Fabien Baussart
Fabien Baussart

Hardliners dominate in new Afghan government

The Taliban who captured power in Afghanistan last month appear to have done a hurried job of forming a ‘caretaker’ government, three weeks after they stormed into Kabul, wherein the religious hardliners and foot soldiers have won key positions thanks to some efficient midwifing by Pakistan.

Pakistan’s role was evident from the way the field commanders, mainly from the “Quetta Shoora” of the Kandaharis managed to side-line the politicos who had conducted successful negotiations that led to the Doha pact with the United States in February last and had kept the external windows open for 17 long months, while ensuring a violence-laced military victory.
As a result, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Mullah Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanakzai, have been side-lined and allotted relatively junior positions. Baradur was, and perhaps, still is, distrusted by Pakistan that had jailed him from 2011 to 2018 for seeking talks with then President Hamid Karzai. Despite all protestations, Pakistan’s civil-military establishment never wanted any reconciliation in Afghanistan without Taliban’s predominance. Baradar was released in time for talks at Doha.

While Baradar is the co-founder of the movement and related to the supremo, Mullah Umar, Stanakzai was for long the ‘foreign’ face of the movement. What seems to have worked against Stanakzai is his being trained as a soldier in the Indian Military Academy (IMA). Such early-years’ training and associations are generally viewed with suspicion in security establishments the world over. In this case, the soldier-turned clergy and politico had reportedly urged India, without success, not to close its Kabul Mission last month.

At the top of the hierarchy is the current chief, Mullah Haibatulllah Akhundzada, the reclusive man who, like Umar, operates mainly from Kandahar. The Taliban appear to have opted for their own variation of the Iranian model that works under the Ayatullah, the supreme religious leader who is the final arbiter, above politics and government.

In placing Mullah Mohammed Hasan Akhund, a low-profile, but highly respected leader among them as the Acting Prime Minister, the Taliban have respected pedigree. He is said to be a descendant of Ahmed Shah Durrani, the 18th century founder of modern Afghanistan. This works well in a semi-feudal, religious, hierarchy-based society that earlier had Maliks as chiefs of Jirgas, who were both religious and warlords.

But Mullah Akhund, an Ahmedzai Pukhtun, despite the pedigree, was the man who ordered the destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan in August 2001 to spite the western critics. The circumstances that prompted his decision are not clear, but it did earn him much opprobrium and creates doubts about the new government’s assurances about protection to ethnic and religious minorities.

Akhund’s appointment as the acting prime minister shows that the Quetta Shoora of the Kandaharis has precedence over others. This is in the background of differences among these groups when operating in Pakistan.

Of those in the new government, the clear ‘strongman’ is Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Interior Minister. He has been known to be a favourite of Pakistan’s ISI and has in the past, targeted those the ISI wanted, through violence, terror attacks and suicide bombing. The much-publicised presence in Kabul of the current ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hamid two days before the government was announced would lend considerable credence to reports that he had a hand in at least this appointment.

As in any government anywhere, Interior is the most crucial position. Sirajuddin, eldest son of the founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani, will doubtlessly wield the REAL power. This also strengthens the dreaded Haqqani Network. Brother Khalilur Rahman Haqqani holds a ministerial position, while another brother, Anas is an influential fighter-politician. The Network could be the militia independent of the regular security apparatus.

Most of the new ministers are SANCTIONED by the UN. The Taliban have no choice in term of its leadership, but also need to confront the world. It’s take-it–or-leave-it option for the UN and foreign governments. The process of removing the sanctions would have to begin sooner than later.

Of the ministerial appointments, the new Army Chief is obviously a cleric, not from any of the defence forces and certainly has no military rank. This means that the Taliban either do not trust, or do not have, any senior officer from those who either cut a deal or simply surrendered.

Most old timers, including Muttaqi get important positions. Hierarchy, loyalty and surviving within the movement.

The new rulers have kept assuring that they want to have an ‘inclusive’ government. No woman has found a place. It may take some time before some “show-pieces” from among the women and Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras may be brought in later.

THE NEW RULERS, LIKE THE CLERGY IN IRAN, MAY SIMPLY STAY ON IN POWER. Any democracy or elections, to which they have no pretenses, will be restricted and managed from within.

On the government formation, Dawn newspaper in its editorial (September 8, 2021) observed: “The key question confronting the Taliban now is that of international recognition. Taliban officials have said they want “strong and healthy” relations with other states. However, this is contingent on a number of things.

“Firstly, the Taliban need to assure the world that things will be different this time around compared to their previous stint, where respect for fundamental rights, including women’s rights, is concerned. Secondly, they must pledge to take action against foreign terrorists based on Afghan soil. Moreover, when they talk of an inclusive government, they must deliver on these promises. This means all of Afghanistan’s major ethnic groups and religious minorities as well as the country’s women must have a say in matters of governance.

“The Taliban’s actions over the next few days and weeks will decide whether the international community grants the new set-up recognition. Therefore, it is in the best interests of Afghanistan for the country’s new rulers to create a truly inclusive administration.”

Besides seeking a measure of acceptance from the world community, the government-making exercise was hastened in time for the September 8 virtual meeting of foreign ministers of Pakistan, China, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Significantly, Russia is not at the meeting. Putin has been critical of the Taliban and could be seeking some clarifications from Kabul before attending a meeting that while not recognising the new regime, does lend a measure recognition, if not legitimacy to the new regime.

It is clear that the invitee-governments, while waiting and watching the way Taliban move, have to stay in loop. To that extent, not just the Taliban, their compulsion also extends to Pakistan that is seeking to stay close to the driver’s seat in Afghanistan.

On the Taliban’s near-future, Zahid Husain, one of Pakistan’s best-known expert, the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow, writes:

“Many of the commanders in the field are believed to have more hard-line views. Among them are those who joined the resistance as teenagers after the fall of the Taliban government in December 2001. This new generation of Taliban commanders has replaced the old guard who have either died or been side-lined. The political leadership that negotiated the peace deal with the Americans mostly comprised veterans who were not in the field.

“Perhaps the most serious challenge for the Afghan Taliban is to maintain the unity within their ranks. Many of the ideological and factional differences that were swept aside during the war have resurfaced with the group now in power. With no absolute authority, a power struggle is bound to ensue.”

About the Author
Fabien Baussart is the President of CPFA (Center of Political and Foreign Affairs)
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