This paper seeks to describe the structure of the Taliban, which is crucial to understanding why the jihadist movement has behaved the way it has since it retook power in Afghanistan in August 2021 and how it will behave in the future on issues of grave concern to the whole international community. It is the factional interplay, and the dynamic between “official” and “unofficial” institutions, that determine which ideological and strategic visions within the Taliban movement predominate and guide the policies of the state the jihadists now control. To explain this complex picture, the following report draws on networks of sources cultivated over many years, Westerners and Afghans, in or employed by various government institutions, past and present, who must remain anonymous for their safety.
When the Taliban is examined in a granular way, what emerges is group has two defined elements within its structure. The first element is the rigid hierarchical structure of the official Taliban government, known as the Islamic Emirate (IE). Within the IE, the supreme body is the Quetta Shura led by Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada. Akhundzada, who the Supreme Leader of the government, commands the primary ministries of the IE, including the prime minster, defense, home, finance, justice, and information ministries. The other element that defines the Taliban’s structure, and the one that is crucial to understanding its essential nature, is the umbrella aspect of the organization.
The Taliban thus serves as a defined group with institutions and delineated powers, and simultaneously as a more general movement under which different and distinct groups are able to operate. In addition to the Taliban’s Quetta Shura leadership and those loyal to it, there are three main additional groups operating under the Taliban label, which will be explored. And there are then groupings, some of them splintered into factions, that operate under the main Taliban body since the re-formation of the IE.
With the advent of a re-Talibanized Afghanistan, there were rumors from within the IE implying that the new government structure would include elements from the country’s tribal leadership that were traditionally disassociated from the Taliban movement. The notion was that this inclusivity would ensure the long-term stability of the IE regime; however, no sign of an inclusive structure has been observed.
The modus operandi of the Taliban has changed little since it emerged as a jihadist insurgent organization in 1994 with the explicit goal of creating an Islamic theocracy in Afghanistan. Since returning to power in August 2021, the Taliban has set about solidifying its absolute control and authority, and has been responsible for numerous violent attacks to repress resistance and root out dissidents. This repression is carried out in various ways, from the deployment of gunmen against protesters, raids of homes and businesses, and the co-optation of various societal institutions.
Apart from its repressive intent, Taliban-led Afghanistan, a state operating in severe isolation, has manifested extreme ineptitude: it has little capacity with modern institutional management; an inability to wield technology for the betterment of Afghan society; a lack of expertise to capitalize on Afghanistan’s natural resources (primarily agricultural and natural minerals); and an indispensable need for foreign ties to build commerce and revenue streams, yet an inability to establish such relations.
Despite the broad array of factions within the Taliban, political and military power is exercised by a small circle of actors in southwestern Afghanistan, especially from Kandahar province. Apart from the group’s formal governing bodies, there is Akhundzada’s special four-member advisory team consisting of hardline Sheikhs, which has de facto control of the entire Islamic Emirate, able to approve and reject every foreign and internal decision.
The Taliban remains a threat to international peace and security, posing a significant security threat to the region and beyond, since Taliban Afghanistan continues to host a variety of international jihadist groups. The internal power struggles of the Taliban, between the so-called Haqqani Network and the southwestern zone’s Sheikhs, are also a potential source of political instability in what is already a virtually failed state, potentially adding to the problems of the international community.
A further complication is that the Taliban is significantly under the influence of an ideologically transnational intelligence agency, namely Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI).
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