By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On September 21, 2021, the Taliban announced the name of 17 individuals to be added to the 33 acting Cabinet members, increasing the Cabinet strength to 50. The new inclusions were: Haji Mohammad Bashir, Deputy Minister Commerce; Haji Mohammad Azim Sultanzada, Deputy Minister of Commerce; Haji Nooruddin Azizi, Minister of Trade; Haji Mohammad Azim Sultanzada, deputy Minister of Trade; Qalandar Ebad, acting Minister of Public Health; Mohammad Hassan Ghiasi, Deputy Minister for Public Health; Abdulbari Omar, Deputy Minister of Public Health; Nazar Mohammad Mutmaeen, acting head of the National Olympic Committee; Mujiburrahman Omar, Deputy Minister of Energy and Water; Ghulam Ghaws, Deputy Minister of Disasters Management; Mohammad Faqir, acting chairman of Central Statistics Authority; Haji Gul Mohammad, deputy minister borders and tribal affairs; Gul Zarin Kochai, Deputy Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs; Arsala Kharoti, Deputy Minister of Refugees and repatriation affairs; Lotfullah Khairkhwa, Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Najibullah, Director of the Nuclear Energy Department.
Of the 17 new additions, 14 are Pashtuns, one Tajik, one Uzbek and one Hazara. The non-Pashtuns are Haji Nooruddin Azizi (Tajik); Haji Mohammad Azim Sultanzada (Uzbek), and Mohammad Hassan Ghiasi (Hazara). Of the 17, 14 are associated with the Taliban. Of the remaining three, one was from Hezb-e-Islami-Gulbuddin (HeI-G). The remaining two are businessmen.
In the first list of 33, there were 30 Pashtuns, two Tajiks and one Uzbek. The non-Pashtuns included Maulvi Abdul Salam Hanafi, an Uzbek, and Qari Din Mohamamad Hanif and Qari Faseehuddin, both Tajiks. All of them were associated with the Taliban. On September 9, Deborah Lyons, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), remarked, “There are no women on the list of names announced, no non-Taliban members, no figures from the former Government and no noted leaders of minority groups.”
Of the total of 50 individuals in the Cabinet, 44 are Pashtuns, i.e., 88 per cent. There are three Tajiks, two Uzbeks and one Hazara. According to latest available data, Pashtun’s constitute 42 per cent of Afghanistan’s total estimated population of 32.9 million, followed by Tajiks, 27 percent; Hazara and Uzbek, nine per cent each; Aimak, four per cent; Turkmen, three per cent; and Baloch, two per cent. Other minor groups constitute the remaining four percent.
Moreover, of six non-Pashtuns, barring Molvi Abdul Salam Hanafi, an Uzbek who is holding the post of Deputy Prime Minister (PM), and Qari Faseehuddin, a Tajik who is the Army Chief, the rest have not been given prominent positions in the Cabinet. Deborah Lyons points out, further, that even these two are not notable leaders of their respective ethnic groups.
Clearly, the cabinet remains Pashtun dominated despite Taliban tokenism on ‘inclusivity’ by adding “minorities” to the cabinet, as declared by the outfit while announcing the additional list of 17 individuals on September 21. The attempt at political accommodation is symbolic rather than substantive.
Curiously, this decision to expand the Cabinet coincides with the reports of a deepening power struggle in Taliban ranks, which came into the open soon after the Taliban assumed power on August 15, 2021.
On September 4, 2021, in an interview to Al Jazeera, the Deputy to Prime Minister Muhammad Hassan Akhund, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar emphasized inclusiveness, asserting, “I assure the people that we strive to improve their living conditions and that the government will be responsible to everyone…”
Later, reports claimed that a violent clash between supporters of Baradar and Khalil ul Rehman Haqqani, the Minister for Refugees and a prominent figure within the Haqqani Network (uncle of Sirajuddin Haqqani, chief of the Haqqani Network and one of the two deputy chiefs of the Taliban, along with Mullah Mohammad Yaqub Omari, son of the now deceased founder of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, till the Taliban came to power), took place at the Arg (Presidential Palace) in Kabul after an altercation between the two leaders. The point of the clash was an argument on the question of the inclusion of non-Taliban leaders and ethnic minorities in the Cabinet. During the incident, reports revealed,
At one point during the meeting, Khalil ul Rehman Haqqani rose from his chair and began punching Taliban leader [Mullah Baradar]. Their bodyguards entered the fray and opened fire on each other, killing and wounding a number of them…
After the brawl, Baradar reportedly left for Kandahar and rumours of his death started doing the rounds, spreading fast as Baradar was absent during the visit of Qatar’s Foreign Minister to Kabul on September 12. This was a very high-level foreign visit since the Taliban seized Kabul.
Taliban authorities, meanwhile, understood the gravity of the situation and, on September 15, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem posted a video clip in which Baradar stated, during an interview,
There had been news in the media about my death… Over the past few nights, I have been away on trips. Wherever I am at the moment, we are all fine, all my brothers and friends… Media always publish fake propaganda. Therefore, reject bravely all those lies, and I 100 percent confirm to you there is no issue and we have no problem.
However, the video showed Baradar reading out the statement from a piece of paper leading to speculations of skullduggery to cover up internal strife.
Reports indicate that the other reasons of tension inside the Taliban was the sidelining of the ‘Doha group’. Baradar, who was the head of Taliban’s Doha-based Political office, is reportedly unhappy with his position as he felt his rightful position was that of Prime Minister.
The dominance of the Haqqani Network in key positions in the current Cabinet is also a bone of contention and concern. The Haqqani clan cornered a total of four positions in the acting cabinet of 33. Even in the latest addition of 17, at least five members are reported to be from the Haqqani Network.
The Haqqani Network is closely allied with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and was described by the then US Admiral Mike Mullen as a “veritable arm of ISI.”
It is significant to note that Baradar was released in 2018 from a Pakistani prison following a request by US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, so as to facilitate the peace talks between the two sides. Baradar was arrested from Karachi, in the Sindh Province of Pakistan, in 2010, after he initiated direct talks with the then Hamid Karzai-led Afghan Government.
Against this backdrop, the inclusion of 17 new individuals and the distribution of ‘portfolios’ can be seen as an effort to minimize the rift with the outfits. The introduction of Deputy Ministers of Interior and Defense, Ibrahim Sadr and Abdul Qayyum “Zakir,” are possible checks and balances on the use of power in the two powerful Ministries controlled by scions of Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Mohammad Omar.
The Cabinet expansion may also be a further effort to expedite the process of securing international legitimacy. Indeed, Deputy Minister for Information and Culture Zabihullah Mujahid observed, on September 21, 2021,
All the requirement necessary for international recognition are met… Now it is the job of the international community to cooperate with Afghans and recognize us through diplomatic channels.
Meanwhile, the differences within the Taliban factions have given space to opponents such as the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) to consolidate.
On September 18-19, at least five persons were killed and another 20 sustained injuries in a series of six blasts in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangahar Province. IS-KP claimed these six explosions through the group’s Amaq News Agency on its Telegram channel.
Separately, IS-KP launched propaganda to corner the Taliban on the implementation of Sharia laws, releasing a video-clip titled “The Taliban are supporters of the Shias” on September 19. Earlier, on May 28, 2020, IS-KP had condemned the Taliban as apostates for dealing with the United States.
Elsewhere, the situation within the Taliban is likely to provide some breathing space to the Ahmed Massoud-led National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, at a time when one of its main leaders, Amrullah Saleh, has reportedly made a ‘tactical retreat’ to Tajikistan.
Meanwhile, evidence of the Taliban’s violation of international commitments continues to emerge. In August 2021-end, a close associate of slain Aal-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, Amin al Haq, who served with Al-Qaeda head during the battle of Tora Bora, was seen on video returning to Nangarhar Province. Bill Roggio of The Long War Journal, observed, “The confidence to travel and operate out in the open, in plain sight for the first time in a decade, speaks to the marked change in Afghanistan over the last month.” Interestingly, on September 20, the deputy minister for Information and Culture, Zabihullah Mujahid, once again denied the presence of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Interestingly, on August 31, 2021, the Taliban released a new issue of their Arabic-language publication, al-Somood, in which The Taliban unambiguously proclaimed,
The Taliban of today is no different from the Taliban of yesterday, with the same exact ideology since it took charge in 1996 and whoever says otherwise or markets it in a different image is either ignorant of the Taliban ideology from its beginnings or has wishful thinking of some kind of deviation and change.
However, on September 23, 2021, Mohammad Yaqub Omari warned the Taliban rank and file not to take revenge as the Taliban has granted general amnesty to all:
Behave well with people, do not defame IEA [Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan] with your arbitrary actions, stop taking unnecessary photos and videos, and do not enter to government administrations unless you need to.
Nevertheless, occasional reports of arbitrary executions, beatings and other atrocities continue, as do house-to-house searches and ‘documentation’ of those who worked for the previous government or who ‘collaborated’ with foreign Forces. The curtailment of women’s rights, moreover, is snowballing, despite some minimal concession in education.
These trends are likely to encourage Western nations and international organisations to withhold recognition of the Taliban regime, as well as to defer or minimize assistance. Moreover, rising factionalism within the Taliban is likely to aggravate the domestic situation further, encouraging extremist elements to demand more radical imposition of Sharia law, and a progressive marginalization of the ‘moderate’ faction. This can only make the task of the Taliban’s few backers in international community much tougher and riskier. Afghanistan’s tragedy continues to unfold.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management