More than a month after the fall of Kabul and the takeover of the country by the Taliban, a functioning “interim” government is finally in place. On September 7, after the brief show of defiance by the remnants of the former government in the Panjshir valley was dealt with, the Taliban announced the formation of an all-male Cabinet. That was not a surprise as the Taliban had said from the outset that women would not be represented in the higher echelons of government. The surprise was that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the co-founder of the Taliban, was not heading the government as was widely predicted. He was the man who led the Taliban negotiating team in Doha that signed the withdrawal deal with the United States early last year.
Instead, most of the key posts went to the Taliban leaders who led the two-decades-long war against the U.S. occupation forces. The Taliban named Mullah Hassan Akhund as the interim Prime Minister. He had held the same post in the last years of the first Taliban government before its ouster by the U.S. invasion force 20 years ago. Baradar has been designated as one of two Deputy Prime Ministers. The Foreign Minister’s job has gone to Amir Khan Muttaqi, another veteran of the armed struggle. He too had held the same job in the last Taliban administration. The key post of Interior Minister went to Sirajuddin Haqqani, one of the senior-most Taliban commanders. He has a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head and is on the most wanted list of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and on the terrorism sanctions list of the United Nations. Many of the attacks in Kabul over the past two decades, in which hundreds of people were killed, are said to be the handiwork of the Haqqani group. The Taliban fighters led by the Haqqanis are known to be especially close to the Pakistani military establishment. Khalil Haqqani, an uncle of Sirajuddin’s, has been appointed acting Minister of Refugees and Repatriation. He too is on the U.S.’ wanted list. Najibullah Haqqani, another close relative, is the Minister of Communications.
The Taliban has accused the U.S. of violating the Doha agreement, under whose terms the U.S. had pledged to lift international sanctions on the Taliban leadership in exchange for guarantees on the Taliban not targeting U.S. and allied troops. The Pentagon reiterated recently that the Haqqanis continued to remain “legitimate” targets and would remain on the terror list. The Taliban conveyed to Washington that the refusal to remove sanctions on a sizeable section of the its leadership would further harm bilateral relations.
The Cabinet is heavily Pashtun-centric. Only two senior posts have gone to other major ethnic groups: Abdul Salam Hanafi, an ethnic Uzbek, is the second Deputy Prime Minister and Qari Mohammad Hanif, a Tajik, is the acting Economic Affairs Minister. The Hazaras, the third largest ethnic group in the country, remain unrepresented. In its last iteration, the Taliban government had discriminated against the Hazaras, who are Shias. The powerful Defence Ministry has gone to Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the 30-year-old son of the late Taliban supremo Mullah Omar.
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Also included in the Cabinet are the “Guantanamo Five”, the five Taliban leaders who served 13 years in solitary confinement in the high security U.S. military prison in Cuba. They were released in 2014 in exchange for a U.S. soldier captured by the Taliban. It is apparent that government posts were divided like spoils of war on the basis of the contributions of the various Taliban groups on the battlefield during the war against the U.S. and the forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. However, the international community is happy with the fact that there is at least a functioning government in Kabul after more than a month of uncertainty.
For the first time in 20 years, the country has been experiencing peace and security. In rural areas, the ubiquitous checkpoints manned by the Taliban and the former government’s security forces have mostly disappeared. The Taliban often killed or robbed travellers and truck drivers at these checkpoints if they worked for the government in Kabul. The checkpoints manned by the government forces were notorious for their corruption. The air strikes and the pitched battles that were a regular occurrence until the middle of August have stopped completely. People in rural areas can now step out of their houses at night without the fear of being either shot at by insurgents or bombed by U.S. drones or aircraft.
Disquiet in Taliban ranks
However, there seems to be some disquiet in the Taliban ranks after the announcement of the Cabinet. It took around three weeks for the Taliban leadership to reach a consensus on the make-up of the Cabinet. Mullah Baradar had to issue a statement that he was alive and well as rumours started to circulate in Kabul in mid September that he had been killed during an alleged internecine Taliban clash. The Taliban leadership continued to insist that there were no divisions or factions within its ranks though there were indications that all was not well between the so-called moderate group that was functioning out of Doha and the Haqqani group.
While announcing the formation of the Cabinet, Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman who has now been designated as the Deputy Information and Culture Minister, emphasised its “interim” nature. “This is an acting Cabinet appointed to handle current affairs, and we are preparing the foundation of government and state building,” he told the media. However, he did not provide any information on how long the “interim” government would be in place. The Taliban leadership has repeatedly stated that it does not believe in multiparty democracy and that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will only be guided by “sharia” laws. It is important to note that Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s supreme leader since 2016, will retain the title of “Commander of the Faithful” and will not involve himself in the running of the government.
In a statement issued immediately after the announcement of the Cabinet formation, the Taliban sought to reassure the world that it would stick by the commitments it had given after the Doha peace agreement signed with the U.S. “Our message to our neighbours, the region and the world is that Afghanistan’s soil will not be used against the security of any other country,” the policy statement from the Taliban said. The statement also urged diplomats who had left the country to return and reopen their embassies. “Their presence is the need of our country,” it said. At present, only a handful of countries, among them Pakistan, Russia, China, Turkey and Qatar, have kept their embassies open, albeit with a much-reduced staff. As far as recognition of the Taliban government by the international community is concerned, even Islamabad has not yet accorded it formal recognition. The international community in unison is calling on the Taliban to have a more inclusive and broad-based government that is representative of all the major ethnic groups in the country. They want the promises the Taliban made on issues relating to women and ethnic minorities to be implemented. The statement the Taliban issued pledged “to protect the rights of the minorities and the underprivileged” and promised education “to all countrymen within the framework of the Sharia”.
Although the statement did not specifically mention women, the new government is allowing female students to attend university classes in Kabul and other cities but has decreed that classrooms will be gender segregated and all girls will have to cover their heads. Women figured prominently in the protests that were held in the capital until recently. Some women even protested in front of the Pakistan embassy, accusing the government in Islamabad of helping the Taliban to militarily defeat the anti-Taliban forces in the Panjshir valley. Many of the protesters carried banners decrying the killing of their children and family members by the Taliban. In early September, the Taliban security forces used strong-arm tactics to disperse demonstrators and journalists covering the protests. The U.N. condemned the action, which resulted in the deaths of four people.
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The protests in the first week of September coincided with the three-day visit of Faiz Hameed, the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, to Kabul. To most onlookers, the visit was timed to expedite the formation of a government in Kabul. Islamabad justified the dispatch of its intelligence czar to Kabul by claiming that a ministerial visit was not possible as there were no Afghan counterparts in place. Islamabad reminded the international community that the chief of the U.S.’ Central Intelligence Agency was also in Kabul after the takeover by the Taliban. The Pakistani security establishment was worried about the increasing number of cross-border attacks by the Pakistani Taliban from Afghanistan.
Ban on demonstrations
The Taliban has since announced a ban on all demonstrations without prior official permission. By the second week of September, calm had descended on Kabul, where the majority of the citizens are Dari speaking. After the Taliban was ousted in 2001, Dari once again became the country’s official language. The Taliban had made Pashto, the language of the majority Pashtuns, the official language. There are moves to once again revert to Pashto as the official language much to the discomfiture of minority ethnic groups such as the Tajiks, the Uzbeks and the Hazaras.
In a statement issued after the announcement of the Cabinet, the U.S. State Department expressed concern that only the Taliban and those with “troubling personal records” figured in the new government. The total absence of women in the Cabinet was also noted, but at the same time, the State Department said that the new government “will be judged by its actions”. In the second week of September, the Joe Biden administration expressed its admiration for the “professional” way in which the Taliban was helping to repatriate U.S. citizens and Afghans with travel papers. The U.S., it seems, does not want to rub the Taliban up the wrong way at this juncture. The Biden administration has so far not responded to requests from the Tajik leadership in the Panjshir valley for military and financial assistance to build an anti-Taliban front once again in Afghanistan. Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Masood, who is leading the Panjshir resistance, has appointed a high-profile lobbyist in Washington to influence the Biden administration and lawmakers. The Afghan opposition has big support among Republican lawmakers.
The primary objective of the lobbying seems to be to stop the U.S. from providing the Taliban with any kind of legitimacy and prevent the lifting of the terror-related sanctions against the Taliban leadership. The Biden administration had said that it was not in favour of getting involved in yet another civil war in Afghanistan and instead preferred to focus on the threats posed by the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The Pentagon, in a recent reassessment, is of the view that Al Qaeda in Afghanistan could pose a “threat to the homeland” within two years.
The targeted killing of Afghan civilians in a U.S. drone attack just before the U.S. completed its military withdrawal from the country generated a huge controversy worldwide. The Pentagon claimed that the killing thwarted an imminent ISK attack on the Kabul airport as the last U.S. transport planes carrying troops and citizens were preparing to leave. Now it has been conclusively proved that those killed were innocent civilians. A long-term employee of a U.S. non-governmental organisation was driving the car that was targeted. He was killed along with seven of his close relatives, five of them children. On September 17, the Pentagon acknowledged its responsibility for the attack, and General Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, apologised for it.
Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours were critical of the composition of the Cabinet. Iran once again called for the formation of an “inclusive” government. The Foreign Ministers of Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, China and Uzbekistan held a virtual meeting after the new Afghan Cabinet was announced. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said: “Experience has shown us that a non-inclusive government does nothing to help peace, stability and progress in Afghanistan, so our expectation from the foreign ministers is to announce the necessity for the formation of an inclusive government with a unified voice.” Iran, which shares a 900-km-long border with Afghanistan and hosts close to four million Afghan refugees on its territory, strongly criticised the Taliban attack on the Panjshir valley. The Hazaras in Afghanistan look to their Shia compatriots in Iran for moral and political support. There were small protests staged in front of the Pakistan embassy in Tehran. Slogans were raised accusing Islamabad of supporting the Taliban takeover of Kabul. Former Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in a tweet that the Taliban had made “a terrible mistake” and that history had shown that “no one—domestic or alien—can rule the valiant people of Afghanistan by force”.
At the meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that it was the duty of Afghanistan’s neighbours to help the country “get out of chaos”. He noted that the Taliban had made positive statements on fighting terrorism and establishing good relations with all its neighbours. China, like India, is worried that the Taliban victory would encourage Islamist terror groups to intensify their attacks inside their restive areas. The intelligence heads of Iran, Russia, China and Tajikistan met in Islamabad to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and coordinate with Pakistan on security issues.
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Afghanistan, not surprisingly, figured prominently in the discussions at the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping virtual summit held in the second week of September. In a statement that did not mention the Taliban by name, the five countries underlined the need to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a launch pad for terrorist activities. The statement also stressed the need for an intra-Afghan dialogue to ensure peace and stability in the country. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, were critical of the U.S.’ role in Afghanistan and the chaos that it left behind after its unplanned and hurried withdrawal. Top security officials from Russia, the U.S. and the United Kingdom visited New Delhi to apprise the Indian government of the situation in Afghanistan. With Pakistan refusing the U.S. access to its military bases for counterterrorism operations, the U.S. seems to be looking to India, its new military ally. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the U.S. Congress that Washington was “deeply engaged” with New Delhi on the issue of using Indian territory as a staging area for “beyond the horizon” surveillance flights over Afghanistan. A U.S. lawmaker had asked Blinken whether the U.S. was considering launching surveillance flights and attacks on terror targets in Afghanistan from the north-western part of India. Blinken had told Congress that the Biden administration was “reassessing” its relationship with Pakistan. He said that Pakistan was constantly “hedging its bets” on Afghanistan. He said that Pakistan, on the one hand, harboured Taliban fighters while, on the other, it cooperated with the U.S. at “different points” on counterterrorism.
The U.S.’ European allies have indicated that they are not averse to having diplomatic contacts with the Taliban despite being critical of the “interim” Cabinet. “A transitional government that does not include other groups is not the signal for more international cooperation and stability,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said. The Taliban has specifically mentioned that it has “very good relations with Pakistan, China and Russia”. The Taliban leadership is also confident that it will be able to shrug off the “terrorism” label. The U.S. and the West have so far not provided any clinching evidence to link the Taliban with the 9/11 terror attacks.
Qatar and Turkey helped the Taliban make the airport in Kabul functional again, and it reopened for international flights in the second week of September. Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani was the first high-profile official dignitary to visit the country. Qatar, Pakistan and Iran have restarted commercial civilian flights to Kabul.
There are no signs that Afghanistan’s frozen funds will be released despite reports that millions of children are facing imminent starvation; 40 per cent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) came from international aid. If the sanctions are not lifted, the country’s GDP is expected to shrink by another 20 per cent this year. The international community has pledged $1 billion to the country as the spectre of widespread hunger and poverty looms. The U.S., which spent trillions of dollars to prosecute the war in the country, is only giving $64 million in humanitarian aid, following a plea from U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. India has not pledged any contribution at all. China and Russia believe that the U.S. and its allies have an obligation to help Afghanistan as it faces a humanitarian crisis.
“I do believe that it is very important to engage with the Taliban at this moment for all aspects that concern the international community,” Guterres told the media in Geneva after a high-level ministerial conference on Afghanistan. Afghanistan is at peace today, but even more Afghans are jobless and slipping below the poverty line; 40 per cent of this year’s wheat crop has been lost because of the long drought the country has been experiencing.