It's already Asia's longest-running major insurgency, and it shows no signs of slowing. The Taliban are in the midst of a 16-year war against the NATO-backed government in Kabul as they seek to reconquer Afghanistan. As part of its annual spring offensive, besides staging attacks across the country, this year the movement has directed its energies toward the capture of the provincial capital of Farah province in an effort to replicate its brief takeover of Kunduz in 2015. The Taliban's battlefield successes would seem to negate the need to pursue negotiations with the group's Western-backed adversaries in Kabul. But peace might face an even bigger hurdle: the Taliban's acute internal divisions. Because the Taliban are riven by internal splits, no peace talks can ignore the group's various factions — particularly the Haqqani network, whose prominence in the organization and preference for a military outcome to the war suggest that a solution to Afghanistan's conflict will remain out of reach for some time to come.
Negotiations to resolve Afghanistan’s long war are unlikely in 2018 due to Pakistan’s continued support for the Taliban and the deployment of more U.S. troops to the country, Stratfor argued in its 2018 Annual Forecast, noting that the relationship between Islamabad and Washington would also deteriorate on account of Afghanistan throughout the year. While these factors – along with Iranian involvement in the country – will complicate the chances for peace, the existence of major splits within the Taliban will also hinder the near-term hopes of a major solution to the conflict.
The Nucleus: The Quetta Shura
The Taliban has at least four main branches whose relations range from pragmatic cooperation to active hostility. Organized around decision-making bodies called "shuras," these branches oversee various commissions and operate across Afghanistan — often in competition with one another and sometimes even within themselves. The Quetta Shura, which takes its name from its base in the eponymous Pakistani city, is the Taliban's most influential branch. Formed in 2003, two years after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan forced the group's members to flee into Pakistan, the Quetta Shura operates the Taliban's media wing. It also ostensibly controls two subordinate shuras, the Peshawar Shura and the Miran Shah Shura. The latter — often better known as the Haqqani network — is headquartered in North Waziristan’s Miran Shah, a town in Pakistan’s unruly northwestern tribal frontier a few kilometers from the Afghan border.
The Mover and Shaker: The Haqqani Network
The Haqqani network is the most ruthless, disciplined and organized subgroup within the Taliban, and it finds itself often at odds with other elements within the Quetta Shura. The network was a key beneficiary of CIA largesse under "Operation Cyclone," Washington's project to support the mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s. The Haqqani network is also a major impediment to the prospects of negotiations with Kabul on account of the strong rivalry between the branch's leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, and Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada — a jurist who is now the wider movement's supreme leader yet who lacks the former's military experience. The network's leader, who has exercised significant influence over the Taliban’s day-to-day operations since becoming the wider group's deputy leader in 2016, favors a solely military solution to the conflict. Akhundzada, by contrast, is open to negotiations with Kabul and wishes to continue funding the Taliban's vast apparatus of shadow governments that function as a parallel power structure to the central administration.
Because of the Taliban's internal dynamics, the Quetta Shura will likely have less room to maneuver to pursue a peace deal with Kabul if the Haqqani network gains power at the expense of Akhundzada. The network's quest for more power could also indicate an attempt by Islamabad to exert greater control over the Taliban. Numerous reports have attested to links between the network and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, to the degree that in 2011, Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the Haqqani network as being a "veritable arm" of the agency. Accordingly, Haqqani's attempts to centralize control over the Taliban suggest Islamabad is seeking to increase its own leverage over an increasingly fragmenting organization.
The Others: Northern, Mashhad and Rasool Shuras
The Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network, however, do not represent all of the Taliban, as the movement also features the Shura of the North, the Mashhad Shura and the Rasool Shura. The Shura of the North is based in Badakhshan, Afghanistan's northernmost province on the borders with China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Pashtuns predominantly fill the ranks of the Taliban, but the northern branch has diversified its makeup by drawing from non-Pashtun populations, including the Dari-speaking Tajiks who constitute the majority in the region.
As its name indicates, the Mashhad Shura is based in the northern Iranian city of the same name. The faction highlights the increasing clout of Afghanistan's western neighbor over the insurgency — a remarkable turn of events given that Shiite Iran was prepared to wage war against the Sunni Taliban in 1998 following the group's murder of a number of Iranian diplomats. In recent years, however, Iran has been cultivating links with the Taliban, both as a bulwark against the Islamic State and in the interests of hedging its bets if the group ultimately joins the government in Kabul. Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the Taliban's erstwhile leader, had even visited Iran in 2016 to pursue a stronger relationship with Tehran before a U.S. drone strike killed him after he crossed into Balochistan.
Pakistan's military has been making more overtures to Iran, perhaps as part of an attempt to aid the Taliban's efforts in western Afghanistan. At the same time, Islamabad wishes to channel Tehran's influence over the group so that it remains in harmony with Pakistan's wider strategic objectives of promoting a government in Kabul that is sympathetic to its interests and antagonistic to those of archrival India — even as the Islamic republic fosters friendlier relations with New Delhi. And as Tehran prepares to face renewed U.S. sanctions following President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal, it could ratchet up its support for the Taliban through the Mashhad Shura to retaliate against U.S.-backed NATO forces in Afghanistan as part of the wider proxy warfare strategy it is pursuing in Syria and Yemen.
Far from a united entity, the fragmented nature of the Taliban will complicate the chances of success in any peace negotiations.
The Rasool Shura, another major Taliban branch, is also active in western Afghanistan. The faction broke away from the Taliban after alleging that Mansoor had manipulated a selection process to install himself as the Taliban's supreme leader in July 2015 after news emerged that predecessor Mullah Mohammad Omar had died two years previously. Because of this disagreement on succession, the Rasool Shura refuses to recognize the authority of any of the other Taliban branches. Pakistan, however, has moved to rein in renegade elements of the Taliban such as the Rasool Shura, detaining the faction's leader, Mullah Mohammad Rasool, in March 2016 when he crossed into Pakistan.
The fragmented nature of the Taliban will complicate the chances of success in any peace negotiations, as assent from all factions is a prerequisite for any lasting deal. Given that fissures within the group are forging rival centers of power, Pakistan is likely to bolster its support for the Haqqani network in the hopes of bringing other factions to heel. But because the United States has designated the network as a terrorist organization, Islamabad's support for the faction is likely to drive a greater wedge between itself and Washington. As the two pursue conflicting objectives in Afghanistan, the prospects for an enduring resolution to the conflict grow ever dimmer.