Rare sign of division emerges among Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders in obliquely critical speech

Taliban acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani in Kabul
The Taliban’s acting interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, speaks at a police academy graduation ceremony in Kabul.
(Associated Press)

A rare public show of division within the ranks of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban has emerged in recent days with a speech by powerful acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani that some see as implicit criticism of the movement’s reclusive supreme leader.

The Taliban leadership has been opaque since the former insurgents’ takeover of the country in August 2021, with almost no indication of how decisions are made.

In recent months, the supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, has appeared to take a stronger hand in directing policy. In particular, it was on his orders that the Taliban government banned women and girls from universities and schools after sixth grade.


The bans raised an international uproar, increasing Afghanistan’s isolation and worsening its humanitarian crisis at a time when the economy has collapsed. The bans also appeared to contradict previous pledges and policies by the Taliban government.

Between the Taliban takeover and the December ban on attending universities, women had been allowed to continue their studies. Taliban officials repeatedly promised that girls would be allowed to attend secondary school, but a decision to allow them back last year was suddenly reversed.

Haqqani gave a speech over the weekend at the graduation ceremony of an Islamic religious school in the eastern province of Khowst.

Though it pledged to respect the rights of Afghan women and girls, the Taliban is turning back the clock on their education and presence in public life.

Nov. 21, 2022

“Monopolizing power and hurting the reputation of the entire system are not to our benefit,” Haqqani said, according to video of the speech that was released on social media by his supporters. “The situation cannot be tolerated.”

Haqqani said that now that the Taliban has taken power, “more responsibility has been placed on our shoulders, and it requires patience and good behavior and engagement with the people.” He said the Taliban must “soothe the wounds of the people” and act in such a way that the people do not come to hate them and religion.

Haqqani did not refer to Akhundzada, but the remarks were seen by many who commented on social media as directed at him. Haqqani did not mention the issue of women’s education but has said publicly in the past that women and girls should be allowed to go to schools and universities.


Zabihullah Mujahid, spokesman for the Kabul government, said criticism is best voiced privately, in an apparent reaction to Haqqani’s comments.

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“If someone criticizes the emir, minister or any other official, it is better — and Islamic ethics also say — that he should express his criticism directly and secretly to him,” Mujahid said.

Akhundzada, an Islamic scholar, almost never appears in public and rarely leaves the Taliban heartland in southern Kandahar province. He surrounds himself with other religious scholars and tribal leaders who are opposed to women being educated or working. Only one known photo of him, years old, exists.

Akhundzada came to Kabul only once after the Taliban takeover to give a speech to an assembly of pro-Taliban clerics; he was not shown in media coverage at the closed event.

The Taliban has typically dealt with internal differences behind the scenes, and Haqqani’s comments “are a major escalation,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program and senior associate for South Asia at the Washington-based Wilson Center. The Taliban leaders have the same broad vision, but “in Kandahar, they’re hermits; they’re not involved in the day-to-day,” said Kugelman. In Kabul, they have to govern and provide services, he added.

Aid workers say the Taliban’s ban on women working for nongovernmental organizations is already hurting humanitarian efforts to keep Afghans alive.

Jan. 12, 2023

Haqqani leads a Taliban faction known as the Haqqani network, centered in Khowst. The network battled U.S.-led NATO troops and former Afghan government forces for years and was notorious for attacks on civilians and for suicide bombings in Kabul. The U.S. government maintains a $10-million bounty on Haqqani for attacks on American troops and Afghan civilians.


His comments pointed to an apparent division among senior Taliban figures, who have had to rapidly adjust to the demands of government after two decades of fighting as insurgents.

When they took power in 2021, Taliban officials said they wanted better ties to the world. They said they would not return to social
restrictions on women or punishments, such as public lashings, that they imposed during their first time in power, in the 1990s.

But over the nearly 20 months since, the Taliban has barred women from most jobs, middle and high school and public parks. The regime has also ordered women to wear head-to-toe clothing in public.

The Taliban’s edict barring women from private and public universities means that Afghan girls are now denied an education beyond elementary school.

Dec. 21, 2022

The deputy prime minister in the Taliban government, Abdul Salam Hanafi, indirectly criticized the ban on education for women and girls in a speech this week in Kabul.

“If we don’t improve the quality and quantity of the education system and do not update it, we will never succeed,” he said. He added that the duty of Islamic scholars requires more than prohibiting a behavior or practice; they must also offer a solution and a path forward.

Ahmed Rashid, a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan, who has written several books about the Taliban, said he doesn’t expect change from Akhundzada and his Kandahar-based supporters.


Rashid said unity is a priority for Taliban leaders in the face of what they see as U.S. and NATO threats, and it’s doubtful there is “any kind of revolt” within the ranks. But those in the leadership dealing with the burden of government have “realized they can’t continue like this,” he said.