KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — It was a particularly bitter fight in the heavily contested district of Gereshk in Helmand Province. The adversaries deployed suicide attackers, roadside explosives and a magnetic bomb stuck to the undercarriage of a commander’s car, amid pitched firefights that went on for several days last week.
When it was over, at least 21 people were dead on both sides — and all were members of the Taliban.
As a result, Gereshk remained one of the few places in the province still mostly under the Afghan government’s control, thanks to a breakaway Taliban faction that has become a de facto ally of the government.
Infighting among the Taliban is nothing new. But Afghan officials have now chosen sides, with a policy that amounts to “If you can’t beat them, at least help their enemies do so.”
In recent months, the government has quietly provided the breakaway faction — popularly known as the Renouncers — with weapons, safe passage and intelligence support in their fight against the mainstream Taliban. The result has been a series of successes in areas where the government has otherwise suffered repeated defeats, particularly in Helmand, a southern province where the mainstream Taliban still control 90 percent of the territory.
The Renouncers are followers of Mullah Mohammad Rasoul, who split with the main Taliban group after revelations in 2015 that the former Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, had long been dead. Mullah Rasoul and his followers were angered that Mullah Omar’s replacement, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, had kept the death a secret.
After Mullah Mansour was killed in an American airstrike last year, his successor, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, antagonized the Rasoul faction even more, especially by choosing a hard-line member of the Taliban’s Haqqani wing, Sirajuddin Haqqani, as deputy leader in charge of military operations.
While they have been most active in Helmand Province, other Renouncer factions have engaged in bitter fights with the mainstream Taliban in Shindand District of Herat Province, in the northwest, and in the western provinces of Farah and Ghor.
The fighting last week began when the mainstream Taliban attacked a Renouncer base in Gereshk, one of the few areas outside Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, that are not under Taliban control. The base, near an Afghan Army base, was struck by a pickup truck loaded with explosives and driven by a suicide bomber, killing 11 of their fighters, according to Hamidullah Afghan, a local police official. He said the authorities helped evacuate those Renouncers who were wounded to a hospital in Lashkar Gah.
In retaliation, the Renouncers began their own suicide attack against the Taliban at a bazaar in the district, according to Abdul Salam Afghan, a spokesman for the Helmand police. In all, 11 of the Renouncers and 10 of the mainstream Taliban were killed in the fighting, which was still flaring this week in the area of the bazaar, in Seminar Dasht village.
Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, the spokesman for the mainstream Taliban in southern Afghanistan, said the group they had attacked in Gereshk was a unit trained and equipped by the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence agency. He said it had no affiliation with the Taliban.
Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, the spokesman for the Renouncer faction, denied that the group was government-supported, saying that it was a popular movement spurred by resentment toward the mainstream Taliban.
“The reason they targeted us with a car bomber is the Taliban are afraid of us, because we are enhancing our influence in Helmand and the people realize now the Taliban are getting financial support from Iran and Russia,” Mullah Niazi said. “They have lost touch with the grass roots.”
He said the group had also fought against the Taliban in Ghor and Farah provinces. “We have told the residents not to allow Taliban to stay in their villages, and if anyone is found giving shelter to the Taliban, their homes will be burned to ashes,” Mullah Niazi said.
Government officials in Helmand publicly deny any support for the Renouncer faction. But several police officials there confirmed that the government had helped transfer wounded Renouncers to the hospital after the fighting last week. And a border police official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said that among the units guarding the entrances to Lashkar Gah is a Renouncer unit trained and equipped by the National Directorate of Security.
The intelligence agency pays the fighters salaries equivalent to $150 to $300 a month, as well as supplying them with food, weapons and vehicles, the official said.
The mainstream Taliban are worried that the Renouncers, who dress and look like other Taliban, have been infiltrating their ranks. In May, they claimed to have arrested 90 such infiltrators in Helmand, who they said were involved in assassination plots against the mainstream group.
Further complicating the picture in Helmand are groups known as the *Sangorians,
after a popular television drama that depicts a hero wandering the mountains and fighting evildoers, disguised in local garb. These groups, according to local officials, are recruited and trained by the intelligence agency, but dress as Taliban and infiltrate into Taliban-controlled areas to fight behind their lines.
Far to the north in Herat Province, the Taliban has made its most serious inroads in Shindand District. There the Taliban shadow governor, Mullah Samad, brought in reinforcements from other provinces to fight against the local leader of the breakaway faction, Nangyal (who like many Afghans uses only one name).
Nangyal was defeated and surrendered to the government, which then helped him reorganize his forces as a Renouncer group aligned to Mullah Rasoul, and return to the fight against the mainstream Taliban, according to Abdul Hameed Noor, a former governor of Shindand.
“Rasoul’s group are supported by the government forces, they operate very freely in government controlled areas,” said Haji Ajab Gul, another former governor of the district. “They can come to the main town of Shindand and target people they dislike.”
Last month, the Afghan Army detected a buildup of mainstream Taliban forces planning an attack on followers of Mullah Rasoul in another part of Herat Province, and government forces thwarted the assault with a pre-emptive strike, according to Lal Muhammad Omarzay, the governor of Adraskan District, where the clash took place.
“We do not have any direct contacts with Mullah Rasoul’s group, but we do not fight them either,” Mr. Omarzay said. “They do not face us, and we do not face them either.”
In several parts of the country, the Taliban also have to contend against the Islamic State in Khorasan, followers of the extremists in Iraq and Syria. The group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is particularly strong in parts of eastern Nangarhar Province, but it also has had a presence in Ghor, Farah and other areas. Most of those elements began as Taliban factions that turned against the mainstream group.
Last week, the Islamic State scored a symbolic victory against the Taliban by taking control of the Tora Bora cave and tunnel complex, once used by Osama bin Laden as a hide-out. The Afghan military said on Sunday that it was in the process of ousting the militants from the area.
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