Mullah Rasool and the Taliban Splinter Faction
In April 2013, the high profile yet secretive supreme leader of the Taliban insurgency, Mullah Omar, died of tuberculosis. The formal announcement of Omar’s death came two years later in 2015. The period after Omar’s death saw an internal power struggle among the Taliban, as individual commanders utilised their influence and leverage to race to become leader of the Afghan Taliban.
Mullah Rasool was a powerful figure within the Taliban and was close with Omar before his death, however this did not prevent him from being outmanoeuvred by Mullah Mansoor, who later became the Taliban’s leader. Little is known about the internal disputes between commanders during this period, but Mansoor is believed to have wielded significant power in the group already and used this power to remove key figures who may oppose his leadership. Individuals such as Abdul Qayem Zakur and Rauf Kadem were removed as part of Mansoor’s consolidation of power (with Kadem being removed for ‘promoting Salafism,’ although it is highly likely more complicated reasons can explain Kadem’s removal.) The result of Mansour’s statesmanship was that his claim to leadership in 2015 was essentially a formality, much of the internal political work had been done already.
Mansour’s claim to the leadership of the Taliban was highly disputed, with many figures pointing out that consultations over who should succeed Omar did not include key influential figures. A variety of figures came forward, including Omar’s eldest son, Mullah Yaqoob. One of the most prominent of those that opposed Mansoor was Mullah Rasool, who broke away from Mansoor’s Taliban and formed his own group, based on the belief that Mansoor’s claim was illegitimate. Mansoor’s Quetta Shura in turn claimed that Rasool is funded by Washington and Kabul and is not Taliban. In doing so, Rasool fostered a number of relationships with local power brokers and regional players alike, and to this day, his splinter faction remains a thorn, albeit relatively small, in the Taliban’s side.
Mullah Rasool: Background
Mullah Rasool is a Pashtun from the Nurzai sub-tribe, believed to have come from the Loy Kariz village of the Spin Boldak district in Kandahar, close to the Pakistani border (although some believe Rasool to be from the Bakwa district of Farah.) Rasool was close with Mullah Omar in the years leading up to the US invasion in 2001 and was an influential member of the Rabbari Shura. Rasool was appointed as the Provincial Governor of Nimroz Province and is believed to have used this position of power in the same way that many Taliban commanders did in their own respective areas. Rasool taxed goods passing through his area, drugs included, and created a complex patronage network in order to galvanize his own power. Rasool and some of his deputies are also believed to have been violent sectarians, who have targeted ethnic and tribal groups opposed to the Taliban.
Whilst many members of the Taliban questioned the legitimacy of Mullah Mansour’s claim to leadership, few went as far as Rasool in creating their own splinter faction. Rasool’s faction, which calls itself the ‘High Council of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ formed in 2015 and since then has clashed with Taliban commanders loyal to Mansour (and later Akhundzada) on multiple occasions. Rasool does not refer to his faction as a splinter faction, and instead maintains the narrative that his faction is the ‘true’ Taliban, in reference to his claim to the leadership. Rasool’s faction has frequently accused the Taliban of being stooges of the Pakistani ISI, although such claims are thrown in abundance within Afghan Taliban discourse.
Rasool was not alone in forming his faction, as key figures such as Mullah Mansoor Dadullah joined him. Dadullah was a useful asset to Rasool’s Taliban, in that he bought fighters and influence into the group. Dadullah was a member of the Pashtun Kakar sub-tribe and a native of the Dehrawod district of Oruzgan, helping to expand Rasool’s influence deeper into the country. Dadullah in turn, formed an alliance of convenience with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who joined with Dadullah’s forces in the Arghandab district of Zabul immediately after the announcement of Rasool’s break with the Quetta Shura. The IMU in turn had begun to cooperate with the newly formed IS-KP, although the groups relationship with IS-KP requires nuanced analysis. Dadullah’s fighters, supported by members of the IMU, clashed with fighters of Mansour in Zabul in fierce fighting, eventually leading to the death of Dadullah. Dadullah had been a frequent critic of Mansour, and the fighting in Zabul appears to have been the culmination of tension between Dadullah and Mansour as much as it was a clash between the splinter faction and the Quetta Shura.
Since the defeat of Dadullah, Rasool’s faction has maintained its conflict with the rest of the Taliban, now led by Mullah Haibatullah. In opposing the Afghan Taliban (or more accurately, the fighters who don’t recognise Rasool as the ‘real’ Afghan Taliban,) Rasool has inevitably attracted the attention of regional players and commanders alike.
Rasool’s Relationship with IS-KP
Many dissident Taliban commanders have defected to Islamic State – Khorosan Province (IS-KP) due to local concerns and personal grievances. With multiple Taliban commanders defecting to I-KP in recent years, it is worth addressing the potential question as to whether Rasool has also forged connections with IS-KP.
Ideological affiliation with the groups largely foreign narratives often appears to be a secondary factor in the decision to change sides. High profile examples include Qari Hekmat’s defection from the Taliban in Jowzjan Province, which was widely believed to have been the result of drugs money-related disputes. In fact, questions were raised as to whether Hekmat actually swore allegiance to al-Baghdadi, raising doubts over ideological connections and broader cooperation. Other commanders have chosen to leave the Taliban for a variety of reasons, including money and other circumstances. More recently, Taliban commanders are reported to have defected to IS-KP in the Korengal Valley area of Kunar, allowing the group to gain ground.
Rasool did not merge his defection from the Quetta Shura with a defection to IS-KP, and instead chose to form his own group, claiming to be the true Taliban. Rasool went as far as to say that IS-KP were brothers shortly after they announced their presence in Afghanistan, in recognition of their common jihadi principles, but under the caveat that they are not welcome in Afghanistan. Rasool is also believed to have approached IS-KP to discuss military cooperation, although the talks are not believed to have made any solid progress. Little is known about any actual contact between the two groups, but it is likely that any cooperation between the two groups would be part of a marriage of convenience, rather than an alliance bound by ideological and strategic cooperation. Dadullah’s involvement with the IMU, who were allied with IS-KP does in theory link Rasool with IS, albeit indirectly, although to say such a tie represents long term cooperation would be a misinterpretation. Furthermore, the relationship with the IMU and IS-KP is highly complex and their relationship does not represent a solid connection between the two groups, this further serves to highlight that drawing connections between IS-KP and Rasool via the IMU is tenuous.
Figure 1: IS-KP activity in East Afghanistan from the 1st of January 2019 to the 15th February, 2019
Mullah Rasool’s Relationship with Iran
Limited Iranian influence within the Afghan Taliban is treated as common knowledge, although little confirmation of their support is available and it should not be over exaggerated. The Iranians appear to have been pragmatic in their support at both an ideological level (Taliban have typically targeted Shia Hazaras and were close to war with Iran before the US invasion) and an operational level. Iran is believed to have supported elements of the Taliban and then used them as proxies to maintain Iranian interests in the area. An example of this pragmatic cooperation would include largely unconfirmed reports claiming that Iran is paying Taliban militants to attack water management projects such as the Salma Dam, seen as an environmental threat to Iran. Water security remains a pressing concern for the Iranian regime, and such activity would hardly be surprising as protests held by farmers related to lack of water are common across Iran.
In 2001 Rasool escaped into Iran to seek refuge after the fall of the Taliban, although he was then handed over to Afghan authorities. Upon his release Rasool resumed his insurgency and is reported to have struck a deal with Iran to not interfere with the Iranian border, in return for weapons and funding. Exactly how much was provided isn’t clear, although Iran has stopped short of providing Taliban factions with some of the heavy weaponry used by the Yemeni Houthi rebels. Instead, the support seems to have taken the form of small arms, ammunition and possibly military guidance and advice. Iran’s relationship with Rasool proves their pragmatism in approaching Afghanistan, as Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, one of Rasool’s deputies, has in the past expressed opposition to Iranian influence.
Rasool’s relationship with Iran may have soured around 2017 if his discourse is anything to go by. An article released in 2017 cites Rasool criticising Iran’s use of Afghans for fighting in Iraq and Syria Another article cited Rasool hailing Saudi efforts in peace talks in 2018, and in doing so openly praising Iran’s arch rival. This change in tone raises doubts over the strength of the relationship in more recent years, but solid date is hard to come by to support any firm conclusion.
Mapping Rasool’s Faction
Immediately after the formation of Rasool’s splinter faction, Rasool had influence in many districts of West Afghanistan. Rasool’s heartland appears to be the Bakwa district of Farah, but his deputies who became part of his faction have brought influence and fighters from other areas. Dadullah for example, was a member of the Kakar tribe (Pashtun,) and hailed from the Dehrawod district of Oruzgan, allowing Rasool to branch into this area. Dadullah later expanded Rasool’s influence into Zabul before his death in combat. Rasool’s influence was further spread by the inclusion of Ras Muhammed (more commonly referred to as Nangyolai) into this faction, who controlled fighters in the Zerkoh area of the Shindand district. Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi broadened Rasool’s tribal base even more, as Niazi was a member of the Achakzai tribe (Pashtun) and hailed from the Gulran district in Herat. Interestingly, the Achakzai tribe has been cited in an article as being largely pro-government.
Figure 2: Image shows areas where Rasool’s faction is reported to have operated or drawn members from.
Future of Rasool Amidst Peace Talks
Like all Taliban, Rasool is opposed to the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan, and in an interview in 2016, Rasool explained that he was not against the concept of peace talks, but at the time he did express that he opposed Mansour’s dominance as a representative in potential talks. In the same interview, Rasool explained that he will refuse to sit in peace talks with Mansour as he is illegitimate, it is probably that this attitude has continued with Akhundzada. In 2016, Rasool’s group has also expressed that they will accept peace talks if Islamic law is implemented in Afghanistan, with the removal of foreign forces also being crucial. Whether or not his faction will be considered by the US is far from certain. With the US being so desperate to leave Afghanistan, it is also possible that Rasool will be side lined in peace talks unless he relaxes his rhetoric.
Figure 3: A screenshot of Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi giving a speech to fighters in Shindand in 2016. Source.
Some possibilities can be hypothesized though, for example any peace agreement or ceasefire would allow the Taliban more freedom of movement (safety from US air assets would be a major factor.) The Taliban could if they choose to use any ceasefire to concentrate on groups such as Mullah Rasool’s faction and IS-KP. A promise from the Taliban to combat IS-KP may also quietly appease US policy makers as well as regional players such as Iran, Russia and China.