By Ajit Kumar Singh*
On September 7, 2021, the Taliban announced its 33-member Interim Government. At least 17 of these 33 members are individuals included in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Consolidated List. Of these 17, three belong to the Haqqani Network, a UNSC-listed terrorist formation headed by Sirajuddin Haqqani, a top Taliban leader. A fourth Haqqani Network member is part of the Cabinet, but is not listed.
UNSC listed terrorists include Prime Minister Mullah Mohammed Hasan Akhund, his two deputies Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Mawlavi Abdul Salam Hanafi, Foreign Minister Mawlavi Amir Khan Muttaqi, Deputy Foreign Minister Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, Finance Minister Mullah Hidayatullah Badri, Minister of Economy Qari Din Hanif, Defence Minister Mawlavi Mohammed Yaqoob, Deputy Defense Minister Mullah Mohammad Fazil, Interior Minister Mullah Sirajuddin Haqqani, Minister of Information and Culture Mullah Khairullah Khairkhah, Minister for Mines and Petroleum Mullah Muhamad Essa Akhund, Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs Mullah Noorullah Noori, Minister of Water and Energy Mullah Abdul Latif Mansoor, Minister of Civil Aviation and Transport Mullah Hamidullah Akhundzada, Minister of Higher Education Abdul Baqi Haqqani, Minister of Telecommunication Mawlavi Najibullah Haqqani, and Director of Intelligence Mullah Abdul Haq Wasiq.
At least 13 members of the Interim Government were part of the first Taliban Government, at the Centre or at the Provincial level, which ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001.
Prime Minister Akhund was the Foreign Minister and was the brain behind the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the giant cliff statues blown up by the Taliban in 2001. After the fall of the Taliban Government in end-2001, he started operating mostly from exile in Pakistan, giving ‘spiritual and religious guidance’ to the Taliban.
Deputy Prime Minister Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban, served as deputy to Mullah Omar during Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001. He was the Defense Minister when the Taliban was ousted from power. He assumed the position of de facto leader after Omar’s death. The other newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister, Hanafi, was deputy minister of education in Taliban’s first Government.
Deputy Defense Minister Mullah Mohammad Fazil was the Deputy Chief of Army Staff in the Taliban’s previous Government.
Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani is also on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most-wanted list, with a USD 10 million bounty on his head. His outfit is believed to be still holding at least one American hostage, Mark Frerichs, a civilian contractor, who was abducted in January 2020. It is useful recall here that the Haqqani Network, which operates direly under the aegis of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, is one of the most dreaded terror outfits operating in Afghanistan, and has carried innumerable attacks against foreign troops and establishments, including the Indian Embassy at Kabul. The Haqqani Network was the first group to adopt the use of suicide bombers for attacks in Afghanistan and have frequently used suicide bombers in its attacks.
Moreover, of the 33 members of the Cabinet, four were held at the detention facility in Guantánamo at one time, but were exchanged in May 2014 for the release of Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who was captured and held by the Haqqani Network. These include Abdul Haq Wasiq (Director of Intelligence), Mohammad Fazl (Deputy Defense Minister), Khairullah Khairkhwa (Minister of Information and Culture), and Noorullah Noori (Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs). Mohammad Nabi Omari, who has been appointed as the new Governor of Khost Province, was the fifth Guantanamo prisoner to be exchanged.
The Interim Cabinet has only Taliban members, not a single woman, and is dominated by Pashtuns. There is little to suggest that the Taliban has changed in motivation, intent or character. What is visible now is the restoration of a terrorist government in Afghanistan after almost two decades of war.
Seth Jones, a senior vice president and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in the Wall Street Journal,
The Taliban’s appointment-days before the 20th anniversary of the terror attack – is nothing less than a slap in the face of the U.S. and its Western allies.
To add insult to injury, the Interim Prime Minister, Mullah Akhund, inaugurated his government by hoisting the Taliban flag over the Presidential Palace at Kabul on September 11, 2021, even as America mourned at the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
While the Taliban has sought to project what one commentary described as the “very cuddly Taliban version 2.0” in its Press Conferences and public statements, evidence of cruelty, intimidation and violence, particularly against women, journalists and common people is accumulating.
At a protest in Kabul on September 8, one woman stated,
We have gathered here to protest the recent announcement of the government where there is no women’s representation within this government. [A few of the protesters were] hit with whips and they [Taliban] tell us to go to our homes and recognize and accept the Emirate…
Another woman at the protest declared that the Taliban had “proved that they cannot change,” adding,
We are asking the international community, especially those who during the last 20 years tried to provide women with their rights, where are those defenders of women’s rights today?
Also, journalist Nemat Naqdi and video editor Taqi Daryabi from the digital media outlet EtilaatRoz, who were covering the women protest on September 8, were detained and assaulted. Later, on September 10, Nemat Naqdi narrated his ordeal to CNN in detail,
They were hitting me with extreme force that I really thought that this was the end of my life… They have hit me on my arm with extreme force that I could not move it during the last two days… My left eye has been hurt seriously that it is still red, and I am worried, my left ear can’t receive any hearing… I was given four or five very hard slaps on my face. They stepped on my head on the other side and they were pressing their foot on my head, my face was on the mosaic floor, and I was trying to pull myself due to the pain and to tell them to hit me on all sides and not just hit me on my back. For that reason, my face was bloodied. They were using such violence that one was holding me by my head and face and another one was holding me by my waist. My hands and feet were tied and one of them was pushing my legs like a sling. I had a feeling that my neck may break, or my back may break.
A widely shared video on social media has the Taliban’s Minister of Education, Mawlawi Noorullah Munir questioning the relevance of higher education
No Ph.D. degree, master’s degree is valuable today. You see that the Mullahs and Taliban that are in the power, have no Ph.D., MA or even a high school degree, but are the greatest of all.
These developments have forced the international community to adopt a cautious approach towards the Taliban regime. On September 7, the US State Department spokesperson observed,
We note the announced list of names consists exclusively of individuals who are members of the Taliban or their close associates and no women. We also are concerned by the affiliations and track records of some of the individuals. We understand that the Taliban has presented this as a caretaker cabinet. However, we will judge the Taliban by its actions, not words. We have made clear our expectation that the Afghan people deserve an inclusive government.
Earlier, on September 6, US President Joe Biden referring to the US’s plan of recognizing the Taliban, declared, “That’s a long way off.”
The Taliban has made repeated assertions of cooperation with the rest of the world, including the statement at the time of the Cabinet announcement that “our message to our neighbors, the region and the world is that Afghanistan’s soil will not be used against the security of any other country.” It urged foreign diplomats, embassies, consulates and humanitarian organizations to return to Afghanistan, declaring, “Their presence is the need of our country.”
Realizing that they can’t run the Government in Kabul without international help, the Taliban leadership has adopted a conciliatory tone, but there is mounting evidence that their fundamental objectives and preferred style of governance remain exactly what they were in 1996-2001.
Nevertheless, China has welcomed the establishment of the Interim Government as a “necessary step to restore order” in Afghanistan and pledged 200 million Yuan (USD 31 million) in emergency aid to Afghanistan, including food supplies and coronavirus vaccines.
The Taliban had announced a formal oath ceremony on the 9/11 Anniversary, but this was cancelled. Inamullah Samangani, a member of the Taliban Government’s Cultural Commission tweeted,
The inauguration ceremony of the new Afghan government was cancelled a few days ago. In order not to confuse people further, the leadership of the Islamic Emirate announced the part of the Cabinet, and it has already started to work.
Though some reports suggest that the Taliban has claimed that the ceremony was cancelled to save money at a time when the country is reeling under a cash shortage, sources indicate that an internal rift within the Taliban is a likely cause. Reports indicate that a tussle between Mullah Baradar and Sirajuddin Haqqani for Government leadership. Prime Minister Akhund’s elevation is seen as a transient compromise.
Limited resistance to the Taliban centered around the Panjishir Valley under the joint leadership of former Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who declared himself Acting President under the Constitution, and Ahmad Massoud, the son of the legendary ‘Lion of Panjshir’, Ahmad Shah Massoud. Panjshir’s capital, Bazarak, was overrun by the Taliban on September 6, and the Taliban claimed the defeat of the Resistance. Reports, however, suggest that Resistance fighters have taken to the hills, and will continue to oppose the Taliban regime. Significantly, the chief of Pakistan’s military intelligence, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, was present in Kabul when the offensive in Panjshir peaked.
Internal dissensions, Pakistani interference, simmering popular protests, and Resistance forces that proclaim that they have not given up, suggest that international attitudes will play a pivotal role in the stability and survival of the Taliban regime in the foreseeable future.
The Taliban has violated almost every commitment it made under the Doha Agreement. US-NATO assertion in the past had insisted that a ‘military solution’ would not be acceptable in Afghanistan, and that an ‘inclusive government’ was the minimal requirement for support and cooperation. It is abundantly clear that the Taliban has met none of these conditions and has, instead, installed a government of terrorists. Unless the international community abandons the people of Afghanistan and confers increasing legitimacy on the Taliban regime, stability will remain a long way off. The war in Afghanistan may have ended for the time being, but the ‘great game’ will continue.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management