullah Yaqoob said he was serious about preparing the ground for all girls to return to school.

Neither spokesman would comment on suggestions of discord between the two ministers and Supreme Leader Akhundzada.

This is not the first time that fissures have erupted within the Taliban over issues including women’s rights.

The New York Times reported earlier in 2022 that Mahdi Mujahid, a Shi’ite Taliban commander, severed ties with the group’s leadership and led an uprising in his northern home town of Balkhab.

That resulted in weeks of fierce fighting until Mujahid was apprehended while fleeing to Iran and later killed.

When the Taliban took over Kabul in 2021, leaders of the group sought to reassure the world that it would have more respect for women’s rights, including ensuring they receive an education.

But Mullah Akhundzada earlier in 2022 hinted at a return to the harsh laws in place when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Within Afghanistan, some men have also protested against the decision to ban women from attending universities.

Several aid organisations – including the largest group working in the country, the International Rescue Committee – suspended operations following the move to bar female employees, potentially disrupting humanitarian aid to millions of people during the harsh winter months. 

Many Taliban officials educate their families – including daughters – in places such as Pakistan, Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, according to Mr Graeme Smith, a senior consultant with the International Crisis Group’s Asia Programme, focusing on Afghanistan. 

“The Emir’s push for a more conservative set of policies does strain the Taliban’s traditional cohesiveness,” he said.

“The Emir personally wanted a more conservative policy, and he asserted his growing clout by overruling more pragmatic elements of the Taliban.” BLOOMBERG

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