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It took Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, co-founder of the Taliban, one week after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan to arrive in Kabul (August 21, 2021) to initiate talks on government formation. Amidst hints of factional strains within the militia, the group hinted that it is seeking an “inclusive” government including members of the deposed administration, with a view to enhance its chances of gaining international recognition at the earliest.
Present indications suggest that the group will not appoint a President to the Islamic Emirate, but will rule via a 12-member Council, the full shape of which is yet to emerge. However, on Tuesday, August 24, it moved to fill some of the power vacuum in Kabul by appointing former Guantanamo detainee, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, as acting defence minister, according to Al Jazeera that cited a source within the organisation.
The term ‘acting’ is significant and suggests that changes could be made to accommodate other factions within the Taliban or members of previous administrations who agree to join the Emirate government. Other interim appointments include Sadr Ibrahim (acting interior minister); Sakhaullah (acting head of education); Abdul Baqi (acting head of higher education); and Haji Mohammad Idris (acting head of Afghanistan’s central bank).
Gul Agha has been appointed as finance minister; Najibullah as intelligence chief; Mullah Shirin as Kabul governor and Hamdullah Nomani as Kabul mayor.
Former British army officer, Dr Mike Martin, observed that Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir belongs to the Alizai, a sub-tribe of the larger Durrani tribe. The Kandahar group, birthplace of the Taliban, has thus cornered the posts of finance, defence, interior, and Governor of Kabul. This could be a source of strife with the al-Qaida linked Haqqani Network in future.
The Haqqani Network, a distinct entity within the Taliban, has taken charge of the security of Kabul. The United States considers the Haqqani Network “a veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and deems it a “foreign terrorist organisation”. It was believed to be behind several attacks on American bases in Afghanistan.
Overall, the appointments belie Taliban claims regarding a broad based government as key positions have been given to militants from Kandahar. Moreover, the United States is likely to find this government unpalatable. Beijing is most likely to emerge as its main support.
Washington’s primary concern at present is the evacuation of thousands of people from Afghanistan, given the Taliban insistence that it complete withdrawal by the Biden-declared deadline of August 31. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief William Burns reportedly met Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul on August 23 with a view to gain some leeway in the matter. However, Suhail Shaheen, Taliban spokesman for political office in Qatar to deal with foreign media, said any US presence beyond August 31 would mean “occupation” of the country. In Kabul, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid accused the US of deliberately encouraging skilled people in Afghanistan to leave the country.
Taliban has repeatedly made polite noises about respect for women’s rights, but reports continue of rapes of family members of those who served the old regime, and gruesome murders of men and women in the provinces. Even in Kabul, women news anchors were soon prevented from reporting for duty.
Khalil Haqqani, brother of Jalaluddin Haqqani and uncle of Taliban deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, repeated the pledge to “forgive” former members of the Afghan National Security Forces, but few are convinced and continue to queue outside the airport, hoping to leave the country. Khalil Haqqani is one of America’s most wanted terrorists and has a bounty of $5 million on his head. America has, however, offered the regime an olive branch by ‘offering’ it a seat on the UN Commission on the Status of Women, if they form a recognized Afghan government.
However, the Taliban is a long way from public acceptance. In an awesome show of defiance, on August 19, the 102nd Independence Day, residents of Kabul replaced the Taliban flag with the Afghan national tricolor at Abdul Haq Square, chanting, “our flag, our identity”. Young men and women marched past Taliban cadres who waved their guns at them, but allowed the protestors to pass.
The Panjshir-based resistance also continues. On August 20, local resistance forces captured the districts of Banu, Pule Hesar and Deh Bala of Baghlan province, after resisting house-to-house searches by the Taliban. The Panjshir (valley of five lions) resistance led by former First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who claims to be Acting President as per the Afghanistan Constitution, and warlord Ahmad Massoud, captured Baghlan province on August 20, after clashes in which 50 Taliban were killed and several wounded. A pro-Taliban account tweeted that the group was betrayed after offering amnesty to the local population.
The Panjshiris are now trying to capture Charikar and the strategic Salang Pass, which would link them to Uzbekistan and make it possible for Uzbek militia leader Abdul Rashid Dostum to join them. Several Afghan Air Force transporters and fighter jets landed in Uzbekistan in recent days. The Dostum camp claims it will be in a position to send 10,000 Afghan army personnel to the region to join hands with the Panjshiris.
Saleh is reportedly disturbed over Taliban’s revenge tactics; it has executed several soldiers, policemen, intelligence personnel, interpreters, and Afghans who served the deposed government and Washington. Ahmad Massoud urged Washington and the Western allies for weapons to fight the Taliban, pledging to fight for women’s rights and free press in Afghanistan and to protect the West from terrorist attacks.
Mindful of its international image, the Taliban appealed to the Panjshir militia to surrender peacefully. A bitter battle seems inevitable once government formation is sorted out.
Mullah Baradar had arrived in Afghanistan on August 17, but stayed in Kandahar, where his efforts yielded prime posts for the Kandahar group. Baradar was arrested in Pakistan in 2010 but was released in 2018 under pressure from Washington and made head of the Taliban’s political office in Doha. He oversaw the signing of the agreement that ended American presence in Afghanistan.
Senior Taliban officials told media that Baradar would meet “jihadi leaders and politicians for an inclusive government set-up”. Khalil Haqqani recently met with former mujahidin leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Anas Haqqani (Haqqani Network) met former president Hamid Karzai and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the National Reconciliation Council, in the capital. The latter was once an important leader of the Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban between 1996 and 2001.
The prominence acquired by the Haqqani Network has raised Western fears that al-Qaida could make a comeback in Afghanistan. In the Doha deal of February 2020, the Taliban had promised not to allow foreign terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, to use Afghan soil to threaten the security of the United States and its allies. But the Haqqani Network has always been close to al-Qaida; they trained together in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region after the US invasion. The Haqqani Network helped Osama bin Laden escape from Afghanistan when American forces cornered him in 2001.
In a disturbing move, Noor Wali Mehsud, emir of al-Qaida affiliate Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), renewed allegiance to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. It is thus likely that foreign terrorist organisations will continue to be hosted on Afghan soil. Many TTP members were released from Afghan jails by the Taliban in recent days.
Russia and China have not recognised the Taliban regime so far, but are maintaining ties with it. Iran has been friendly with the group, but the bomb attack on Shia Hazaras in Punjab, Pakistan (main sponsor of Taliban) on Muharram (August 19) will make Tehran cautious.
Neighbouring Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have rushed to firm up security ties with Russia, for fear of the revolution being exported to their countries. Moscow too is concerned about the security of its borders with its Central Asian neighbours. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia, China, the United States and Pakistan could help mediate the crisis in Afghanistan. “We remain committed to the task of establishing peace and stability on Afghanistan’s territory so that it poses no threats to the region,” he said. He ruled out allowing Afghan refugees enter Central Asia, or having US troops there.
Moscow will cooperate with Beijing that appears to hold the trump cards in Afghanistan, given its hold over Pakistan and ability to bankroll development in Afghanistan, especially after Washington froze the Afghanistan Central Bank’s assets in America.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed the Afghanistan situation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, besides bilateral issues, including India-Russia cooperation against COVID-19. Developments in Afghanistan impact its neighbours, the region and the world, and India is keen to protect its interests in the region. The security and safe exit of minorities is a primary Indian concern.
Much, however, depends on the shape of the government Mullah Baradar cobbles up in Kabul, and the internal cohesion of Taliban 2.0.[Note – Pakistan Muharram was August 19]